The question came at the very end of a characteristically stimulating weekend colloquium offered by Children’s Literature New England. Having spent the past two days discussing historical writing, primarily fiction, the presenters for the weekend lined up for a final Q-and-A. It was something of a who’s who of children’s-literature luminaries, and numbered among them were National Book Award, Newbery and Caldecott winners. The question came from an audience member who observed that most of the discussion had been of fiction; in a world where David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Laura Hillenbrand feed the literary needs of adult readers, why is there so relatively little nonfiction for kids?
The result was pandemonium. Panelists started talking over one another; audience members (a number of whom were writers of nonfiction themselves) practically levitated in their desire to contribute. Clearly the subject could have filled at least another day, but the colloquium was over, and participants had to content themselves with thinking it over on their drives home.
Although there is no consensus as to why there’s this underrepresentation, there’s little question that it exists. In 2014, Kirkus reviewed over 1,800 traditionally published works of nonfiction for adults, the vast majority of which were literary nonfiction, memoir or biography. In that same period, Kirkus reviewed only about 160 traditionally published works of nonfiction for middle graders or teens—and over 1,400 works of fiction for the same age group. (We reviewed over 1,900 traditionally published works of fiction for adults, so the proportions in the adult world are not nearly so lopsided.)
As a reader who came late to nonfiction—there being even less for middle graders and teenagers in my day than there is now—I have found myself returning to this question, and I have no answers. But it is puzzling as all get out. Where do these adult readers of nonfiction come from? Do newly minted grown-ups suddenly find themselves browsing the adult nonfiction stacks hankering for some reality? Or, as seems more likely, are those child readers who want just the facts, ma’am, getting by with the very fine, very sparse nonfiction works available to them?
They shouldn’t have to wait till they grow up. —V.S.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.