NNFN: The power of stories – A guest post from Isabel Thomas

Today’s guest post is brought to us by Isabel Thomas. Isabel is a science writer and primary school governor. Her biographies for children include The World’s First Women Doctors, The Misadventures of Charles Darwin, the graphic text Great Artists, and How To Change the World, shortlisted for the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2016. She writes for children’s science magazine Whizz Pop Bang, and is currently consulting for the University of Oxford on the Parents for STEM Futures project.


“Fiction is stories, and non-fiction is facts.” When I ask children to describe non-fiction, this is the most common reply.

In the past it reflected what children saw in libraries, bookshops and literacy lessons – the delineation of fiction as a portal to adventure, and non-fiction as the place to get your homework done.

Happily, we’re increasingly recognising that stories lie at the heart of great non-fiction too, especially stories of lives well lived.

Science biographies are enjoying a moment in the spotlight. Andrea Wulf has just won the prestigious Royal Society Insight Investment Prize for her biography of Alexander von Humbolt. Two collections of biographies – How to Change the World and Rebel Science – have been shortlisted for the children’s version of the prize. Books such as Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World and Women in Science are topping bestseller charts.

After Wulf’s win, a journalist suggested that focusing on people is a more ‘female’ route into science. I disagree. Biography has the power to switch girls AND boys on to science, and I would love to see storytelling used more widely in science learning.

In art lessons, children don’t just look at famous paintings. They learn who painted them, and why. History is not just a list of dates and places. Children learn what life was like at the time, and try to see the world through other eyes.

In contrast, science is too often condensed to a list of facts to learn and regurgitate. As adults our existing knowledge helps us to put new facts into context and understand their significance. For children, this is difficult or impossible.

Bite-sized nuggets of information definitely delight some readers, but for others they are not as accessible as they may appear.

It’s not as simple as ‘boys prefer non-fiction’. What Kids Are Reading 2016 looked at the reading habits of almost 750,000 children and found that while boys are more likely to choose non-fiction, girls are better at reading information books carefully and understanding what they read. Boys tended to skip large chunks.

The study pointed to the need for more challenging non-fiction, more carefully matched to a child’s interests. When it comes to hooking a reader it’s not just the subject area that’s important, but the way it’s presented. Perhaps it’s more tempting to skip text when there is no story to sink your teeth into.

Biography has the potential to engage children who dislike ‘report’-style non-fiction. In 2014­–15, the non-fiction book most widely read by 9 to 11 year olds was Roald Dahl’s autobiography, ‘Boy’. Among 13 to 14 year olds, 12 of the 20 most-read non-fiction books were biographies of sportspeople. (Source: http://whatkidsarereading.co.uk/)

A human story keeps readers turning the page, but it also helps them to make an emotional connection with a subject.

In a biography, we can learn the science behind fibre optics, but also that beaming light signals through thin glass tubes was initially dismissed as crazy, and that the inventor, Charles Kao, felt like he was “trying to sell a dream.”

In a biography, we can root for Gertrude Belle Elion as she tries to become a scientist at a time when women were refused funding, then cheer when her work on cancer-fighting drugs wins her the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Details like this help children connect bite-sized facts with the bigger picture. They make the history of science relevant and relatable. They show that scientists – even the famous ones – are people just like them.

In his top tips for getting boys reading, Gary Wilson points out the importance of the bigger picture: “Connecting the learning is particularly important for boys. If they don’t see a clear sense and purpose, many won’t engage.

In National Non-Fiction November, let’s help children engage with the human stories behind their favourite topics. Some readers will enjoy getting lost in full-length biographies, or exploring websites that navigate an extraordinary life. Others might prefer graphic texts, or snappy first person profiles. I’ve listed some examples below.

Like readers, biographies come in all shapes and sizes. There’s a true story out there to inspire everyone, and that’s a fact.

Full-length biographies and autobiographies

Ada’s Ideas by Fiona Robinson
Amelia Earthart (Little People, Big Dreams) by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, illustrated by Maria Diamantes
Isaac Newton (Scientists Who Made History) by Paul Mason
The Misadventures of Charles Darwin by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Pete Williamson
My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall
Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill
Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning, by Laurence Anholt and Sheila Moxley
What Mr Darwin Saw by Mick Manning and Brita Granström
Who Was Marie Curie? By Megan Stine
The World’s First Women Doctors by Isabel Thomas

Collections of shorter biographies
Fantastically Great Women Who’ve Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst
How To Change the World by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Esme Lonsdale
Rebel Science by Dan Green, illustrated by David Lyttleton
Whizz Pop Bang magazine features a first-person biography of a famous scientist or engineer each month
Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky

DK Find Out features interactive biographies of more than 35 scientists
Gertrude Bell Comics
Marconi Calling
Nobelprize.org features short biographies of each winner
Shooting Stars


Our thanks go to Isabel for this wonderful piece. You can find out more about Isabel on her website, http://isabelthomas.co.uk/ and you can follow her on Twitter, @raisingchimps.

2 responses to “NNFN: The power of stories – A guest post from Isabel Thomas”

  1. […] non-fiction published this month on the FCBG Blog. Nicola Davies and I have both blogged about the power of narrative non-fiction to educate and […]

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