Recently, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with our juvenile collection, up close and personal. I have enjoyed this exercise because it is the very best way to know what books are available and form the library’s collection. A catalog is great, but it doesn’t give the whole picture of what is on the shelves because it is abstract. To really get a handle on the collection requires a close reading of the shelves, which most resembles what we know as “browsing.”
The large project I describe has found me reviewing materials in the juvenile non-fiction section. For the uninitiated, non-fiction is the section for books that talk about topics that are real; the opposite of fiction, which tells made-up stories. The other big difference between fiction and non-fiction is that, generally, fiction is sorted by author’s last name, but non-fiction uses the Dewey Decimal Classification and sorts books by topic as delineated by that classification.
As a member of Generation X, I didn’t have a lot of excitement about a re-introduction to juvenile non-fiction. My mind went back to grade-school projects that required non-fiction books and the musty, boring tomes that contained the facts I needed for my research. The books I encountered were usually dusty, yellowed, and very text-heavy — the exact opposite of what appeals to kids. When I studied to become a librarian I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with juvenile non-fiction of the 21st century. Things have changed a lot since I did my 4th grade report on vacuum cleaners, and for the better.
A peek through our juvenile collection of today yields much more promising results. Materials are designed to be attractive to the young learner, both in content and appearance. Since my re-acquaintance to juvenile non-fiction, I’ve discovered that when I am curious about a topic, it pays to have a peek in the children’s library first. Since the books are aimed at a younger audience, it’s easier to learn about a subject in simple and concise terms that often get muddled in the adult versions of the same subjects. I had the chance to read a juvenile book about Prohibition and it was astonishing how much I learned from a relatively simple examination of the era. Adult books of the same type sometimes make assumptions about the reader – for instance, it may be assumed that the reader is already an expert and the examination of the topic skims over all of the important facts in order to examine high-minded themes and esoteric details. Oftentimes adult non-fiction has an inherent bias you don’t see in books for children. I’ve read juvenile non-fiction about philosophy, archaeology, art history, Black American soldiers in World War II, world religions, democracy and the human body. It has been an excellent method for me to brush up on all the stuff I learned since high school (but have forgotten), as well as a great resource to use as a primer for basic things I should know (but don’t).
The next time you stop into the library, be sure to check out the non-fiction collection in the children’s section. The publisher DK makes many high quality books that have lots of pictures information – but not a lot of text. Additionally, the Orbis Pictus Award, founded in 1989, rewards excellence in juvenile non-fiction every year. Here is a link to their site, if you’d like to see a sampling of some of the great titles on offer: http://www2.ncte.org/awards/orbis-pictus-award-nonfiction-for-children/