In recent times authors such as J K Rowling, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson have ensured that no one need complain about children’s books occupying the Cinderella slot in the publishing world. Children’s fiction is now up there alongside adult bestsellers, and the announcement of the launch date of the fifth Harry Potter title even had ramifications in the grown-up world of the City. But what of non-fiction? How many people could name a bestselling children’s non-fiction author? Some might cite a publisher or a series, but no single name stands out. And when did you last see non-fiction books reviewed in the major dailies? Yet many non-fiction lists are not only profitable but have a vital part to play in our children’s education. But how are these books created? Sue Unstead explores.
With a few exceptions it is generally the case that non-fiction books are the work of a team of editors, designers, illustrators, photographers, paper engineers and inventive printers with a supporting cast of computer whizz kids skilled in Photoshop and Quark. The author is only one member of such a team and he or she may in addition be supported by a raft of consultants, educational specialists and other august bodies. Perhaps more than any other area of children’s publishing, non-fiction is driven by the market rather than the muse. Publishers create their lists to meet the needs of the National Curriculum, especially to support new subject areas. A recent example of this is the plethora of books on Citizenship, and we can stand by for a surge of books on foreign languages as this is introduced at primary level. Publishers are also looking to support the reference needs of children doing school and homework projects, as well as responding to current trends or interests, while at the preschool level there is a burgeoning market for early learning materials for babies and toddlers.
Most illustrated non-fiction requires the kind of investment that cannot be supported by the UK market alone. Publishers must therefore seek international partners to achieve the necessary economies of scale, not just in English-speaking markets but around the world. Dummied-up covers and presentation spreads will be prepared for showing at the major bookfairs like Bologna and Frankfurt, although follow-up sales trips may continue all year round. One bestselling encyclopedia was reputed to have flown around the world more times than a BA pilot before it was published. The major players have become adept at creating books that ‘travel well’ and present few problems for the purchasing publisher. Creative editors and designers must also become knowledgeable about the needs of the international market and the pitfalls that could make a book look too ‘British’. Expect an editor therefore to bone up on the US curriculum or French history and to know which species of bird, butterfly and tree are familiar to Old and New World readers alike. Remember too that Christmas in Australia is in high summer and that the Southern Cross is shining in the night sky rather than the Plough (or Big Dipper for US readers). Right-hand drive or left-hand? And what about uniforms for police, fire officers and postmen?
Is there a risk of producing anodyne books – a publishing equivalent of the characterless hotel room that could be anywhere or nowhere? Yes, of course, but against this you must set the benefit of sharing the expertise – as well as valued friendship over the years – of partners around the world. For a children’s editor there is always something new to learn from the market.
Encyclopedias and reference books
The biggest investment for any publisher is a full-scale encyclopedia, a major undertaking which may take several years involving a huge creative team, some in-house, some working on a freelance basis. DK is perhaps the best-known player in this field, with encyclopedias tailored for particular age groups as well as subject areas. The planning of the 3-volume DK Illustrated Family Encyclopedia for example took over two years and was another two years in the making, with over 50 staff involved. Creative teams concentrate on particular strands of an alphabetical encyclopedia – the arts or natural history for example – rather than ploughing through from A to Z, but a strong editorial hand is needed to ensure that the balance and approach is consistent throughout and that cross-referencing is properly tied up. Many of the contributors are likely to be experienced writers of non-fiction, many of whom may have graduated from their editorial desks or have moved over from teaching. Others are drawn from museums and other institutions, the best of whom will combine specialist knowledge with first-hand experience of working with children.
All the major players in the field – like DK, Kingfisher and OUP – acknowledge that the internet has affected sales of the big reference book and, as schools make better use of computers, this trend in unlikely to be reversed. Usborne’s response has been to create a range of ‘internet-linked’ encyclopedias, although the ‘link’ promised in the title actually amounts to little more than a forwarding service to a range of websites. In some ways the challenge presented is a healthy one and should be a spark to creativity. Christopher Davis, Publisher at DK, maintains that if the book is to compete with the internet it must offer more. ‘You have to surprise people, by finding new ways to document the world, new techniques to make the book less static.’ He acknowledges the vacuum created by the death of Pierre Marchand, the inspirational French children’s publisher once at Gallimard. ‘He was the great inventor – we need to pick up that mantle.’
The legacy of the fruitful joint partnership between Marchand and DK is Eyewitness, undoubtedly the most successful non-fiction series in the field, sold around the world to the tune of more than 50 million copies. Eyewitness Guides found new ways of presenting information with startling clarity. Photography was taken to its limits with exploded images of a car or a skeleton, cutaways of intricate models of a ship or building as well as time-lapse sequences and freeze-frame action shots. Each of the books was created by a team of up to eight people with designer and editor sitting side by side to reinvent the subject. Opportunism often played a part as an expedition to the storehouse of a museum in search of one item would throw up other unexpected finds. Model makers – often from film or TV backgrounds – would be commissioned to create extraordinarily detailed latex models of a dinosaur or a shark, a human head or a molecule. Inventive photographers able to build special sets or construct elaborate scaffolding to get that overhead shot were part of the cast list. Eyewitness has now been successfully relaunched in paperback with dramatic new covers and additional information relating to the UK Curriculum.
Support for the curriculum is also to be found amongst the many series put out by publishers specialising in the school and library market, such as Watts and Hodder Wayland. At Watts a core of creative staff in house is supplemented by teams of freelancers, but they work closely with a focus group of teachers, librarians and external consultants. MD Marlene Johnson confirms that they remain ‘very clearly focused on the educational market rather than the trade’, as a result of which they command respect and loyalty from teachers and librarians.
The author’s voice
Sometimes one feels it’s hard to pick out individual voices in this non-fiction area. Encyclopedic bites of information are all very well, but you long to hear an author’s voice. To some extent this explains the popularity of Terry Deary’s Horrible History series for Scholastic, although Martin Brown’s accompanying cartoon illustrations go down a treat with 10-year-olds. However much we adults may groan at the relentlessly jokey tone, you cannot get away from the fact that these are non-fiction books that children choose to read for pleasure. Their success has spawned a whole range of parallel series, which Scholastic sell in both the book trade (where children collect them like badges) and in the educational market (where parents and teachers support them).
Authors, or illustrators, who are passionate about their subject are the ones publishers love to work with. Their enthusiasm is infectious and can permeate the entire book. Tim Knight, wildlife photographer and nature conservationist, found himself pitched into writing a children’s book through a chance meeting with a publisher. His Journey into the Rainforest published by OUP takes you deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest. Written in the present tense, it has an immediacy that instantly engages the reader’s attention. A companion volume on an African safari is just as convincing.
Author and illustrator partnerships
The right marriage of author and illustrator, so vital in a picture book, is just as important in non-fiction. Think of The Way Things Work by illustrator David Macaulay and author Neil Ardley, or the recently published Gold by Stephen Biesty and Meredith Hooper. Fruitful partnerships can often produce exciting results like the individualistic books on grammar, science and music by Kate Petty and Jenny Maizels. One suspects that they are a pretty self-sufficient team allowed to get on with it by their publisher. Similarly Jane Bull’s wonderfully inventive range of activity books bears the hallmark of a strong creative voice. Jane was for many years a key designer at DK, both in-house and as a freelancer, but in her new role as author and creator of these books she has really found her métier. Stylish, clever and witty, you feel confident that she has not only tested all the projects herself but used her own children to ensure that adult help is quite superfluous.
Keeping close to your audience
Creative publishers and editors can work wonders, but in spite of listening closely to the marketplace, it can be all too easy to lose touch with the end user – the child. This is never more evident than in books for the tricky 5-8 age group, at a stage when newly emergent readers, especially boys, may seek out non-fiction. Keeping texts simple enough for the reading ability while maintaining a child’s interest is no easy task. Walker’s outstanding Read and Wonder series, many by established fiction authors, treated non-fiction as though it were fiction, resulting in simple flowing texts that are a pleasure to read out loud. Watts’ Wonderwise series by husband-and-wife team Mick Manning and Brita Granström are another example of simple books perfectly pitched at their audience. For sheer inventiveness at this age group it is hard to better the First Discovery series, originally created by Pierre Marchand at Gallimard. Outstanding artwork, superb quality printing and production with acetate pages that reveal surprises at every turn – a simple concept brilliantly executed.
Fact or Fiction
The crossover between fiction and non-fiction, often inelegantly dubbed ‘faction’, is an area where picture book authors and illustrators often succeed, but it is a tricky path to tread. Scholastic, ever tuned to the need to encourage reading amongst boys, have produced a boys’ version of their series My Story, in which different periods of history are explored through the eyes of a young participant. So in Trafalgar, we have the story of a young midshipman on board HMS Norseman in Nelson’s fleet, and in The Trenches the account of Billy Stevens, enlisted at sixteen to fight on the Western Front. However much one might wish that readers turned to original or contemporary material, these little paperbacks with supporting illustrations and factual notes provide good historical introductions tailor-made for the 12+ age group. My own personal favourite is the account of the Dunkirk rescue in The Little Ships, told in a moving story by Louise Borden with atmospheric illustrations by Michael Foreman.
The preschool area has become an increasingly important sector of the market to satisfy parental hunger to develop their babies’ potential and prepare their toddlers for school. The borders between picture books and non-fiction begin to blur here, but photography can still be an exciting and appropriate medium in the hands of creative designers and editors. Priddy Bicknell stand out here as the most exciting new kid on the block. You only have to open up the pages of their books – bursting with colourful photos, flaps, scratch and sniff panels, secret envelopes, mirrors and sparkly bits – to know that the creators have had a whale of a time producing them. Nothing remotely serious or earnest here – sheer unadulterated fun, high-quality production and amazing value, but also great educational content. The reaction of my six-year-old on sight of I want to be a Firefighter was to roll his eyes to heaven and gasp ‘WOW!!’
Perhaps this says it all. The very best non-fiction should convey a sense of wonder and excitement and engender a thirst for finding out more. Children come to this table like empty vessels. We owe to them to offer only the finest food and drink.
Sue Unstead was a publisher of children’s non-fiction for 25 years and is now a freelance editorial consultant and writer.
DK Illustrated Family Encyclopedia
DK, 0 7513 3929 6, 1024pp, 3 vols in slipcase, £49.99 hbk
DK, 72pp, £5.99 each pbk
Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedias
Various titles such as Ancient Egypt, World Geography, World History, Science etc.
Terry Deary, Scholastic, prices vary approx. £3.99 pbk
Journey into the Rainforest
Tim Knight, OUP, 48pp, 0 19 910731 9, £6.99 pbk
The New Way Things Work
David Macaulay, DK, 400pp, 0 7513 5643 3, £19.99 hbk
The Magic Book (or The Cooking Book or The Halloween Book)
Jane Bull, DK, 48pp, 0 7513 3949 0, £5.99 hbk
Stephen Biesty and Meredith Hooper, Hodder, 48pp, 0 340 78855 0, £14.99 hbk
The Super Science Book (or The Great Grammar Book or The Magnificient I Can Read Music Book)
Kate Petty and Jenny Maizels, Bodley Head, 0 370 32584 2, £14.99 hbk
Read and Wonder series
Walker, approx. 30 titles, prices vary approx. £9.99 hbk, £4.99 pbk
Mick Manning and Brita Granström (and others), Franklin Watts, approx. 17 titles, £10.99 hbk, £4.99 pbk
First Discovery series
Moonlight, approx. 150 titles, prices vary from £2.99 to £9.99 hbk
Bryan Perrett, Scholastic, 160pp, 0 439 99421 7, £4.99 pbk
Jim Eldridge, Scholastic, 160pp, 0 439 99422 5, £4.99 pbk
The Little Ships
Louise Borden, ill. Michael Foreman, Pavilion, 32pp, 1 86205 347 2, £6.99 pbk
I want to be a Firefighter
Priddy Bicknell Publishers, 1 84332 052 5, £4.99 board