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A way to bring facts out of the shadows

I'd like to share with you three little scenes from real literary life, reported just as they happened, though with names and places omitted to spare anyone's blushes.

Scene One. A class of primary school children had each been given a book token. Their teachers told them that they could choose any book, but when a child approached the checkout with a non-fiction title, he was told, "No, go and choose a proper book."

Scene Two. A young library assistant was giving a group of seven-year-olds a tour of the children's library. "Over there are the information books," she said, and then, keen to look cool to her young audience, she stage-whispered at them behind her hand, 'Borrr-ing!'

Scene Three. I was at the launch party for a friend's new novel, and was chatted to by a senior editor of a big publishing house. She seemed impressed that I wrote non-fiction, but the moment I added "for children", she saw someone just past my left ear, who she simply had to say hello to.

I'm not suggesting that all editors, teachers or librarians have such narrow-minded attitudes, but these are not isolated incidents. In the 15 years I've been involved with children's non-fiction I've seen many similar examples of the ways in which it is disregarded.

So, why does it matter that this genre has such a low status, apart from the fact that it has a very detrimental effect on my ego? Well, just imagine if the status of adult non-fiction were the same as its junior counterpart. You might find yourself hiding your copy of the latest Redmond O'Hanlon inside something more acceptable - a nice Jeffrey Archer for example - as you smuggled it to the counter. Simon Singh and Lynne Truss would be in the library section marked "Boring", and William Dalrymple and Francis Spufford would be the pariahs of any literary party.

Actually, a scenario closer to that which really exists for children's non-fiction today, would see those best-selling authors' works shoved on to two dingy, badly lit bookshop shelves, marked "reference" along with GCSE revision guides.

The "not a proper book" attitude limits the choices available to young readers in a way that adults would find unacceptable. It also constitutes educational madness: well written, inventively designed, entertaining non-fiction helps children to absorb information and shows them how to communicate it to others.

Which brings me to the other important, and perhaps rather surprising, aspect of non-fiction for children. It supports children's writing, especially those children - primarily boys - who don't like fiction. Just ask Ofsted; its 2003 report, Schools Where Boys Write Well, showed that where non-fiction reading and writing were valued as highly as fiction, boys' work flourished.

I have found, through running writing workshops in schools for several years, that in writing non-fiction children learn to be precise, but to communicate clearly and vividly they must also be creative in their use of language. Writing non-fiction prompts children to ask questions and to enter into a dialogue with the real world.

So what can we do to bring the genre out of the shadows? Booksellers could put some of the narrative non-fiction in with the story books; give a little of Harry Potter's window space to the latest John and Mary Gribbin or Phil Ardagh, and remember that a child who enjoyed reading a historical or science fiction novel might also be keen to read the facts.

Publishers, too, need to be braver, and to think of commissioning and, crucially, marketing non-fiction as they do fiction, without always looking for the direct link with key stage 1, 2 or 3. And authors? We must keep writing innovative non-fiction books to inspire young readers, and hope that one day our names, too, might be in lights.

* To do your bit for children's non-fiction you could attend the TES-sponsored conference on the genre "Adventures in the Real World", October 7-8 at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea. For details, phone 01792 463980.

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and non-fiction writer for children. Her latest book, Poo, the National History of the Unmentionable, is published by Walker Books

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