The Power of Non-Fiction

Chris Lloyd newspaper imageENGLAND, WE HAVE A PROBLEM. According to the latest Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education report our young adults have amongst the lowest literacy rates of any country in the modern industrialised world. England came 22nd out the 24 countries surveyed.

What is going on? It seems that for at least a generation all significant attempts by government and educationalists to nurture a love of reading amongst younger people appear to have failed.

Recently I was asked to speak at the Federation of Children’s Books Groups annual conference, at Bradfield College near Reading. It is an august organisation dedicated to instilling a love of reading in young people. The gathering, now in its twentieth year, was packed with teachers, book lovers and educationalists.

‘How wonderfully refreshing to have a non-fiction author speaking’ said one delegate after I had given my 60 minutes romp through the history of the world, with a giant Wallbook timeline as a backdrop.

Why, I wondered, should being a ‘non fiction’ author be such a big deal? In my world stories about the real world are so much more amazing than any number of fantasies you can dream up in your mind. If you love truly amazing stories then non-fiction’s the place for you…. Most children I speak to seem to agree.

Facts, how things work, encyclopaedias, maps, explorers, books about nature, superheroes and villains from the past – in my experience this is the stuff that really sets off fireworks in many young brains. World records, bloody wars, space travel, Titanic….. to many youngsters these stories are no less incredible than Harry Potter or Spiderman.

As adults we forget that to the young mind reality is often far more magical than fiction. It’s only as we grow older that social conventions condition us into thinking that the world around us is ‘normal’ – far from it!

Take the birth of a child – it is a stunningly extraordinary occurrence. To any rational mind, the self-assembling mechanics of foetal embryological development utterly defy ordinary comprehension. And just because a new baby is born on average 370,000 times worldwide every day doesn’t make it ‘ordinary’. Frequency should never undermine wonder. In fact, to a curious young mind the more often something amazing happens, the more extraordinary it is!

I recall visiting the Picasso museum in Barcelona with my wife and two young children when we were on our travels in a campervan around Europe. One display board explained how it was this great artist’s adult ambition to learn once again how to paint like a child. I remember how powerfully I was moved by his attempt to rediscover a sense of wonder and curiosity about the everyday world. His paintings now seem to make so much more sense.

For most of us grown-ups the extraordinary world around us has long since become mundane and fascination for fact is often substituted by an addiction to fiction – as is shown by the difference in sales each week between fiction and non-fiction titles.

As I left the talk I gave to the Federation, that woman’s voice kept reverberating around my mind. Why did she say it was such a novelty having a non-fiction author give a talk at a conference on reading and children’s books?

Then a penny dropped. Almost without exception the books that are generally used to promote literacy in schools are popular reading schemes based on a diet of fictional stories, graded into levels that can easily be monitored and measured. Using the same set of books for every child means they can be measured against each other – ideal for an adult-centred approach to assessing performance in schools.

Now put yourself in the mind of a reluctant child who is being taught to read via such a scheme. The question most likely to be going through their mind will be this:

Why on earth are these adult bullies forcing me to learn how to read something that I am not interested in anyway? What’s the point when I want to be outside playing with my friends?

And if the educating adult were being brutally honest, I suspect the answer may well be this:

Because it’s my job. Because I want to help you succeed in life. Because it’s my responsibility to help you pass your tests…..(which means I will be praised by your parents and the head teacher and the school will look good in its league tables….).

But all is not lost.

On Thursday this week schools all over the UK will have the chance to celebrate National Non-Fiction Day, now in its third year – a relatively new initiative organised by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.

Now imagine a young boy who happens to have a fascination with space travel. His teacher asks him to find a book from the library that he finds interesting. He chooses one about the true story of those astronauts who failed to reach the moon on Apollo 13 and only just managed to return to Earth in what remained of their spaceship after it had exploded.

Now he is taking a book he wants to read because he is following his own natural curiosity about something he is already interested in. And the best way for him to find out more is… to learn how to read.

England – we do not have a problem. We just need to remind ourselves again and again that children learn best through their natural curiosity. When and where they will learn to read doesn’t much matter. Far more important is to ensure we do not diminish their built-in light-bulb of fascination for the world around them by forcing them into senseless reading schemes many of which have little natural context, meaning or purpose to a young spongy mind.

This article appeared in the Weekend Telegraph, p.13 on Saturday 2nd November 2013