We are in the midst of a golden age for non-fiction as more titles than ever before are being published, with higher production values and covering a wider, more diverse range of subjects.
According to figures collected annually by the Booksellers Association, non-fiction is now the fastest growing sector in publishing. But can non-fiction’s current popularity be down to simply more resources being allocated by publishers to the genre? The books being more attractively packaged? The contents being more reader friendly? Or is there more to it?
Personally, I believe books exist only when they are needed and relevant, and in this fast-changing world non-fiction books are more relevant and needed than ever before.
Looking back at my own childhood, which I guess similarly to many of you reading this article predated the internet, smartphones and social media, the world seemed to be a more moderate place, revolving at a slower pace. In contrast today’s world seems to have entered a fast-forward mode on all fronts: our weather becoming more extreme, our politics becoming more extreme and, indeed, our technology becoming more extreme. New words and terminology (e.g. climate change, Brexit, recycling, biodiversity, gender politics, coding, sustainability and inclusivity to name but a few) have all entered everyday vocabulary. Yet these are not words that are confined to outside the school walls, our new more complex world inevitably also includes our classrooms. For example, on a recent author visit to a state primary school, whilst queuing for a school dinner with the book-loving teacher and her first-stage-of-reading class, I noticed the children had to read and choose between a range of menu options including ‘vegan’ and ‘gluten free’. These and many other words were not part of my childhood’s everyday language, yet are mandatory for today’s children.
Children, as we know, crave knowledge in order to make sense of their world, so the more challenging the world becomes the more parents, teachers and librarians turn to and rely on quality non-fiction to explain, inform and answer some of today’s issues. Indeed, not only is the world changing, sometimes it is even the children who actually lead the way and make the change! Schoolgirls such as Malala and Greta are inspirational role models for all ages, their achievements celebrated in non-fiction globally. Nowadays the awareness of climate change and the ripple effect of Friday climate demonstrations cut right through any language and political barriers.
My own Big Book series about the natural world has already been translated into 25 languages. Its appeal is universal and it has been pleasantly reassuring for me to know that young readers, whether they are in China, Russia or the USA, all care about the environment and want to help and protect our planet. My publishers tell me that parents from all geopolitical demographics are now actively asking for planet-friendly content for their children’s books. I believe these books build bridges and travel across borders as they help us understand our world and offer hope.
Creatively, working on non-fiction titles is for me pure joy as the large format (I like big books and I cannot lie!) allows me the luxury to use the pages differently and thereby explore the reading experience. I find there are less restrictions about how a book should be read and I can use the pages also vertically or even as a 2.5m long continuous journey through the book (The Street beneath my Feet and The Skies above my Eyes)!
From The Street beneath my Feet. Copyright © 2019 Yuval Zommer.
My pet hate is the old-school type information book and the coffee table book where the text is a long chunk of a paragraph on one page and the illustration is on the other page. I believe words and images should flow together and if you are familiar with my books you’d have noticed that my text is incorporated through the illustrations so the reading experience is enhanced as your eyes travel across the pages. I find the large format is also ideal for a shared reading experience, whether it’s a parent and child’s bedtime read or class mates together sharing, exploring and discovering through reading from the same book. I myself have also learnt so much through creating non-fiction as doing the research has meant having access to some amazing experts and places.
From The Big Book of Birds. Copyright © 2019 Yuval Zommer.
For my latest upcoming title The Big Book of Blooms, which is published in association with Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, I have been privileged to meet with the head gardeners at Kew, learn about rewilding, find out about the world’s rarest plants, explore their nurseries and see for myself the conservation work done behind the scenes.
Finally I would like to remind you that it is only us adults who categorise books as fiction or non-fiction, children do not use these terms they will simply ready any book they can engage with. There are no ‘reluctant’ readers in my view, only kids who have not had the right book placed in their hands. This IS a golden age for non-fiction and there are some amazing titles available.
Guillian, Charlotte (illus. Yuval Zommer) (2018) The Skies above my Eyes. London: Words & Pictures.
Guillian, Charlotte (illus. Yuval Zommer) (2017) The Street beneath my Feet. London: Words & Pictures.
Zommer, Yuval (2019) The Big Book of Birds. London: Thames & Hudson.
Zommer, Yuval (in association with Kew Royal Botanical Gardens) (2020) The Big Book of Blooms. London: Thames & Hudson. Publication date 7/5/2020.
Yuval Zommer graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Illustration. He worked for many years as a creative director at leading advertising agencies before becoming the author and illustrator of highly acclaimed non-fiction. His stunning Big Book Of . . . series (Thames & Hudson) has been published in 25 territories, and has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including the UKLA Book Awards, The English Association’s Non-fiction Award, and the Made For Mums Award. The latest title The Big Book of Blooms publishes in May 2020.