What’s Great about Non-Fiction?

Martin Brown, illustrator of Horrible Histories as well as author and illustrator of Lesser Spotted Animals and Nell and the Cave Bear, asks what is great about non-fiction in today’s National Non-Fiction November FCBG blog spot.

What’s great about non-fiction?

What’s great about non-fiction? I can answer with one word – dinosaurs. Dinosaurs, and possibly, volcanoes. OK that’s two words. Dinosaurs, volcanoes and Henry VIII. Three words. Dinosaurs, volcanoes, Henry VIII and cheetahs. Four words. But wait, what about the Olympics – all sport in fact? And the moon and Madagascar. And macaroni and Monet. We can’t leave out cooking and art. Hmm. This is harder than I thought. Non-fiction is just SO big. I suppose that’s not surprising. After all, non-fiction contains the whole universe, everything that exists and everything that has ever existed – like the moon and dinosaurs and Henry VIII.

I love reading non-fiction stories. Just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s not a story. We get used to the idea that stories are made-up things – she’s telling tales – but non-fiction has stories too and they are THE BEST stories of all. And working on the Horrible Histories series, not only do I get to read these wonderfully terrible tales, I get to illustrate them too. I don’t have to make up weird hairstyles for rich Georgian women because their actual half-a-metre tall wigs, covered in bows and flowers and model sailing ships were far more bonkers than anything I could ever have dreamed up. Some Roman gladiators were given a net and a three-pronged trident spear as weapons – as if they were fishing – and had to fight opponents who had helmets that made them look like fish! Crazy right? But true. And, as we all know, truth is stranger than fiction.

Drawing this strange craziness is great fun. I often have to come up with jokes to go with the facts. (Don’t forget, joke books are non-fiction too.) And more often than not, it’s the facts that supply the gag. As we say, the fun of the thing is in the fact of the thing. For good luck in battle, an Aztec warrior would attach a dead woman’s severed finger to his shield. Horribly icky, but true. But how would he attach it? In the cartoon I drew for Angry Aztecs, with a fingernail of course. Finger nail – geddit?

But the facts don’t just help with the jokes – they help with the actual drawing too. You might think drawing real things is trickier than drawing imaginary things. It’s hard to get a Martian mist-monster wrong if they only exist in your imagination. But the good thing about real things is that you can really see them. And that helps. If I said draw a horse… go on, draw a horse, right now. I’ll wait. Dum-te-dum, doo-be-doo, tra-la-la. Done? How does it look? A bit rubbish? Don’t worry, horses are HARD. But if I said stand in front of a horse and then draw a horse, it would be much easier wouldn’t it. Because you can see the horse you don’t have to try to remember what a horse looks like. Drawing is SO much more about looking than scribbling.

Even if you’re not drawing them, I think real animals are more amazing than made up ones. Have a look at the southern right whale dolphin. One of the most stunningly wow animals on the planet. Or the long-tailed dunnart, a ferocious little carnivore the size of a mouse. Or check out the dingiso, something that lives in trees, looks like a teddy bear but is actually a type of kangaroo. There’s a lot more out there in the wide wild world than we think there is. Lesser Spotted Animals is a book about some of them. And it’s non-fiction – of course. Every animal has a story to tell – whether it’s speedy cheetah or a very slow loris.

So how do you sum up how amazing, interesting, breath-taking, mind-blowing and REAL non-fiction can be? How about with creatures which were bigger than busses, some with teeth longer than knives or with armour plates and spiked tails, or which had helmets and horns. Or perhaps you simply end with mountains that explode.

From Awful Egyptians to Woeful Second World War, Horrible Histories has a bold new look and is out now (Scholastic). Nell and the Cave Bear written and illustrated by Martin Brown is out in September (Bonnier).

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