Book Events · Panel Notes

The World into Words: Why Reading Non-Fiction is Vital for Children.

Please note these are the notes I took during the panel, all of these are my jottings down and are not direct quotes from any panel member

Average person encounters 13 new pieces of information a day.

Panel will be focussing on narrative non-fiction, where a narrative is woven around the facts so there is a clear beginning, middle and end.

Dislikes negativity of the term “non-fiction”, likes to share information via “fiction that is not fiction” – it answers the whys as well as the other wh-s..

Pointed out that non-fiction is seen as the generic term but it doesn’t cover factual things like biographies.

Looking information up online is not the same, it doesn’t give the dialogue that comes from talking to somebody, books contain this same feeling of conversation. Feels the best sorts of books are those where there is a passion and warmth, and those that will lead on to further investigation.

Her passion is for sharing information and knowledge

Most important is that readers are excited, engaged and wanting to find out more. Narrative non-fiction makes learning open ended. Gives that idea that you can always be learning.

Easier to remember a story than a string of facts so narrative non-fiction makes information more accessible and easier to remember.

Don’t have these sorts of questions about adult non-fiction, discussion is solely around children’s non-fiction, blames a lot of teachers and librarians, there is this concept that non-fiction books are solely about lists of facts.

Both authors also write “standard fiction”. Nicola – there’s not much difference between writing the two, they need the same skills and attention (imagine rope of information that needs to be paid out at the right pace so that there is enough but not so much that it all hangs loose). Viv – it’s interesting when you go into a bookshop, can find the same book shelved in either non-fiction or fiction depending on the shop or the time. Ideal is for the book to be shelved in both.

Non-fiction authors on the whole are having a difficult time at the moment with attitudes in publishing, an awful lot of information books aiming for the lowest common denominator, too many with pictures “squirted on the page” with words round as “grouting”. These are the books most often put in front of reluctant readers i.e. boys but there is nothing there to engage the reader or encourage reluctant readers to become readers, nothing to establish a pleasurable reading experience.

These books do not follow through, there is no obvious structure, just lots of isolated bits of information which is often inaccurate.

Comment from audience member:
In her experience pictures tell one story, captions tell another and text tells a third, each meets the needs of a different reader.

How can growth be continued?

Nicola: low priority area in the establishment, poor reviews, poor awards, particularly bad for non-fiction. Culture here still needs shift, reviewers could be braver and could become great advocates for children’s non-fiction.

Viv: used to review for Guardian, had complete freedom to review fiction or non-fiction and current or less current that may have slipped under the net. Need to demand more from newspapers.

Nicola: response from American teachers is very different to UK teachers. Most UK teacher training has barely any time about children’s literature, may be as little as 1 hour! Feels many of these teachers are not readers.

Is there a tendency for non-fiction titles to link to what national curriculum is doing?

Nicola: there is the idea that non-fiction can be marketed as being tied into National Curriculum. Great that there are some books that tie in but there’s been a loss of the idea that reading is pleasurable and that the way you get kids to read is to make it pleasurable. Publishers have got less courageous.

Viv: has huge respect for teachers, so many instructions come in from everywhere and so many boxes that need to be ticked, limited scope for originality. Need to be able to think around the topic e.g. Vikings – what did vikings read?

Nicola: it goes back to open endedness of learning, the purpose of teaching currently is to pass tests not to expand children’s thinking. Teachers are having to produce a product.

Considering digital technologies and eBooks:

Viv: sure there is a way for this to be harnessed, books currently coming out with added value CD. Likes technology but feels it’s very easy to concentrate too much on digital side. It’s going to be an interesting seeing how the balance is found, at our core we are communicators, not sure how far technology can go to replicate that. Can’t see how technology can go far enough to replicate that discussion. Think it will continue to be add-ons rather than replacement.

Nicola: feels it’ll continue to be you and a child together reading the text, though the format of this text will vary, same experience if it’s a physical book or a Kindle page, it’s the sharing that will be the important focus.

Viv: has a slight reservation when it comes to picture books. Feels it’s important to find the right way for each child.

There’s this perception now that all information available from internet so shouldn’t we all be striving to push non-fiction books of all forms rather than simply narrative non-fiction?

Nicola – yes, what non-fiction authors do is to package information in an expert manner, to communicate it . Feels we need to stop the panicking about competition between technology and books, it’s the reading that’s important not the device.

Q – Isn’t it important to highlight to kids that books have already evaluated the information, kids are using the internet for homework far more but take 45 minutes to find the information that a book could deliver in 30 seconds.

Panel agrees that showing children this is valuable and that with time the two information sources will work well alongside each other.

Comment from audience member – Recently public research (see Such Stuff As Dreams by Keith Oatley) argues that stories, written or spoken, are important for producing empathy and for tapping into part of brain that gives tolerance, narrative non-fiction therefore vital for developing these skills.

Nicola Morgan’s Blame my Brain – highly recommended.

Viv: we are all a story, we have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Nicola:  when talking about story here not talking about plot and characters, talking actually about text that has a shape. It’s that structure that’s the important bit.

Q – Any comment about local authorities closing libraries?

Nicola: has very strong opinions, fantastically short sighted, stupid, ultimately money wasting exercise. Very bad thing.

Q – What about how inconsistent it is, some areas are building libraries (e.g. Redbridge) whilst others are closing?

Nicola: unsure of how these successful boroughs are managing to fight the tide.

Closing remarks:

Nicola: need to keep libraries open, keep relationships being built between schools and libraries and encouraging the development of reading as a pleasurable experience

Viv: need everyone to keep pushing for reviews in the press for fiction that is not fiction

One thought on “The World into Words: Why Reading Non-Fiction is Vital for Children.

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