Non-fiction is a powerful tool for encouraging children to read. The Federation of Children’s Book Groups is passionate about celebrating the power of non-fiction and so I recently asked Nicola Davies, author of multiple non-fiction books for children for her thoughts on the genre.
“As a parent, as an auntie (and great auntie) and as a writer for young people, there is a List of Good Things that I want for the children in my life: health; fulfilling careers; a home; someone to love. But all those things can be snatched away in a moment and, for many of the children with whom I come into contact, some, or even all, of the things on that List are never going to be available. So what robust gift can the Good Fairies bring that will endure life’s downers and offer children something that will sustain them for life, no matter what?
I suggest curiosity.
Curiosity is the most universally useful of gifts. With curiosity in your possession you automatically enter into a conversation with the world around you, asking ‘why?’ and ‘what?’, ‘where?’ and ‘who?’ and ‘how?’. And because you have this great gift, every answer the world offers you generates further questions. So, almost by accident, you learn, and you go on learning, (a process which may well help you to gain quite a few of the original items on the Good Things List). The individually distinct way in which you deploy your curiosity causes you to become the curator of your own collection of knowledge and experiences, a collection which can withstand heartbreaks and hardships in a way that items on The List cannot. In your very darkest hour, when you feel turned inwards, caught like a fly in a web of your disasters, curiosity can turn you from the interior shadows outwards, back into the world.
Given that most of us aren’t magical beings, one way to sprinkle pixie dust on kids and impart to them the gift of curiosity, is get them reading good non-fiction. And by good non-fiction I mean, non-fiction written by somebody who is themselves in possession of the gift of curiosity, for whom there are always more questions to ask. Good non-fiction doesn’t overload readers with information, but feeds them just enough, in the right way, to stimulate their next question. That is what the internet doesn’t yet offer. It’s great if you already know whether to ask ‘why?’, ‘what?’ or ‘where?’ but if you don’t, you risk being engulfed by facts you can’t relate to, smothering the spark of curiosity at its first glimmer.
I take my responsibilities as the author of non-fiction for young children extremely seriously, but you can’t put a log on top of a spark and expect flames to leap up, so any big tree of knowledge has to be broken into twigs, to coax that little spark into life. This is always hard. There are difficult decisions about what twigs to leave out. I wanted to put all the stories I knew about man-eating lions and tigers into ‘Deadly’ but then I would have had to have left out some other thread of information. In the end it was more important to offer readers a greater diversity of twigs, any one of which might take that smouldering glimmer to the next level.
There are problems of simplification too. In ‘Tiny’ I set out to introduce the youngest readers to microbiology; so, did I try to explain the difference between bacteria and viruses to an audience who don’t know what DNA is? I settled for just getting over the simplest of messages: that there are many amazing life forms too small to see that have an enormous impact on our world. It’s not the whole story of course, but it’s a start, and hopefully just the right sort of twiggy stuff to turn sparks into big hot leaping fires that will burn for a lifetime.”
‘Deadly’ by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Neal Layton is out now, published by Walker Books
‘Tiny’ by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton will be published June 2014 by Walker Books
One of the ways we at the FCBG encourage a love of non-fiction is through our annual National Non-Fiction Day event on the first Thursday of November. Each year we focus on a particular non-fiction experience and we are always interested to hear suggestions for future events. There is still just enough time to enter this year’s competition to design an inventions/discoveries timeline – full details can be found here.