Saturday, 9 July 2016

Adventures in the real world - Anne Rooney

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?

There are many different types of pleasure to be gained from reading. One of those kinds is escape into an imaginary world - the pleasure offered by fiction. But that is only enjoyable because, however implausible the setting and action, we recognise that the emotions and behaviour of the characters are realistic - they are true to life. We enjoy recognising the true bits. Indeed, it can make no difference to the degree of empathy and imagination involved whether the story we engage with is made up or true. Shackleton's heroism in saving his colleagues is every bit as inspiring and engaging as the actions of a fictional hero. In fact, I'd say it's more inspiring and engaging for being true.

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).

Anne Rooney

Currently writing about: astrobiology, dinosaurs, astronomy, maths.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, yes, in my library career I have indeed heard teachers tell boys - and it was mostly boys - to put down that book about cars or planes and get a novel! Fortunately the so-called reading classes are long gone, replaced by a literacy program in which students are given plenty of choice, including non fiction.

I can remember reading an article in the paper about encouraging boys to read, with a suggested reading list and not one book on the list was non fiction! Needless to say, my polite letter saying so was not published. The article's author was a very popular writer of humorous children's fiction. I suppose it wouldn't do to upset him.

And then there are those who mutter, "Oh, well, at least they're reading..." Even, it is implied, if it's not a real book! I've heard that even at a writers' festival.

Like you, I'm the author of a fair bit of non fiction, including articles and education books and some trade books, which makes me biased, but I'm also a librarian and I check books out to them. Unfortunately, here, at least, it's difficult to make a living out of any writing - impossible if you don't have a partner to pay the bills while you build up your profile. But non fiction is hardest, not because the kids don't love it, but because book shops have no idea how to display non fiction. And education publishers here are now only accepting the work of their stable of writers and not interested in anyone else. I lost one market, Cengage,when the Primary publisher left and was replaced by a man who just didn't want me(I'm still getting decent royalties from a non fiction book published by them back in 2002!)

I'm glad to see that you, at least, are making a living out of non fiction. Have a great time at your Waterstones session - if someone invents a teleport before then, I will certainly be there. :-)

Becca McCallum said...

Here's a true story: when I was at primary school I would have stared in disbelief if anyone had suggested that when I was older I might prefer non-fiction books to fiction books. Don't get me wrong - I still love reading 'made up' stories (although they are more likely to be kids or young adult fiction than 'grown up' books) but now I can also appreciate (and indeed devour) books of travels, geography, history, science, etc.

I bought the Shackleton's Journey book for myself - I love polar exploration stories, and the illustrations were so appealing.

Susan Price said...

I've puublished only non-fiction but 100% agree with this post. I've read a lot of non-fiction, both as a child and adult and would argue that non-fiction perhaps demands a little more of the reader than fiction. In fiction, you can let the story wash over you, or by you, so to speak. But a lot of non-fiction demands that you understand. Maybe you can read the biography of a sports personality without needing to understand much, but that 8 year old trying to learn about molecules has to read, understand and remember. And then build on that acquired knowledge.

I don't understand this notion that fiction (and I love fiction!) is somehow more important or better than non-fiction. I was brought up in a house where all reading was encouraged - comics like the Beano and Dandy (which we laughed over with our Dad), fiction and loads of non-fiction too. I'd be reading a book about how Viking ships were built, my brother would be studying one about ancient Greek armour or dinosaurs, my sister would be looking at one on origami - while my mother would be reading about how to grow cacti and my Dad one about ecology.

And as an adult writer, I'm always researching with non-fiction books: the psychology of psychopaths, medieval farming methods, blood diseases, drove roads of Scotland, Viking warfare, bird habitats - the list is never ending.

Equality for non-fiction!

Emma Barnes said...

It's funny isn't it? Once fiction was really frowned on - definitely the lightweight option - remember Mr Collins and his shock and horror that the Bennett sisters might choose to read novels, not sermons? And not children are being told off for choosing facts over stories.

I was a fiction addict for the first part of my life, but now I increasingly dive into non-fiction - usually history. So I'm quite impressed with all those kids who saw the point of it long before I did.

Stroppy Author said...

Sue B, I do wish someone would invent a teleporter - it would be so great to meet you in the flesh!
Becca - yes, reading habits evolve and change. Children need to have whatever they like to read celebrated. They are more likely to widen their reading diet if reading brings pleasure and endorsement, whether that widening is towards fiction or non-fiction.
Sue P - I love your point about non-fiction being more intellectually active. Do you mind if I nick that point for the event if an opportunity comes up?
Emma - yes; Boccaccio was defending fiction against claims of it being heretical, damnable lies 600 years ago. Even people who think they don't read non-fiction do, just not in books: magazines, newspapers, sites like Brain-Pickings. It's everywhere.

Andy Seed said...

Well done, Anne - spot on, as always, on the important subject of publishing's Cinderella sector. I'd also like to add a point about the breadth of non-fiction.
Those who exclude non-fiction from lists, recommendations, festivals, awards, bookshop shelves etc are looking away from an incredible, diverse range of types of books. As well as information books non-fic encompasses biography, miscellanies, manuals, puzzle books, joke books, TV/film tie-ins, travel guides, handbooks, activity books and quizzes - all of which can be routes into reading for children and therefore have value.
Every child, however reluctant he/she is to read, is interested in something and by giving that child a good non-fic book on that subject a powerful incentive to read can be instantly created and a negative attitude to books can be be turned around.
I too really wish I was there at the meeting on 19th July since I am a non-fic author who specialises in using #CNFbooks to promote reading for pleasure (and will be writing a book about the subject soon) but am geographically excluded.