Sunday, 22 November 2015

Don't stop children reading facty books - by Nicola Morgan

Two notes first:
It's National Non-fiction November, hence this topic. I've also blogged on the lack of respect in some quarters for non-fiction and on the importance of facty books for dyslexic readers, all in support of #NNFN.

You'll notice I use different words to describe "non-fiction". I don't really mind which we use. I rather like facty. "Fiction" can have facts in, too, and "non-fiction" can have imagination, narrative and drama. But what we tend to call non-fiction majors on its factual truths, so I like facty.



Recently, a parent told me that "non-fiction" had been removed from (or banned - I'm not quite sure) her son's school. Even though I've heard of this on another occasion, I find it hard to believe so let's say at least that there was a teacher who thought boys would be better not reading fact-based books for pleasure.

Why? Apparently, among other things, because non-fiction doesn't boost empathy.

Oh gosh.

I know where this comes from. It comes from some research - many small studies - which does suggest that fiction has an important role to play in developing empathy. (Read Such Stuff as Dreams for some detail.) Although there's lots of interesting and thought-provoking content to that book and this research, and although I believe that yes, fiction does have a role to play in empathy-building, and that the act of "narrative transportation" into the minds of other people is important for developing one's own mind and Theory of Mind, I urge caution before you wrap yourself in the blanket of some of the conclusions.

For example, it's not surprising that, when a beautifully-written piece of fiction (a Chekov short story is a specific example) is turned into a dull piece of non-fiction (a courtroom transcript, in this case), the people reading the short story might increase in empathy (on certain measures) more than the others.

This doesn't prove anything other than, perhaps, that people reading beautiful writing by a master writer can engage on a more personal level than people reading a piece of dud dullness. It fails to acknowledge the potential of the best words in the best order. It fails to acknowledge (because it wasn't looking at that) whether other things promote empathy, such as having a loving parent or carer to both show empathy and give insights into how other people feel.

However, imagine for a moment that it had been proven that fiction boosts empathy and that non-fiction (any of it, from a dictionary to the most elegant narrative non-fiction) doesn't. 

Even in that case, telling people that they shouldn't read any non-fiction because it doesn't increase empathy is like telling people they shouldn't eat fruit because it doesn't contain protein and therefore won't help their cells regenerate. Or not to eat asparagus because it doesn't contain iron or not to drink milk because milk doesn't contain vitamin C.

I hope you get my point.

My other point is that by telling half the school population (boys, in the example given) that their first choice (often) of reading material is not worth their time both undermines them quite horribly and risks turning them off reading forever. It is misguided and counter-productive. It doesn't make sense. 

Parents, please don't listen to anyone who tells your sons or your daughters not to read non-fiction, information books, facty books, whatever you want to call them. What you want is your sons and daughters first to read and then to read more. Isn't it hard enough to get young people (often especially boys) to read, without making it a load less attractive and judging them negatively for it? Reading for pleasure, anyone? The clue is in the word "pleasure".

SO, people, tell me: what are your recommended facty reads? Tell me the title, writer+illustrator, and what sort of reader you think would love it. And maybe some lucky young readers will receive something really inspiring this Christmas! 

Btw, if you'd like to give one to a child in difficult circumstances, then DO check out the annual Blackwells book tree.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm a teacher librarian and the author of several "facty" books. At one stage, we had a weekly "reading" period - thank heavens, long gone and replaced by a daily literacy period that has some reading involved, both fiction and non fiction. The so-called reading periods involved kids grabbing a book from the shelves and pretending to read it for the next forty five minutes while the teacher used the time to catch up with whatever they wanted to do, or read a newspaper. Then the kids would throw their novels back on the trolley for me to re-shelve, only once in a while actually borrowing anything. And in those sessions I saw teachers order boys(it was usually boys) to put back the book about cars or planes or whatever topic actually interested them and replace it with a novel. Sometimes I was able to persuade the teachers to let their students read a non fiction for pleasure book, part of a series written to entertain young readers, eg the It's True! series published by Allen and Unwin. Sometimes.

I have had times with my own classes where I found some over-the-top newspaper article about some bizarre incident that had really happened and started reading it aloud. The noisy class hushed. "Miss, is that true?" some normally badly behaved boy would ask in a tone of awe. When I assured them it was, they would be quite happy to discuss it. If it had been fiction, it just wouldn't have been the same.

I've been to writers' festivals where some panellist would say of non fiction, "Oh, well, at least they're reading..." in that patronising tone used by people who know nothing about children and their reading habits. I wanted to jump up from my seat and scream.

catdownunder said...

I was in our local library the other day when I heard a squeal of delight from an adult. "I remember that!"
They have reprinted some of M Sasek's "This is London/Paris/New York" etc; books and she had grabbed the London one from the shelf. The next minute she was sitting on the floor with two children and they were looking at it together. I remember those books too.
A really good non-fiction book can stay in the memory and do just as much to boost the imagination as a fiction book.
My Singaporean Chinese godson loves Mitchell Symons's books - wacky books about the human body told with that certain sense of humour which appeals particularly to boys.

Susan Price said...

Well, as a writer of fiction, I'm gob-smacked by this 'non-fiction is not as good as fiction' nonsense.
My (uneducated, degree-less) parents always said of their four children, 'Let them read what they want, and enjoy it.' As a result, we read fiction, non-fiction, comics, magazines, newspapers, backs of cereal packets... As a pre-writer, I was learning the whole range of expression possible.
And when I want to research Mars, or Neanderthals, Czarist Russia or 16th Century life on the Scottish Borders, I turn to non-fiction. Where else?
I read non-fiction for pleasure too - Gaia by Lovelock - The Dinosaur Heresies by Bakka - How to Build A Wildlife Pond... All human life is in non-fiction, just as much as, or perhaps even more than, in fiction.

Ann Turnbull said...

I don't remember reading much non-fiction as a child (though there certainly was no ban on it), but when I was about 12 I was enthralled by "The Kon-Tiki Expedition" by Thor Heyerdahl (it would have been the original 1953 edition.) I suppose that sort of adventure is halfway between non-fiction and fiction, but it was the factual aspects that fascinated me.

As Susan says, if you write historical novels you will read plenty of non-fiction for research - including n/f aimed at children, which is so beautifully produced and full of pictures. How could anyone discourage children from reading all those lovely books about dinosaurs, or wildlife, or spaceships, etc? My son grew up reading those kinds of books and is now teaching Renaissance literature at a university.

I'm currently reading The Time-Traveller's Guide to Elizabeth England by Ian Mortimer. I also recently loved The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr, and The Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser. I also read anything about knitting. For Christmas I'm giving two of my young relatives non-fiction books that I found recommended on Awfully Big Reviews.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Does anyone remember when they used to produce those gorgeous children's magazines? In my case, it was Mind Alive, though there were others. Every week, I collected the latest issue, with sections on history, science and other such stuff. I still have them, bound. I learned from where I could. I learned about Nero's full name and the story of Rhodopis, Pharoah and the slippers of fur from comics! Kids do. As a writer if non fiction for entertainment for kids, I love learning something new when I research. Why shouldn't they love it too?

Nicola Morgan said...

Sue, yes! For me it was Tell Me Why. Loved those things!

Nick Green said...

Another day, another generalisation so glib it could win the Michael Gove Prize.

I do wonder what was actually said in this instance, and how it was interpreted etc.

The mere definition of non-fiction resists any such generalisations, in any case. 'Wild Swans' is non-fiction. It's as powerful as any novel. The fact of 'being made up' does not increase empathic qualities, otherwise we'd all burst into tears over The Da Vinci Code (which we do, though not for that reason).

So really this boils down to: Somebody said something. It was wrong. Ignore them and move on.

Nicola Morgan said...

Nick, I would agree if it weren't for two things. First, this wasn't an isolated incident. Second, trust me, the actual circs of this incident meant it wasn't something I could ignore and move on from!