Tuesday, 9 July 2013

How to tell the truth - Anne Rooney

Legal, honest, decent and truthful - it's not all bad!

Most of the posts on ABBA are about stories and story-telling. Or they're about school visits or libraries and how important these are for firing children's imaginations and getting them to write their own stories. There are very few posts about non-fiction. Yet more non-fiction books are published than fiction books.

Even the term is negative - books that are about true things we label by what they aren't. It's as if we called children non-adults, or cats non-dogs. There a lot of things that are not dogs and some of them are a lot more interesting than cats (or dogs, in fact). There are a lot of books that are not fiction, and they certainly aren't all the same. An engineering textbook is non-fiction. So is a sticker book about the royal family, or a recipe book, or a picture book about birds, or a political memoir. So is Plato's Republic, Lamb's Essays of Elia, Hooke's Micrographia, de Beauvoir's Second Sex. Some true books are exciting, some are not. Some are well-written, some are not. Just the same as fiction.

Parents (and even teachers) sometimes complain that children - usually boys - 'won't read' when they just don't read stories. It's still reading if the words tell the truth, you know. I'm not dissing stories, or denying their value. I spend half my time writing stories (and the other half telling the truth). Of course, stories tell the truth at a deeper level. Of course they fuel imagination. But the literal truth is worth reading and writing, too. The literal truth fuels imagination.

All the material for stories comes from facts. Stories work because they play with the truth, blending actuality with possibility. Facts are inspiring and wonder-inducing. They spark our imagination. They make us want to share them, or to write stories to explore them. Fact and fiction can play happily together. One isn't better than the other. Here are five facts which I challenge you not to find awe-inspiring, ranging from wonderful to horrific. Children find these awe-inspiring. What have we lost as adults if we don't?

1. Life first evolved 2.3 billion years ago, but eyes didn't even start to evolve until 600 million years ago. All those early organisms went unseen and unseeing. Isn't that creepy?

2. Up to half the population of Europe died in the Black Death. Imagine that - half the people you know, wiped out in weeks, society in ruins around you, starvation following in its wake. Who needs to read a dystopian novel?

3. There are ten times as many non-human cells in the human body as there are human cells. You're home to a LOT of microorganisms. Does it make your skin crawl? You're in the minority in your own body.

4. We don't know what makes up 98% of the mass of the universe - it's not the stuff we can see. What could it be? Parallel universes in the same space? Consciousness? God? Something we can't even conceive of?

5. This is how slaves were moved around the world:



Facts are a toybox for the imagination. You can even make up stories with them, if you like.

Anne Rooney
(StroppyAuthor)

11 comments:

Ann Turnbull said...

I totally agree, Anne. Have never liked the "non" either, and object to the way that fiction is always assumed to be superior. (This certainly wasn't the case if you go back a few centuries.) At around 11 I remember being riveted by The Kontiki Expedition, and right now I'm reading a history book that is as gripping as any novel. As for that slave ship picture, it was in my mind as I wrote the slave ship scenes in my novel Seeking Eden. In the novel I focused on one man, but in some ways the sheer mundaneness of that packaging diagram is more horrific than anything I could make up.

alex.woolf said...

Great post, Anne. And some mind-bending facts!

Catherine Butler said...

Great post. And it links with another bugbear-cub of mine, which is that children who read a lot of non-fiction - especially if they're not doing it in a traditional book - are often dubbed non-readers. This is something that happens to boys, especially, as far as I can see. It's annoying for them, but also dismissive of non-fiction as writers!

Catherine Butler said...

Or, "as writing"...

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, Anne - we need reminding sometimes that non-fiction shouldn't be the poor relation!

I once asked a group of final-year teaching students if they'd ever heard a teacher express concern about a boy who only ever read non-fiction; about half put their hands up. Then I asked how many had ever heard the same concern expressed about a girl who only read fiction. One hand went up. Which was, to be honest, more than I expected.

Sue Bursztynski said...

When we used to have reading lessons in the library where I work, I can recall teachers snapping at kids with a non-fiction book,"Put that away right now and get a novel!" And then there are those who sigh, "Oh, well, it's better than not reading at all."

As the author of several books of true stories written for entertainment, it makes me pound my head in my hands. As teacher-librarian, I often persuaded teachers to let the kids read one of our entertainment non fic books. As an English teacher, I can remember a difficult class quieting down to listen when I read some bizarre piece of news and asking, "Miss, is that TRUE?"

But bookshops have no idea where to put non fiction for children. So they don't sell well and publishers stop buying them. Sigh!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Absolutely right, and I'm ashamed to admit that I'd never before thought about how derogatory that 'non' word is. Thanks, Anne.

Mary Hoffman said...

The SLA Information Book Awards chose their title for the very reason you mention, Anne.

It's like calling Women "non-men." Oh, wait a minute ....

adele said...

Nothing to add. Quite brilliant post and timely too.

Sue Purkiss said...

Excellent post! Er - if there are any publishers listening, I for one would love to write some non-fiction...

Seriously, when I taught and did library lessons, my view was that any reading was good. Grown-up people don't all read novels, so why should small people? (Though I hope they'll read novels as well!)

David Thorpe said...

Great post, Anne, I also agree. I've done a couple of factual books for kids, one was designed as a comic book because I thought that was a style kids would like. It takes real imagination to make facts engaging.