For the last four or five years I've helped been teaching a group of 'gifted and talented' children at a primary school. These year 6 and 7 children are amazingly talented readers and as a former secondary school teacher I go in once a week to deliver literature enrichment lessons.
One of the pleasures of this kind of teaching is that every week these children knock me off my complacent perch as they reveal exactly what they can do with a piece of poetry or prose; they are a continual surprise and delight.
One of the depressing things about this kind of teaching is the poor quality of modern children's non-fiction: all super-glossy, illustration rich, and full of snippets of facts in little boxes. High on graphic design and low on continuous prose. It always reminds me of Irwin's "gobbets" that Hector was so sniffy about in Alan Bennett's The History Boys.
When I start teaching this group each year I remind them of the Ladybird non-fiction books. They will have seen them, and some may have one or two passed down by their parents, but they associate them with younger readers and think they've moved on. I point out to them how little they as 9, 10 and 11 year olds see non-fiction just written in paragraphs and extending to 26 pages (all Ladybird books have 52 pages and half are full page illustrations). I commend the Adventures from History series to them.
Not only does the Adventures from History series cover the popular heroes you would expect (Alfred the Great, Robert the Bruce, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth I, etc) but amongst the 49 titles are some real surprises. What modern publisher would bring out a children's biography of Warwick the Kingmaker, John Wesley or Elizabeth Fry? There is even one of Elizabeth Gaskell.
I read these books with great pleasure in the 70s and 80s and they were a large motivating factor in my love of history. They have their faults certainly, and no doubt they are a bit over-certain or narrative in style for historians' tastes, but for getting kids interested you can't beat them. Most children don't get the chance to do this kind of reading however.
Another aspect of the teaching I do with this group is on the history of the English language. How English is such a borrower of words and how interesting etymology can be. They look at maps and gradually realise that one local area is full of Norse place names and another a few miles away of Anglo-Saxon ones. They realise that they can see the footprints of the invaders in an OS map. This is one of the most popular parts of the course that I teach. They love it and the National Curriculum hardly goes near it.
Most of you will know of the Ladybird series but if you are looking for children's non-fiction there are others. Ginn did a great little series in the 60s in colour coded shelves for different eras. I've a smashing little book from their 'Blue shelf' in stock at the moment on the history of Books and Writing (again, what publisher would produce this now?).
It covers the development of paper and writing: papyrus, book rolls, books with leaves, runes, Roman letters, Anglo-Saxon poetry (all riddles and heroes), and the writing culture of the monasteries and St Bede... all in a tiny staple bound little paperback.
I've a similarly interesting volume called Elizabethan Houses from Ginn's 'Yellow Shelf'. If you have a child or grandchild that likes the Horrible Histories then maybe see if you can interest them in these more detailed books. Apart from improving their history it will challenge their reading no end compared with what is in the school library on the non-fiction shelves.
Cross posted on the blog Gifted by Juxtabook.