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
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
You can contact him at email@example.com
or find about his Britannica Virtual Quiz Show at www.whatonearthbooks.com/quizshow