NNFN: A guest post from John Townsend

We hope you’ve been enjoying the wide variety of pieces celebrating non-fiction for children and young people so far this National Non-Fiction November! Today we have a guest post for you from John Townsend.

John Townsend has taught in primary and secondary schools, and is experienced in engaging children with reading and writing (often via the weird and wonderful). He specialises in books for reluctant readers and regularly visits schools and libraries to encourage interest in books, stories and fascinating information.

He has written over 200 books (many non-fiction) for young people on history, geography, science, natural history, medicine, crime and more. The Literacy Trust includes John among their ‘Author Reading Champions’. He is a member of NIBWEB (Network for Information Book Writers and Editors in Britain) http://nibweb.org.uk/

Non-Fiction in Disguise

“Having written children’s non-fiction for donkey’s years*, I have a question to ask. Of course, being questioning and a bit obsessive to ‘get things right’ goes with the territory of needing to tell things exactly as they are, or appear to be. But truth can be a slippery fish that swims in many guises. Even in fiction, dare I say? What I’m also trying to say is… (shock, horror, mixed metaphor) the term ‘Non-Fiction’ has blurry edges. So here’s the question: is Non-Fiction really the best label for children’s information books? Oh dear, I can already hear librarians and teachers screaming from their neatly labelled shelves: Non-Fiction on one side of the room and Fiction on the other; black or white, true or false, fun or fact – never the twain shall meet. I beg to differ.

The thing is, the term ‘non-fiction’ tells us what a book isn’t. It doesn’t tell us what it actually is. But what is more, (brace yourself for something shocking here), I reckon it’s perfectly acceptable for fact and fiction to be the best of friends and cohabit in the SAME book as intimate bedfellows. Now I can hear booksellers shouting ‘disgusting’ and exploding at the thought of cataloguing such despicable goings-on. Just bear with me…

We all know children love engaging stories. They also relish fascinating facts and exciting explanations. Weave the two together and the hybrid can be a book which is mind-bogglingly satisfying. Such is hardly latest rocket science, of course, as many writers have long been backing-up their fiction with non-fiction appendices providing hard facts and explanations behind fictitious content. I can offer my own examples in this crossbreed genre:


Terror of the Swamp – an adventure story with information pages on dangerous ants, Titanoboa, black mambas and all sorts.

Dead in the Water – an adventure story with information pages on giant clams, megalodon and the blue-ringed octopus.


Peril in the Snow – an adventure story with information pages on the Himalayas, yeti facts and mountain wildlife.


What can be better at getting across solid curriculum fodder than a jolly good yarn? Adventure romps that quiz, illustrate, explain and inform geographical knowledge are surely the stuff of ‘real world’ heaven! Well, it just so happens, I can report my new Geography Quest series wraps up all manner of mouth-watering geography in ‘create your own adventure’ stories where the reader (as hero) must flit about the book in all directions by making informed choices and collecting factual clues.

Non-fiction with a plot – what a delightfully friendly mongrel to lead children safely through the curriculum jungle. But where on earth do you display it in a library?

Suggestion: why not re-label the children’s non-fiction section to the WOW section? (World Of Wonder) Then fiction with facts, fact with fiction or just plain ‘faction’ can sit comfortably without the need for any purist to self-combust over dodgy nomenclature. By and large, that could be quite a blessing and we can all get on with enjoying books for what they are. Now that’s not too radical, is it?

* By way of demonstrating the non-fiction writer’s obsession with finding out all sorts…
It’s quite likely that donkey’s ears was the earlier form of ‘donkey’s years’ (as a term for ‘a very long time’) and that it originated as rhyming slang, alluding to the considerable length of the animal’s ears, rather than its lifespan. That said, according to The Guinness Book of Records, the oldest documented age for a donkey belongs to Suzy, who reached 54 years old when she died in 2002 in New Mexico. That’s pretty long, I reckon. Mind you, parrots (not normally known for ‘long ears’) can live much longer. Cookie, a cockatoo at Brookfield Zoo, Illinois, was over 80 years old in 2014. Needless-to-say, I haven’t quite been writing information books for cockatoo years… yet!”


For further information or contact: www.johntownsend.co.uk

This guest post was provided by John Townsend. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.


One response to “NNFN: A guest post from John Townsend”

  1. […] had guest posts from authors and illustrators of non-fiction: Non-Fiction in Disguise Monkeying around with Non-Fiction Fantastic Cities – an interview with Steve McDonald Adventures […]