The twelve-foot wall is lined with non-fiction books of all varieties: science, history, philosophy, and self-help - even a few that cover religion. Textbooks from classes long since discontinued at the local college sit proudly on my bookshelf. Some say there is nothing like the smell of an old book. I say it doesn't matter how old, non-fiction books in particular hold a certain mystique that includes the smell of glue, binding, and paper.
I can't say when I first found an interest in non-fiction books. As a child, I was usually disappointed at the selection of nonfiction books for kids found in the school library. The cartoon pictures and short, simple sentences didn't provide the information they promised. By age eight, I was checking out Smithsonian books from the adult section.
The Beginnings of the Best Nonfiction books
Since the invention of the written language, people have been sharing their knowledge with others through books. One of the earliest non-fiction books written deals with how to wage war. Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, wrote The Art of War in the 5th Century, B.C. The work was written to teach the reader military strategy, so in this way, it could be considered a self-help book for soldiers.
Some would say that the best non-fiction book is the Bible. While many locations mentioned in the Bible have been physically verified by archeologists and modern historians, it also contains stories that cannot be proven. This begs the question: how much of a book must be factual for the whole book to be considered non-fiction?
Defining a Childhood
Being a child in the age before the Internet allowed my generation the benefit of life without the instant availability of information. Knowledge was more valued because it took more effort to gain it. Even looking up common facts was a process that involved a trip to the library or your nearest set of encyclopedias. You had to search through a card catalog, which would then require searching through rows of books until you found the information you were looking for.
I miss those days of questing for knowledge in the local library. Now I don't have to leave the house to find out how many soldiers died in the first battle of the Revolutionary War. In fact, I don't even have to leave my seat. The Internet can provide me the answer to that question in around .37 seconds (as long as I use the right keywords for my search).
Escapism with Nonfiction books
As a young child, I used novels as a way to escape to a different reality. Life in the Woodford household was often wrought with discomfort and fear. Instead of dwelling on the negative atmosphere I was stuck in, I'd retire to my room, flip open one of my science fiction stories and get lost in the problems of the characters in the book. It was easier to be strong when I saw people struggling through life and death scenarios, even if those struggles were fictional.
I have matured, and as a result, have found less time to read fictional stories. I guess I've been struck by the "adult syndrome" as well, since fantasy doesn't hold as much interest to me anymore. Instead, I read non-fiction books in my free time. One book I recently finished, The Dinosaur Heresies, proved to me that you don't have to read a story to escape to a different time and place.
Real Life, Real Situations Imagined
Modern non-fiction writers have learned a lot over the last few decades. The dry, boring textbook is no more. Instead, writers spice up factual information with anecdotes, personal stories and sometimes even fictional accounts. They don't do this because they're trying to make the subject more interesting, but because they have to compete with other forms of communication like videos and computer programs.
Perhaps due to the increase in visual stimulation available, modern readers expect to be able to picture what they read playing out in their heads. So writers use more descriptive writing along with stories and plenty of pictures. This makes it easy for us to imagine standing alongside dinosaurs when we read a book about dinosaurs.
The Best Nonfiction Books in the Age of Computers
If you want to write nonfiction books for kids, you need to remember that today's kids are inundated with visual stimulation that includes pictures and video. You will have to incorporate plenty of pictures in your book to keep these children turning the page. Pictures should represent the subject of the page but can also include sidebars of short passages that are easy to scan through. Children are notoriously inattentive.
Sadly, today's adults are also inattentive. Not because of their inability to sit still, but because they have little extra time to read; when they do sit down with nonfiction books they want to be able to breeze through the text quickly and enjoy the pictures during a lunch break or before bed.
I have been lucky to pass my love of books to at least one of my children. My older daughter loves to visit the library and often remarks that she could stay there all day enjoying the smell of the books. It looks like I've done something right for the next generation.