Nonfiction for children and young adults has existed alongside fiction ever since the very first texts for children appeared. Clearly recognized on a par with fiction picturebooks, nonfiction picturebooks have been honoured with their own category for awards at least since the 1990s. However, there are comparatively few critical, theoretical and analytical studies on children’s and Young Adult (YA) nonfiction generally and nonfiction picturebooks particularly. There may be several reasons for this neglect or marginalisation, but the main reason over time seems to be the unwillingness to include the many verbal and visual strategies of nonfiction within the concept of children’s literature. A telling and influential example is the often-quoted narrowing down by Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott (2006):

[s]ince we are interested in the way words and pictures collaborate in telling stories, we will concentrate on narratives, leaving aside, for instance, picture dictionaries, illustrated poems, the many nonfiction books with pictures, and other kinds of illustrated books, which demand special attention. (p. 26)

While it is perfectly valid to concentrate on narratives, it is problematic that the list of what Nikolajeva and Scott leave aside indirectly proposes that nonfiction picturebooks may not contain narratives. The more troubling consequence of this approach has been to rule out nonfiction picturebooks as a topic of interest within the field of picturebook theory. There is, as Nikola von Merveldt (2018) has pointed out, still “a general critical bias in favour of fiction over nonfiction” (p. 241). This, von Merveldt argues, is “partly due to the grand narrative according to which the history of children’s literature should be seen as a triumphant emancipation from instruction to delight” (p. 241). Consequently, “scholars of children’s literature have considered carefree fictional literature as the more worthy object of study” (p. 241). Rather than further dwelling on the reasons behind this lacuna within children’s literature research, there is a need to bring together studies that attempt to remedy this deficiency, and to establish a theoretical framework or starting point for systematic and inventive approaches to various kinds of children’s and YA nonfiction in general and nonfiction picturebooks more specifically.

While earlier studies on children’s and YA nonfiction were preoccupied with defining and explaining nonfiction in contrast to fiction, more recent research tends to define the category of nonfiction by examining actual examples, focusing on the content of these texts, and the ways in which this content is visually and verbally presented to the reader (Mallett, 2004; Larkin-Lieffers, 2010; Mallan & Cross 2014; Sanders, 2018; von Merveldt, 2018; Grilli ed., 2020). Most existing studies are either national overviews or limited to a few examples on a specific topic. Only a few studies aim at a thorough theoretical approach (e.g. Sanders, 2018) and so far, only one has a specific interest in nonfiction picturebooks (Grilli ed., 2020).

Central to the investigation of nonfiction picturebooks is the construction and validation of knowledge and the acknowledgement that the dissemination of knowledge in nonfiction picturebooks varies according to the context (time, place, function) in which the text was created. Questions for inquiry include the kind of knowledge that is examined and why, and the ways in which knowledge is presented and organized in the book. It was these questions that the 7th International conference of the European Network of Picturebook Research aimed to answer by focusing on the verbal and visual strategies in nonfiction picturebooks. The conference took place in September 2019 at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences in Bergen. It was organized by the editors of this book: all three with a special interest in dictionaries (Hoem Iversen), biographies (Goga), and mediation of nonfiction (Teigland) for children and YA. The conference gathered around 80 children’s literature scholars, teachers, and students and offered 35 papers on the topic of nonfiction picturebooks. The present edited volume comprises 18 peer reviewed chapters which elaborate and build on a select number of these conference papers.

In addition to the need for increased knowledge about the verbal and visual strategies in nonfiction picturebooks, another justification for examining nonfiction picturebooks is related to the increased attention directed towards children’s and young adults’ reading of nonfictional texts. Reasons for this change of focus include the need to foster critical literacy to confront misinformation, given the expanding uncertainty about which sources to trust when historical events, social analysis, biographical information, or visual documentation are presented. While critical literacy is often taught in schools in relation to news, social media and textbooks, little educational and academic attention has been paid to other text sources, such, as children’s and YA nonfiction books and nonfiction picturebooks, which may be studied in school, but are most often read freely at home by curious young readers. Moreover, children’s nonfiction should not just be considered from the point of view of the dissemination of information and knowledge but should also be examined for their aesthetic qualities.

The variety of example texts discussed in this volume showcase the immense diversity that characterizes the field of nonfiction published for young readers. The main purpose of this edited volume is to provide the field of children’s and YA literature research in general, and the field of picturebook research in particular, with the theoretical tools necessary for evaluating and analysing nonfiction picturebooks. Tools, typologies, and theoretical frameworks that exist for fiction and narrative picturebooks cannot necessarily be directly applied to nonfiction picturebooks. This volume provides new insight into a neglected field. Overall, the chapter authors demonstrate different ways to approach nonfiction picturebooks for children and YA.

Fully aware of the reasons presented for using or finding alternative terminology (e.g. informational texts), the editors of this volume adopt the standard term in English, namely nonfiction. However, the purpose of this book is not to decide on a final term or concept that will work for all different kinds of nonfiction picturebooks. Instead, we are interested in acknowledging the immense variety within this heterogeneous category. This is reflected in the chapters selected for this volume, in which contributors use and explore alternative terms, such as informational and descriptive picturebooks. Thus, this book may be considered an ongoing dialogue about the terminology and theoretical approaches that can be applied to a rich, vast, and varied corpus of nonfiction picturebooks.

The present volume is aimed at an international field of study, whether within children’s and YA literature research, nonfiction literature, pedagogy research, knowledge production and dissemination, or visual design and scientific visuality. The chapter contributors come from different countries and different academic disciplines and represent diverse academic cultures. What they all have in common is an urge to provide the research field with new, relevant, and explorative theoretical approaches to better understand the many ways in which knowledge is presented verbally and visually in children’s and YA nonfiction.

Selecting, presenting and organising knowledge for any reader is a challenge, and deciding on the most adequate way to organise the chapters of a book about nonfiction picturebooks is no exception. The selected chapters propose typologies, models and analytical tools for encountering and interpreting both contemporary and historical nonfiction picturebooks. The overall structure of this volume should be seen as an attempt to attain thematic coherence.

A central issue within the field of nonfiction revolves around the ways in which narrative and non-narrative structures are employed in texts. Three chapters have been organized under the heading Semiotics and Stylistics of nonfiction and nonnarrative picturebooks. The first chapter uncovers and examines the stylistic strategies that are mobilized and exchanged with other fields of knowledge in order to inform children about birds. Arguing that nonfiction can be as aesthetically rewarding and complex as fiction the second chapter investigates examples of artistic nonfiction picturebooks. Finally, the third chapter is dedicated to the discussion of a possible semiotic model of the nonnarrative picturebook.

These chapters are followed by four chapters which examine the ways in which ideologies are perpetuated in words and illustrations in nonfiction picturebooks. There has been considerable research on ideology in children’s fiction (e.g. Stephens, 1992), but less attention has been paid to ideology in children’s nonfiction. The chapters collected under the heading Ideology in this volume challenge the established idea that children’s nonfiction is typically fact-based or fact-oriented, an idea that might suggest that such texts are objective representations of reality (see e.g. Løvland, 2016). The four chapters deal with books about important national sculptures, representations of gender in picture dictionaries, translations of controversial topics, and language ideologies and the implied reader in New Zealand picturebooks about suffragettes.

The next section entitled Biography comprises two chapters. Biographies are one of the most widely explored nonfiction genres for children and young people. As well as drawing on previous research, these two contributions offer new perspectives on this genre, not least as regards the relationship between verbal and visual dissemination of knowledge. In line with a current tendency within biographies for young readers, both chapters deal with biographies of acknowledged artists, namely the painter Frida Kahlo, and the poets William Carlos Williams and E. E. Cummings, respectively.

Traditionally, most nonfiction texts for children and young adults have centred on science topics. Many of these books have a fairly standardized format and may lack nuance regarding what is presented as facts, with little awareness of the ways in which verbal and visual presentation may influence the dissemination of knowledge. The four chapters in the section entitled Animals and environment shed light on such aspects of the dissemination of knowledge and explore traditional perceptions of what nonfiction literature for children and young adults is or can be. The theoretical approaches span from content analysis via ecocriticism to visual analysis, with example texts ranging from books about farms, wild animals, and coal, oil, and gas.

The two chapters in the section Architecture and city maps both deal with a specific field within nonfiction literature for children and young adults that is becoming gradually more widespread, namely spaces and places, geography, city maps and architecture. The growing interest in these areas of children’s nonfiction is perhaps not unexpected, given that its focus on the spatial aspect of texts in itself organizes and explores the very concepts that distinguish nonfiction texts from, for example, narrative fiction such as novels and short stories. Not only do the two chapters in this section explore different parts of this particular field of knowledge, they also contribute different theoretical perspectives that correspond with those presented in the third chapter in this volume. The first contributor presents a taxonomy for classifying narrative strategies in books about architecture, whereas the second chapter discusses the relationship between fact and fiction in city maps.

The final section labelled The pictorial turn refers to the increased awareness of the importance of illustrations in nonfiction for children and young adults (von Merveldt, 2018). The section comprises discussions and analyses of visual, sensorial, and aesthetic strategies in nonfiction picturebooks. The first chapter discusses how guided and embodied experiences in nonfiction picturebooks can reinforce children’s engagement with works of art. The second chapter examines the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction through analyses of literary and artistic strategies. Finally, the third chapter examines ways in which visual strategies are used to communicate knowledge to different possible child readers.

Altogether, the chapters in the present volume contribute to increased understanding of the verbal and visual complexity of nonfiction picturebooks for children and young adults. Although not all possible subjects and perspectives are covered, it is our hope that this volume contributes theoretical frameworks and analytical tools that may benefit further research in the rich and exciting field of nonfiction picturebooks across the world.

References

Grilli, G. (Ed.) (2020). Non-Fiction picturebooks: Sharing knowledge as an aesthetic experience. Florence: Edizioni ETS.

Larkin-Lieffers, P. A. (2010). Images of childhood and the implied reader in young children’s information books, Literacy, 44(2), 76–82.

Løvland, A. (2016). Talking about something real: the concept of truth in multimodal non-fiction books for young people. Prose Studies, 38(2), 172–187, DOI:10.1080/01440357.2016.1232784

Mallan, K. & Cross, A. (2014). The artful interpretation of science through picture books. In K. Mallan (Ed.), Picture books and beyond (pp. 41–60), Newton: Primary English Teaching Association Australia.

Mallett, M. (2004). Children’s information text. In P. Hunt (Ed.), International companion encyclopedia of children’s literature Vol. 1 (pp. 622–632). New York, NY: Routledge.

Merveldt, N. von (2018). Informational picturebooks. In B. Kümmerling-Meibauer (Ed.), The Routledge companion to picturebooks (pp. 231–245), London: Routledge.

Nikolajeva, M. & Scott, C. (2006). How picturebooks work. New York, NY and London: Routledge.

Sanders, J. S. (2018). A literature of questions. Nonfiction for the critical child. Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Stephens, J. (1992). Language and ideology in children’s fiction. London and New York, NY: Longman.