Non-fiction author and publisher Christopher Lloyd explains why non-fiction matters today more than ever
Over the last 15 years I must have given more than 1,000 lectures in different schools and I can’t tell you the number of times the librarian or teacher who has kindly invited me has told me, with gleeful smile, that this is the first time they’ve ever had a non-fiction author and how refreshing and exciting it is. All of which only goes to show that the world of children’s literature is still, generally speaking, rooted in the concept of fiction and fantasy not in the magic of reality.
Does this matter? I think it does and I think so now more than ever. Today, critical thinking skills are amongst the most important for any young mind to be able to master. The advent of the Internet and the reality of publishing information at the individual level to grand audiences whether you’re Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian has created a new world in which children inevitably and understandably flail when it comes to trying to discern truth from non-truth. How can we help them, when, at every turn, we are faced with the dilemma of whether something is fake news or whether it is grounded in research, evidence and fact?
My passion for non-fiction goes back to when I was a child. About 95% of all literature I have ever consumed has been in the non-fiction category. For me the real world genuinely is more amazing than anything you can make up, although I only began to become properly conscious of this as I witnessed the development of my own children. By the age of 8, my older daughter, Matilda, was highly precocious. She loved reading and, for her, every day was an adventure in itself. Seeing the world through a child’s eyes lets you appreciate things as if you were witnessing for them for the first time. Surely, that’s one of the biggest joys of a life surrounded by young people, be they your own family or pupils in school.
Human brains are not divided into separate subjects with a bit of maths on the left and literacy on the right with chemistry in the middle and biology somewhere down the stem. Ask any neuroscientist and they’ll tell you that the brain is the most beautifully interconnected mass of neurons known to the universe. The idea of chopping knowledge up into different subjects is fiction not non-fiction. It’s a Victorian construct from which we have never recovered.
Restoring a non-fiction perspective in education means connecting knowledge back together again. To my mind, it is also one of the primary functions of a non-fiction writer. We must present reality as it really is, only then can the potential for truth emerge. Objectivity comes from linking information together, not chopping it up into bits.
My latest effort has been to edit the first Britannica children’s encyclopaedia to be published for generation. Of course, no one buys encyclopaedias these days to look information up from A-Z. The world of online information has gazumped this traditional pursuit and aftercall our brains are no more wired from A-Z as they are chopped up into different subjects. That’s another fiction form which we have to recover! Instead, this encyclopaedia is divided into eight chapters that take you on an epic journey: Space, Earth, Matter and Life cover natural history while Humans, Ancient History, Modern History and Today’s World cover human history. Every spread is packed with facts, narratives and information from experts that lie behind every page.
Our aim is to expose those experts who have dedicated their lives to trying to find the answers to some of the most intractable questions in the universe. We call them ‘known unknowns’ because the answer to every question is really a way point on a journey of curiosity. That’s why the Encyclopaedia’s sub-title is What We Know and What We Don’t.
The pursuit of non-fiction should be a mirror of the brain itself. Every answer helps us discover a new perspective, a new connection, and the opportunity for knitting new concepts together emerges in ways they have never done before. Just like it does when we explore the world around us with our senses.
Children today are faced with too many pressures from an adult world that is fractured, dysfunctional and overwhelmed with changing lifestyles and challenges to traditional ways of life. This has exploded exponentially since 9/11, the economic crash of 2008, the rise of the Internet, the availability of pornography, the world of fake news, the recent pandemic and – to top them all – the climate crisis that will inevitably lead to a completely different world for generations to come. All these require us to dig deep into our capacity for being adaptable.
Humans are a storytelling species. That’s how we make sense of the world from cradle to grave. A glass of water that looks dirty and is smeared with mud tells me that this liquid isn’t fit to drink. How mundane, you might think! But that’s the brilliance of our brains, discerning what they need to know to survive in a world of change. Narrative non-fiction is hard-wired into our DNA. We live in a world where nothing is ordinary, everything is magic! That’s the simple truth I hold dear when I wake up each morning and think to myself: “Yes I survived another night! What wonderful stories lie in store for me to discover today….”Christopher Lloyd is founder and CEO of What on Earth Publishing, a UK and US-based children non-fiction publishing house with two imprints What on Earth Books and Britannica Books. See www.whatonearthbooks.com and www.books.britannica.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find about his Britannica Virtual Quiz Show at www.whatonearthbooks.com/quizshow