by Ben Hoare
As a boy I adored non-fiction above all else. My head was swimming with sharks. Then came dinosaurs, trains, aircraft, castles, planets, the Romans, birds. I’m obsessed by birds still.
Perhaps, like me, you grew up in a happy home overflowing with books. Like me, you found that reading came early and easily. Like me, you looked forwards to Saturday trips to the local library (preferably followed by jumbo sausage and chips). Like me, your days always began and ended with a book.
If so, like me, you find it hard to conceive of a childhood without books.
On the wrong side of the tracks, however, life is about survival, books non-existent. To begin with, this was the only life our daughters knew. Safe in foster care, they started to recover. Even so, when they came to us, one usually refused to read and the other barely could. Books were just something convenient to hurl across the room in a rage.
Chaotic homes are not the only ones without books. Far from it. A study for the National Literacy Trust reported in 2011 that one in three British households were bookless. Six years later, the same organisation found that 750,000 children in the UK did not own a single book. Then you need to factor in the impact of widespread library closures and cuts to children’s services. According to Action for Children, up to 1,000 children’s centres have closed since 2010.
Becoming an adoptive parent has shown me the phenomenal power of books and their ability to transform lives. As a bookworm and non-fiction author – I’m features editor for a popular wildlife magazine and write natural-history books – I had never really anticipated that one day I might have children who found reading a struggle and a chore. But it turns out that books have been an important part of our bonding process.
It has been amazing to watch our brave, beautiful girls finally embrace books and the novelty of dad reading to them at bedtime. Sometimes I have felt like a proud gardener who, having taken over a new plot and given it much-needed TLC, sees long-neglected plants suddenly burst into life and bear spectacular fruit.
When I started work on a new family wildlife encyclopedia for DK, I began to involve my girls in my writing. The idea was that each evening I would read to them what I’d produced that day. Very quickly I realised that they were the perfect audience. They would go: “Boo-ring, daddy!” “That word’s way too difficult.” “What is a rhino’s poo like, anyway?”
Next morning, I’d be back at my laptop, reworking what I’d written the day before.
I found myself writing children’s non-fiction as a narrative to be read aloud, something that could be enjoyed together at bedtime. When describing pangolins and platypuses, sea slugs and skunks, I tried to be playful yet accurate, whimsical yet informative. With absolutely no boring stuff.
This is a guest post from author Ben Hoare, and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of FCBG. Ben Hoare’s latest book is An Anthology of Intriguing Animals (DK, £20), out now.