The wonderful news that William Grill won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration today made me whoop with joy, for illustrated non-fiction books are having a renaissance, and it’s about time. As Grill is purported to have said, non fiction is seen as ‘unglamorous’ next to fiction and picture books and it doesn’t have to be that way. As someone whose career has involved the publishing of Horrible Histories and all its satellite series, I say ‘amen’ and ‘I hear you’ to that. We haven’t had such a great a non-fiction moment since Dragonology first hit the scene back in 2003 from Templar. Filled with wheels, tabs, flaps and fold-outs, not to mention ‘jewels’ set into the covers, these books set the standard for a type of gift non fiction that everyone suddenly started to aspire to.
We all started doing versions of the ‘ologies’ until the 2008 recession hit us, print costs went sky-high and no one would pay £19.99 for a book any more. In children’s books at least, the emphasis suddenly went from pop-up carousels and feats of paper-engineering to ‘straight’ books, and even fewer illustrated ones. Every publisher knows that B-format black-and-white fiction is where the money and the profit is at, so the ship steered well away from high-production-value non fiction and gift books. Happily for us, the digital-induced renaissance in high-quality gift books is giving non fiction another moment. I noticed it first appearing in 2013 with Maps (Big Picture Press), the beautifully illustrated atlas by Alexandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski.
We were all stunned by the intricately rendered artwork by the Bologna Ragazzi-winning couple, clearly the work of many months. It has spawned a new genre of nostalgically illustrated large-format gift books, most notably in 2014, Animalium (Big Picture Press) by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott, and Wide-Eyed Editions’ Atlas of Adventures (Rachel Williams & Lucy Netherland) and Nature’s Day (Danielle Kroll & Kay Maguire).
In adult books, another sort of non-fiction renaissance is happening as illustrated publishers compete for gift-book slots with lavishly bound, be-ribboned, embossed and gilded-edged titles, such as Where Chefs Eat (Phaidon) and my favourite, Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press).
I’ve been told that Waterstones buyers won’t even look at a non-fiction Christmas gift title unless it has all the bells and whistles, and indeed publishers are creating bespoke special editions for them. The conversations happening between editors, designers, production controllers and printers are in a really interesting place right now as they look beyond traditional book formats, trying to outdo the competition with the next big widget. Of course, Information is Beautiful (HarperCollins, 2009) and the follow-up Knowledge is Beautiful by David McCandless was the game-changer in the adult world for non fiction. Purely and simply, his infographics presented information in such a visually accessible way, they are beautiful in themselves. His books provide ‘learning by stealth’ for adults and both of his books deserve a place on every bookshelf, and in every gift-givers list. No widgets required – the artistry is simply on the page.
With the emphasis on gift books to collect and treasure as objects, I predict that the non-fiction future is beautiful.