Widening the world: expanding children’s knowledge through narrative non-fiction

by Laura Knowles

As a young child, when I imagined flying in an aeroplane to a different country (in my case, to visit my relatives in Canada), I had a very clear image in my head of different countries being on different levels. It seemed perfectly clear to me that if you needed an aeroplane to fly somewhere, it must be because you had to travel upwards to get there. Why not? I don’t remember forming this conclusion, and nor do I remember ever explicitly realising I had got it wrong. In time, I simply grasped the true concept of the world’s size and shape, and my bizarre ideas of international travel faded away.

So why am I telling this story? Well, to me, it shows how kids will forever think up strange ideas in order to make sense of their world, and will continually reformulate these ideas as their experience grows. Non-fiction can be a great way to provide information about the world, but how do we know when a child will be ready to understand it? When I wrote We Travel So Far – a picture book that looks at animal migration through the ‘micro stories’ of 26 birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, and more – I wondered whether children would be able to grasp the terrific distances and the ferocious terrain that the creatures had to cross. What if my young readers had never so much as left their local area, let alone travelled to distant lands? And yet, I don’t think that is the function of this sort of book. It isn’t the task of the book to explain every aspect of a big concept such as migration; rather, it is the book’s job to inspire wonder, feed the imagination, and provide young readers (or listeners) with information that will widen their world and make them hungry for more.

In We Travel So Far, each animal speaks for itself. In this way, we are taken on a journey with each of them: thundering along with the herd of wildebeest, beating our wings as we fly across mountain ranges with the bar-headed geese, or taking part in an underwater can-can across the sea floor with a line of spiny lobsters.

I’ve aimed to make the text lyrical and rhythmic, so it will be enjoyable to listen to and to read aloud. In this way, we are introduced to the desert locusts, “a swarming sea of gobbling grasshoppers”, and the Galapagos land iguanas, “the heat-seeking, dust-digging dragons”. Illustrator Chris Madden has depicted each animal in its habitat in rich colour and texture, expanding across the entire double-page. The book can either be read cover-to-cover, or each spread can stand alone, so the reader can dip in and out of the book. Who needs fiction at bedtime when the factual world is full of stories too?

Yet narrative non-fiction doesn’t have to transport young readers to the unfamiliar – it’s also well placed to explore topics closer to home. As the days draw in, it’s comforting to celebrate National Non-fiction November by cosying up at home with a book and a blanket, but it can also be a great opportunity to get out into nature. My first book, It Starts with a Seed, charts the growth a of a sycamore tree from seed through to sapling, and on through the seasons and years until it becomes a mature tree, spreading its own seeds. As the tree grows, we meet all the creatures, big and small, that make the tree their home. When I was writing the book, I knew right from the start that the seed had to be a sycamore – those twirling helicopters were irresistible to me and my friends when I was a child, and they still delight me now. I wanted the book to be one that would act as a conversation point between a parent or teacher and child, at that could be read in conjunction with going for a walk outdoors, seeing and touching nature first-hand – understanding that what is on the pages of a book is also on the street, in the park, in the woods.

Children are beings of unceasing wonder and curiosity. Luckily, we’re living in a golden age of children’s non-fiction, and there are so many wonderful books out there to feed this curiosity. Some books will explore the familiar, and some the exotic. It doesn’t matter if a child doesn’t understand everything at once. It doesn’t matter if they get things wrong, and think that an aeroplane flies upwards or the Earth is built like a platform video game. What does matter is that they are provided with information that stimulates and surprises, that shows them a planet that is vivid and varied, and that they are left to explore that information at their own pace. It’s this sort of book, just as much as fiction, that will widen their world.

This blog post was written by Laura Knowles. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the FCBG. 

One response to “Widening the world: expanding children’s knowledge through narrative non-fiction”

  1. Denise Lawrence says:

    Absolutely wonderful! The illustrations add that wonderful extra dimension to the text and the reader is given the true impression of the immensity of these journeys. Definitely a book to be read aloud and shared.

    I have to say that I have always loved sycamore trees too! I passed them every day on my way to and from school as a child.