Anne Rooney, Chair of the Educational Writers Group, writes non-fiction for all ages from five to adult on a huge variety of topics and for all markets, from academic to mass-market paperback publishers. She also writes fiction for children, with a strong interest in emergent readers – both very young children, and teenagers with reading difficulties who need simple texts with age-appropriate content. After completing a PhD on a suitably arcane topic in 1985, she has written full time, concentrating on children’s books since the late 90s. She is current Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge University.
Your academic background is in English Literature, how did you come to write about so many subjects, including science, mathematics and philosophy?
I did science A-levels and then switched to English. I wanted to combine English with history and philosophy of science, but wasn’t allowed to in my degree, but I did manage to sneak some history of science into my PhD. So it’s always been there, really – I just couldn’t decide what to focus on. And that’s still true. My daughter says I never stopped being a student, and I think there is some truth in that.
Being interested in virtually everything is a good start.
What do you think are the necessary skills for writing educational and non-fiction books?
Being interested in virtually everything is a good start. Whenever I find out something interesting, I want to share it – if it makes me think ‘wow!’ perhaps it will affect other people in the same way. I don’t think you can fake it – if you’re not interested in the subject, that will come across and then your readers won’t be interested. Beyond that, you really have to be able to put anything – and I mean anything – into simple language. So you have to understand it - you can’t put something into simple language if you don’t really know what’s going on.
You’ve now published more than 200 books, has the business changed during the time you’ve been working?
Yes. The so-called ‘schools and libraries’ market has virtually disappeared in that time. Those are books that sell into schools and libraries but are not textbooks. They generally support the curriculum, perhaps providing extra support or giving information in a more exciting or innovative way. They used to be bought by schools and libraries to give students an extra boost or another way into a subject. Now schools and libraries don’t have the money to buy them, so there are relatively few books of that type being commissioned, at least in the UK. Other changes? The web has become the first port of call for information, and many children go online before they look in a book. To engage young readers, books have to offer something the web doesn’t – and they do, but we have to get that message across to readers. Books have been carefully researched, so the information is accurate, appropriate, relevant to the interests of readers of the target age and written in an accessible and understandable way.
You’ve just started your term as chair of our Educational Writers Group. What do you think are the specific challenges facing educational writers at present? What are you hoping to achieve in the role?
I’m hoping to raise the profile of information books, which have always been in the shadow of fiction – even though many, many people of all ages enjoy reading them. And I want to push for a fairer deal for educational writers – we tend to be offered very poor terms by publishers. For many educational writers, income has dropped: we receive less money now than we did 15 years ago for the same work. Not just less in real terms – less in actual numbers by around 25%. That represents a massive drop in income. Our rights have been eroded and more demanded of us for less money. It’s not sustainable. I’m the first to agree that no one is owed a publishing deal - but if a publisher wants the book, the author should be properly and fairly remunerated.
'For many educational writers, income has dropped
You write for various different age groups (children, teens and adults) and on quite distinct subjects. Is the variety something you enjoy? Do you prefer writing for any particular audience or on specific sorts of themes?
I absolutely love the variety. I’m always looking for new things to write about, and sometimes turn down commissions just because I’ve had enough of a particular topic and know I won’t be excited about it unless I wait a couple of years before coming back to it. In the last six months I’ve written about pirates, maths, biology, demons, economics, evolution, gravity, agricultural engineering, scientific breakthroughs, the history of maps, Jekyll and Hyde – and some fiction. At the moment, I’m really enjoying writing about biology.
Less confident readers are not less interested in the world or intellectually able than fluent or keen readers
You write for less confident readers too. How does an avid reader engage with and write for those who are reluctant or unsure?
I like to think that I put my skills to use to filter information and select the really important or interesting bits, which I then phrase in an accessible way to draw in less confident readers.
Less confident readers are not less interested in the world or intellectually able than fluent or keen readers – they just benefit from a different presentation of the material. It’s a real challenge to pack in lots of information or excitement but using simple language and syntax and being very concise. (I don’t like life to be too easy!) If a reader doesn’t understand it or is not interested by what I have written, that is my failure, not the reader’s failure. I don’t like failing at things, so I try hard not to.
It is the little nuggets of information that often draw someone in. If I told you that one of the most important fossils in the world was originally swapped for a cow, you’d want to know which fossil, wouldn’t you?* What did that animal look like, and why did the archaeologist who wanted it offer a cow rather than cash? There – the historic market in fossil-finds, which you probably didn’t even know was a subject, is actually quite interesting. And as for the writing, it just has to be completely transparent; imagine looking through a clear stream at pebbles at the bottom – you don’t see the water. Less confident readers make an investment in every word, so every word has to count – no flowery gimmicks, just communicating excitement, interest and information.
It was the holotype archaeopteryx in the Naturkundemuseum, Berlin – the first bird/dinosaur found with clearly fossilised feathers.
You work with a range of different publishers, how much do you pitch ideas as opposed to being asked to provide something on a specific subject?
I have loads of ideas I want to pitch but rarely get round to it as there is a pretty constant stream of commissions. It’s hard to turn books down just because I want to focus on pitching something else. After all, I have bills to pay – no one else will pay them if I don’t. So, sadly, my own projects do tend to get side-lined quite a lot. That said, I’ve recently decided to start pitching some of them through my agent (who usually deals only with my fiction) – then there is someone to nag me if I set them aside for too long!
The illustrator should have equal billing with the author – the illustrator’s job is at least as hard as the writer’s and is at least as important in drawing in readers and aiding their understanding.
Next month the ALCS Award for Educational Writing will be announced. Last year you were a judge, can you tell us a bit about the experience and what the role of the prize is?
It was a great experience. It really made me reflect on what I do and what makes a good educational book. It’s very important in most educational publishing for pictures and words to work together. I was one of three judges, and I’m only speaking for myself here (the other judges were not writers), but I was looking for a book that could entrance a reader – any reader. So it had to be accessible, so that even a less confident reader would get something out of it; it had to be visually appealing, and the pictures had to support and add to the text. Illustration is often more engaging than photographs, and a high proportion of the books on the shortlist were illustrated with drawings rather than photographs. The illustrator should have equal billing with the author – the illustrator’s job is at least as hard as the writer’s and is at least as important in drawing in readers and aiding their understanding. Judging made me pay attention to how the long-listed books were structured, their content, the balance of words and pictures, the impact of design – all the features that make up a book. The winning title was superb – a perfect blend of images and words. And it was dip-into-able so that any reader, however confident or unconfident, could discover something fascinating.
The prize is really important in recognising the contribution of educational and information books for young people. There are so many prizes for fiction, so many platforms for fiction writers and illustrators, yet around half of children would rather read information books. It’s vital to reflect and endorse the interests of those readers, not just those who like stories. Ideally, young readers should enjoy both equally, but information books have little public exposure. That can’t be a nice feeling for the young people who enjoy reading them – we owe them more respect and recognition.
What non-fiction books inspired you when you were growing up?
That’s a really interesting question! My absolute favourite was a series of animal encyclopaedias we had on the shelves. There were 13 volumes. I must have read them all cover to cover, though not in order – just picking out an animal at random every now and then, but there were a few favourites. I also had a lot of Ladybird guides. The Ladybird book about Queen Elizabeth I was one I read again and again. My favourite picture was of Elizabeth on a horse addressing her troops. Also an I-Spy book of the seaside, a book of British birds and a book of fossils.