“I don’t see that there is a hard boundary between fact and fiction. Look at any great works of fiction and you find truthful information about the real world – portraits of Victorian poverty and social injustice in Dickens or the pin sharp critique of the Russian revolution in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Photography is supposedly the most “non fictional” medium of all, but you only have to reflect for a moment about how you’ve cropped your own pictures on facebook to know that photography’s credentials as non fiction are not impeccable.
My point is that the line between fiction and non fiction is at best made with a wiggly crayon and that trying to draw it with an indelible marker is actually getting in the way of children’s learning and their enjoyment of reading.
I’m interested in igniting the spark of curiosity in my readers. My aim is to start a fire so big it can consume the world of information and burn for a lifetime. And the best way I know for doing that is using narrative. It’s an incredibly flexible and robust device – it can hold information about the deepest tides and currents in our nature, the instructions for making a soup or the life history of a polar bear. Narrative is good at providing combustible material in exactly the right form to get those sparks crackling away. A search engine provides you with a whole freshly-cut tree. Just ask Ray Mears how good that is for firestarting. Narrative breaks knowledge into nice dry twigs and feeds them to the flames at exactly the right rate.
Narrative works by creating story space, that liminal region, a territory between the exterior world and the interior world of emotion and reflection. In it, boundaries are dissolved, the real and the imagined are combined in unique cocktails of experience, allowing us new insights into the world and our place within it. It is my business as a writer to create the narrative that shapes a story space. Sometimes those narratives last for 300 pages, sometimes for sixteen spreads and sometimes for just a few lines. Sometimes those narratives are found stories – real things that I pick up off the ground – and sometimes they are entirely invented, poems, myths, made only from a weave of words. The information I put in the story space they create may be factual: the diet of a bat, the number of eggs a turtle lays; or it may be emotional: how you feel when you are close to a wild animal, or when you have promised to plant a whole forest. For me, this combining fact and fiction offers the opportunity to trace and convey the meaning that the natural world has for humans, and the role it plays in all our lives.
The division of non fiction from fiction, and the lack of attention to the role of narrative in conveying information about the real world has helped to erode the status of libraries, particularly in schools. The line of thought goes something like this: Learning is about putting facts in your head. Facts are things you look up, and you used to look up facts in a library. That’s what libraries are for. But if facts come from the internet, why then do you need a library?
With so very much information easily available a child is at risk of being swamped by an overload of facts, demotivated by over exposure (see Ray Mears and the tree above). What narrative non fiction offers is a route, a guide, a companion, a means and motivation for finding out, and structure in which to place new information.
A good narrative doesn’t carry all the facts – just enough to make the reader want more; it infects the reader with curiosity, the most virulent and powerful way to create self-motivated learners, who will become the curators of their own minds throughout life. And good narratives are not the strong point of google search.
There is a perception that children’s non fiction books aren’t proper books: I’ve been asked if I ever write “real picture books”; I’ve heard librarians tell children not to look in the non fiction section but to look for a “real book” and I’ve encountered teachers who don’t count non fiction as reading at all. I think this is at least in part a gender issue: women tend not to read non fiction and most teachers and librarians are women. But ladies, we need boys to read too, and what men and boys like are stories drawn from the real world. Also, girls need to read about more than fairies and witches if we are to raise female scientists and engineers.
The last twenty years has divided the world into Harry Potter on one side and google search on the other. This doesn’t help anyone. Fantasy is not the only kind of narrative and ramming in lists of facts is not how we learn. We don’t even learn only with our brains, but with our bodies, our hearts, our souls. We need to rethink our concept of learning, and of how we learn best. We are made of stories, our very lives have a beginning, a middle and an end and is it any wonder, then, that the way we learn best is through them?”
Our thanks go to Nicola for her thought-provoking post today.
Nicola Davies is an award-winning author, whose many books for children include ‘A First Book of Nature’, ‘Tiny’, ‘The Promise’, ‘Ice Bear’, ‘Big Blue Whale’, ‘Dolphin Baby’, ‘Just Ducks!’, ‘I (Don’t) Like Snakes’, ‘Poo’ and the Heroes of the Wild series. She graduated in zoology, studied whales and bats and then worked for the BBC Natural History Unit. You can find out more about Nicola on her website http://www.nicola-davies.com/, or by following her on Twitter, @nicolakidsbooks.
‘A First Book of Animals’ by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Petr Horáček, is out now in hardback, £14.99. ‘I (Don’t) Like Snakes’ by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Luciano Lozano, is out now in paperback, £6.99.