by Anne Harding
When Carl Sagan was five he asked his mother what a star was. She gave him a library card and told him to find out. He went on to become a world-famous astronomer and astrophysicist. These are the words of another, even more famous, physicist, Stephen Hawking: ‘Nothing is better than reading and gaining more and more knowledge.’ Non-fiction most certainly expands children’s knowledge, while also enriching their lives and widening their horizons. How many of us have witnessed the impact of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and other such inspirational books?
Anyone who’s observed groups of children lying flat on the floor excitedly sharing intriguing – or disgusting – facts with each other as they look at an information book together, will know the thrill non-fiction can provide. This is a 12 year-old boy: ‘I enjoy reading facts because then I know about them so I can tell people and they find them interesting.’ He was involved in the excellent Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize project, as was this 9 year-old girl: ‘When you lift up a science book it tells you loads of new facts that you’ve never known before and you’re just like, phow, I didn’t know that.’
For children to thrive, they need curiosity. Non-fiction books are superb for arousing it, and with all ages. Watch and listen to toddlers as they encounter new information in the pages of books and we can see and feel their wonder. In a bookshop a little while ago I saw a father and son sharing The Great Fire of London by Emma Adams and James Weston Lewis. Both were totally enthralled, their conversation full of speculation. I was privileged to attend the award ceremony for the School Librarian of the Year recently, and loved the videos about the Honour Librarians. I was particularly struck by two pupils at Dr Chaavi Jain’s school. They were holding a working model plane and spoke enthusiastically about how information books in the library had galvanised them into making it.
For many children, it is non-fiction books that make reading enjoyable and worthwhile. Here’s a 9 year-old girl: ‘Reading is fun when it’s about something I like to learn about.’ How crucial that we routinely use, read aloud from and promote information books, to enable children like her to find a route into reading.
An eleven year-old girl gives us a valuable insight: ‘I hate reading story books because I get a headache and I can’t imagine very well but with information books you don’t have to imagine you learn things that you don’t know.’ The accessibility of non-fiction is hugely important. Librarians, teachers, parents and others speak passionately on courses about the transformative power of non-fiction for children with additional needs and for reluctant readers.
We hear a lot about the importance of fiction for developing empathy and understanding, and of course it’s true, but let’s not forget that non-fiction can perform this role too. This is a review by a teenage boy of Touching the Void by Joe Simpson: ‘Unbelievable – but a true story! I had not realised that mountain climbing was such an emotional as well as physical experience. I was totally engrossed but drained by the end.’
Non-fiction captivates and motivates. And yes, helps children reach for the stars.
This is a guest post from Anne Harding and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. Anne Harding is an independent trainer. She specialises in children’s reading and in children’s and school libraries. You can find out more about her training here: www.anneharding.net