Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

48. Children’s information texts

 

Margaret Mallett

 

Introduction

 

The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is blurred and constantly shifting, but we still use it and need it.

(Fisher 1972: 10)

 

In one respect things have changed little since Margery Fisher wrote her seminal book Matters of Fact: we still follow libraries and bookshops in wanting to decide on which side of the fiction/non-fiction line a particular title belongs. When it comes to children’s texts the decision can be particularly perplexing. Some early autobiography, biography and travel books have a strongly literary flavour, and there are historical novels and ‘information stories’ where fact and fiction mingle. I doubt that we should base a judgement on the argument that fiction is for pleasure and non-fiction for utilitarian purposes when it is clear that we both learn from and enjoy the best texts in each category. We are on safer ground if we think of an information text as one whose main intention is to impart knowledge and ideas. To succeed it has to link securely with the reader’s existing knowledge before sharing further observations, facts and ideas. The importance of the information book is demonstrated by the fact that, following the work of the Australian genre theorists, mediated by Wray and Lewis (1997), the UK Literacy Strategy requires teachers to make children familiar with the following non-fiction texts types: recount, report, explanation, instruction, discussion and persuasion.

An appraisal of the role and value of information texts or non-fiction (the terms are often used interchangeably) is timely, as the variety of media through which information is presented and the range of texts types is greater than ever before. Print books now have to compete in school budgets with electronic learning resources. The trend towards less book-buying in a more varied market concerns Graham Taylor, who points to a discrepancy between the value we place on books and the relatively low priority they are given in budget planning (Taylor 2003: 23). In spite of the revolution in new technology and its impact on children’s reading resources, many believe books in print form are likely to survive for a long time. Aidan Chambers thinks books will be born again, made newly magnificent using some of the new technological techniques (Chambers 2001: 157).

I begin with an analysis of the different kinds of children’s non-fiction and their purposes, moving on to three main contexts: pedagogical, publishing and critical.