How many times have you heard of or witnessed a child being told to choose a 'proper book' rather than, say, a book about pirates or cars or football, a book of funny science facts, or a book of riddles or jokes? Why? Why we should we tell a child what they are supposed to enjoy when choosing to read for pleasure? And why is reading 'not real reading' if it doesn't include a portion of stuff that is made up? If a child prefers tennis to football, we don't say that's not a proper sport. If they prefer bananas to apples, or fish to chicken, we don't say it's not proper food. It's not as though non-fiction books are unhealthy, or take any less skill to read, or demand less of the child's intellect or ability to project imaginatively or to empathise. And, curiously, it seems to be the other way round when it comes to watching TV. How many people would rather their child watched a wildlife documentary or Newsround than Hollyoaks or another re-run of Friends?
Of course, Shackleton's Journey is a story, it's just a true one. It may not be fiction, but it is narrative. Is story the only valid structure for pleasurable reading? Of course not. And to defend the pleasures of non-fiction by recourse to narrative is cowardly. Non-fiction offers much more than narrative. Released from the straitjacket of having to be made up and have a narrative arc, books can explore further afield. They can explain, reveal, instruct, question, describe, list, amuse, astound.
The child who bores everyone at Christmas reading out endless facts or jokes from their new book is getting pleasure from reading, and it's a social pleasure that helps build their communication and interpersonal skills as well as their skills in reading and processing information. Understanding jokes takes a particular type of mental agility with language - it's a serious business. The child who reads the technical details of vehicles is processing complex and often mathematical or scientific information. They are comparing and evaluating. These are skills we value. And the child is enjoying doing it - where's the harm?
There is a dirty pleasure involved in the reading of non-fiction. It's the elephant in the room. Let's look at it face on. It's thrilling to acquire new knowledge. Thinking about things in a deep and meaningful way is a rewarding and pleasurable experience. Challenging and stretching your mind is fun. There's the bit of pride in knowing something that other people don't know - that appeals to children ('did you know...?') But more than that, there's the feeling of new vistas of potential discovery opening up, and of things falling into place, of making sense of the world, and the wonder at realising there is so much more to everything than you ever suspected. (There is also something I call cognitive angst which is the opposite of this, and comes with knowing enough to realise how little you know, but I don't think that hits in school years, so we'll leave that for now.)
Why is this pleasure, which readers can gorge on in non-fiction books, not spoken about and celebrated? I think it's because intellectual effort and its rewards are considered elitist and divisive, even in schools. There is so much effort put into making learning 'easy' and 'fun' that the thrill of learning and understanding something hard has been pushed under the classroom mat. It makes the mat rather lumpy at circle time, but it can be easily stamped down. You can pretend you know things by listing the ingredients in a Harry Potter potion. You'll get more kudos for that than for knowing how antibiotics work, how a spacesuit protects an astronaut, or how to make an engine. The child (usually a girl) who wants to read about horses can indulge in horsey stories with facts slipped in like hidden vegetables in a pie, but the child who wants to read about trucks or computers is stuck with a geeky label and a 'not proper' book. This is actually shameful. It is a despicable tyranny, even. When did knowing things and wanting to know things and enjoying learning become something to hide, even in schools? And why does no one recognise the disconnect: we want more STEM graduates, but if you're eight and you want to read about molecules, well - put that back and laugh about how the Wimpy Kid screws up at school (an easy pleasure, no challenge to anyone else).
Perhaps the most iniquitous aspect of it all is that the children who are struggling suffer the most. They are most in need of sensing the excitement that knowledge can bring, so that it spurs them on to want to learn and to read. These children, many of them boys, often don't see the point in reading stories. For them, reading is a means to an end. The end is knowledge, even if it's not 'proper' knowledge, but information about sport or computer games or skateboarding. They enjoy knowing it, and will read to get that - so let them! Knowledge - information - non-fiction - can be a gateway drug to all kinds of reading and to success in life. So why shut the gate in the face of a child who wants to step through and start the journey? Why insist they take another path that they will 'learn to enjoy'? Fiction might be an acquired taste for some children, like olives. But - like a taste for olives - it doesn't matter if they never acquire it as long as they are enjoying themselves reading something else. Reading for pleasure is reading what you want to read, whatever it is. How can that be so hard to grasp?
Next week (19th July) I'm chairing an event at Waterstones Piccadilly, called Adventures in the Real World
and it's all about reading for pleasure. But not 'normal' books. It's about reading those books you have to hide under the desk and aren't allowed to
choose when you go to the library - books about things that are true.
There's a brilliant panel lined up, so if you want to hear what some better qualified people have to say about this, come along and listen to Jenny Broom (publisher, and author of Animalium), Dawn Finch (president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Informational Professionals, and author), Nicola Morgan (author, and expert on the brain and how reading affects it) and Zoe Toft (children's book consultant at Playing by the Book).
Currently writing about: astrobiology, dinosaurs, astronomy, maths.