Thursday 4 November 2010

National Non-Fiction Day 2010

Today is the inaugural National Non-Fiction Day, an annual celebration, initiated by the Federation of Children's Book Groups in partnership with Scholastic Children's Books. It aims to celebrate all that is brilliant about non fiction and show that it’s not just fiction that can be read and enjoyed for pleasure.

When I first received an email about this day I felt a little guilty as I realised that I had never reviewed a non-fiction book on The Book Zone. This is despite first hand experience of seeing how popular non-fiction can be amongst reluctant readers, and especially boys, but as fiction is my own personal preference (and always has been) and there is only so much time in the day to read, that is the direction I have taken with this blog. However, even boys who claim that they never read probably do read more often than they realise, but quite often they have been conditioned to believe that only fiction counts as 'proper' reading. Last year my school took part in a reading survey for the National Literacy Trust, and one of the questions asked students which, out of an extensive list, did students read outside of class at least once a month. That list included (in this order): websites; blogs/social networking sites; newspapers; magazines; comics or graphic novels; emails; fiction books; song lyrics; poems; plays; text messages; non-fiction books; and manuals/instructions. Yes... all of these count as reading, and a quick glance shows that many could be counted as non-fiction. I aim to use the rest of this post to highlight some of the great non-fiction books that are out there at the moment.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not!

Following hot on the heels of last year’s best-selling edition, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! 2011 offers a whole new feast of bizarre facts and features to enthrall and entertain. Be amazed at the pink dolphin, the girl no bigger than her schoolbag, and the island of lost dolls. Gasp at extraordinary true tales about vampires, the Ripley's waxwork gallery, and the feats of sword swallowers past and present. Illustrated throughout with colour photographs and two pullouts featuring astounding lifesize images, this fascinating book is a must-have for anyone who loves jaw-dropping images and unbelievable facts.

Without a doubt, the most popular two books in our school library are the Guiness Book of Records and Ripley's Believe It Or Not! In fact, some boys race into the library at the beginning of break time in order to get their hands on these. The first of these two books looks very different from the text heavy volumes that were published when I was a child - these days it is page after page of colour photos and images, and the text has been significantly cut down. Ripley's Believe It or Not! is a similar format, although the content (at least most of it) is wildly different. If you have not yet laid eyes on these annual volumes then you may be in for a shock - they are the printed version of the Victorian freak show, combined with myriad bizarre and amazing facts. In other words, just the kind of thing that eleven year old boys love; I have watched them devour these books at breaktime, standing around in groups laughing or squealing at its various weird and wonderful contents. And they are not just looking at the pictures, they delight in reading out loud to each other the commentaries that accompany the often lurid images.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! is published by Random House (the adult rather than the children's section of the company), and the 2011 edition is out right now. Have a look at it - at first glance it may not look suitable, but your boy will love it. And if he does, it is worth noting that Arrow Books (an imprint of RHCB) now publish a series of fiction books under the heading Ripley's Bureau of Investigation, that are great fun reads for the 7-11 age group.

The Spy's Guidebook and The Detective's Handbook

Last month I wrote a review of one of Simon Cheshire's Saxby Smart detective books, as well as his new Detective Handbook, a non-fiction book that young detective fans will really enjoy. In that post I briefly mentioned two books that had been well-read favourites of mine when I was at primary school - The Spy's Guidebook and The Detective's Handbook, both illustrated by Colin King (with text by a variety of contributors) and both published by Usborne. Little did I realise when I wrote that review that Usborne still publish both of these books, and now my long-lost paperback copies have been replaced by two stunning volumes, spiral bound between hardcovers.

I simply cannot praise these books enough as far as encouraging boys to read is concerned. I was always an avid reader, and loved mystery stories, but my younger brother hated reading and rarely ever picked up a book voluntarily. Except for these that is: I think he wanted to learn about codes and stuff so he could spy on me, and this led to him regularly 'borrowing' my copies for hours on end, and I think modern reluctant readers between 7 and 11 will find these books just as fascinating as we did. However, be prepared to provide your new young detectives and spies with all kinds of items that they will need to equip themselves with, such as talcum powder for fingerprint kids, old clothing for disguises, torches for flashing morse code and plaster of paris for taking casts of footprints. 

The Spy's Guidebook: A classic Usborne title for anyone who wants to be the best spy in the business.Packed with tips, hints and advice on all the tricks needed to be a super spy, including how to write and break codes, how to use disguise to avoid detection and how to stalk and shadow enemy spies effectively. Includes spy-tests, observation quizzes and code-cracking challenges to check how much budding Bonds have learnt.

The Detective's Handbook: Packed with tips, hints and advice on how to be an intrepid, quick-thinking super-sleuth.Includes how to identify fingerprints and handwriting and how to examine witnesses and find clues. Contains observation tests and code cracking quizzes to hone those investigative skills.

Horrible Histories by Terry Deary

I am not sure these really need much of an introduction but they are huge favourite of mine, and they turned my godson's brother on to what we think could be a life-long love of history. Written by Terry Deary, and illustrated in the most part by Martin Brown, these books have become firm favourites with children all over the country since The Terrible Tudors was first published back in 1993 (that one is still my favourite but it is a little scary to think that these have been around for more than seventeen years). Everybody talks about the Harry Potter books being the publishing phenomenon of the world of children's books, but surely some of that honour should go to Mr Deary and this incredible series. 

The Horrible Histories books have become such a huge part of the lives of many children since then it is hard to believe that in their early days they met with quite a lot of resistance from teachers and parents. But Terry Deary was spot on with his vision of fuelling an interest in the past in children by giving them "history with the nasty bits left in", in much the same way that thousands of children have been turned on to reading in recent years by the wave of horror books that have been published. Kids like gore, they love uncleanliness and they adore rude jokes, and the Horrible Histories books have all of these in abundance. Another wonderful aspect of these books is that they are timeless; barring a return to a society akin to the Puritan period that followed the Civil War I think these books will be enjoyed by children for many, many years to come, especially now that there is also a hugely popular BAFTA Nominated TV series to accompany them. New editions of the books have been published to tie in with this TV show, but more excitingly Scholastic and Terry Deary have also now started producing a brand new series, with the subtitle "A High-Speed History". There are two books in the series so far (Egypt and Tudors) containing all the nasty facts that made the original books so appealing, but presented in comic strip form and therefore being far more attractive to reluctant or struggling readers than their text heavy predecessors.

Horrible Science by Nick Arnold (illustrated by Tony de Saulles)

Following the huge success of the Horrible Histories books, the all-knowing people at Scholastic must have put their heads together and brain-stormed what they should publish next that would be in a similar vein. They came to the same conclusion that I am sure many primary school teachers would have...... science. Kids love science and all those messy and incredibly exciting experiments! And so was born the Horrible Science series, with the writing baton passed to the hugely talented Nick Arnold, ably assisted by illustator Tony de Saulles. Titles such as Chemical Chaos, Disgusting Digestion and Deadly Diseases soon saw this series producing a legion of young science buffs, and I am sure that there will be many a university science student who can trace the genesis of their passion back to reading these books at primary school. More recently Scholastic have also published a series of Horrible Science handbooks, larger format books, with full colour throughout, that are page after page of really cool experiments that kids can easily and safely (but possibly messily) carry out. Confession time - I tried a few of the activities out in this book and they were so much fun; if you're kids like science then they will have hours of fun out of this book.  


This has been such a great fun post to write, and I really will try to feature more non-fiction books on The Book Zone in the future. My huge thanks go to the generous people at Scholastic and Usborne for providing me with review copies for this National Non-Fiction Day post.


  1. Thank you for this fantastic post, and the support for NNFD.

    I agree whole-heartedly on Terry Deary. I would be interested to know how many HH books have been sold since they first came out. I remember clearly how people critical were of them but I encouraged my husband, who was doing a PGCE in history at the time, to go and see him at an event in Waterstone's in Bristol and he thought he was brilliant.
    I reviewed High-Speed History: Tudor this week and they are very good too, perfect for a school library.

    I bought my son his first-ever Guinness World Records this year (he is 8) and he is hooked!

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