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Fiction or nonfiction? What kids really like to read.

A bookstore in London. (iStock)

What do kids like to read when given the chance to choose their own books?

That’s the subject of this post by three award-winning nonfiction authors — Cynthia Levinson, Melissa Stewart and Jennifer Swanson — in response to a Washington Post education writer who said in a column that kids prefer fiction and view nonfiction as nothing more than boring textbooks.

The three write about social justice, science, engineering and other topics. This was first published in Publishers Weekly and I was given permission to publish it.

By Cynthia Levinson, Melissa Stewart and Jennifer Swanson

A recent column in The Washington Post titled “Will my grandkids still love me if I buy them nonfiction?” by Jay Mathews immediately caught our attention.

As nonfiction writers for young readers, we were dismayed — though not surprised — by his statement that “the books students choose to read are almost always fiction.” We frequently encounter adults who mistakenly believe that when kids hear “nonfiction,” they think, as Mathews wrote: “Nonfiction? You mean textbooks. Ugh.”

We wish he could accompany us on a school visit — live or virtual — because here’s what kids are actually saying:

  • “I like nonfiction because you gain knowledge. Then you ask more questions.” — fourth-grader
  • “Nonfiction is better than fiction because it has real, helpful facts about life.” — fourth-grader
  • “I like that nonfiction books really make you think about things for a while and then sometimes your thinking changes.” — fifth-grader

And, really, why should this be any surprise? In the adult publishing world, nonfiction sales are strong because when readers have the power to select their own books, they often choose nonfiction. Our love of facts is what makes the TV show “Jeopardy!” so popular, and it’s the reason the Guinness World Records book is a bestseller year after year. People of all ages love facts, stats and information!

But don’t believe just us. In a three-year study published in the journal Teacher Librarian, school librarian Ray Doiron found that when students in grades one through six were given a choice of which books to check out, more than 40 percent opted for nonfiction. Even younger kids are attracted to the genre.

Kindergarten teacher Marlene Correia believed that her students preferred made-up stories — until she tracked her students’ library checkouts for a period of 3½ months. That’s when Correia discovered that they selected more nonfiction than fiction titles.

Another study, by Kathleen A.J. Mohr, published in the Journal of Literacy Research, found that more than 80 percent of first-graders opted for nonfiction when they were invited to choose their own book. Furthermore, according to research reported on by NPR, not only are children “significantly more likely to prefer fact over fiction,” but they are also more likely to select true stories over fantasy than are adults. As Heather Simpson plainly stated in an article in Room to Read, “Children want their nonfiction books, adults may be their barrier.”

What’s going on here? Why do so many grown-ups have a misconception about the reading preferences of the children in their lives?

One possibility is that adults who prefer fiction themselves assume that younger people have the same taste. In addition, they may recall being required to read those dreaded textbooks, which, sadly, might have been their only contact with nonfiction.

Fortunately, the genre has expanded dramatically over the past two decades, evolving into a new breed of books that are carefully crafted by authors and illustrators to excite, inspire and engage young readers. As Publishers Weekly recently reported, both middle-grade and young-adult nonfiction works are more diverse and innovative than ever before, and the same is true for books for younger readers.

One thriving type is narrative nonfiction, such as picture book biographies like “Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb,” written by Veronica Chambers and illustrated by Rachelle Baker, and gripping true stories like “All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team,” by Christina Soontornvat. One young admirer of “All Thirteen” raved, “I loved this book because it has action and it is informational.”

One fifth-grader is a major fan of active nonfiction that teaches her skills, such as “Cooking Class Global Feast! 44 Recipes That Celebrate the World’s Cultures,” by Deanna F. Cook, because “when you close the book, you are left with inspiration and creativity.”

Other innovative fact-based books, includingDid You Know? Dinosaur,” by Nicholas St. Fleur, allow kids to browse through them. One fourth-grade boy said he enjoys these because they offer “a lot of choices about how you read. It’s like the potluck dinners at my church.” Expository literature, like “Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals,” written by Katy S. Duffield and illustrated by Mike Orodán, captivates another fourth-grade boy because, he said, it “has facts plus it can make you think about something in a new way.”

There are also new formats, including nonfiction comics such as “Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans,” by Don Brown, and new interest in forms like memoir, such as “Shout,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, and autobiographical accounts, such as “The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War and Survival,” by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess (written with Laura L. Sullivan), who grew up in Bosnia. Today’s nonfiction does not shy away from tough topics.

Nonfiction also celebrates equity and inclusion in biographies, such as “Respect: Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul,” written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Frank Morrison; and Sibert Medal Honor titles like “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga,” written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac. We’re also excited to see more timely anthologies like “The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth,” a collection of #OwnVoices essays edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson.

With so many types, formats, forms and writing styles to choose from, there is truly something to entice every young reader. And authors, illustrators, editors and art directors are collaborating to create intriguing nonfiction books that span a broad range of timely titles with captivating art, dynamic design and rich, engaging language that delights as well as informs.

The nonfiction books of today are not the textbooks of yesteryear. And, as the young voices above show, many kids love nonfiction and would be thrilled to receive an info-licious book on their favorite topic as a gift.

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