Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

From My Little Pony to QAnon: a journey in legitimising fantasy

We told — and tell — our children they could do and be anything. We gave them My Little Pony and Pokemon. We encouraged them to think that if they liked playing the violin or singing or playing football or prancing around the living room that they could grow up to be musicians, footballers and dancers. We encouraged them to read Rainbow Fairies and let them watch In The Night Garden, and if they preferred a book about space or cars, we rolled our eyes because they 'weren't reading' and looked for stories they would prefer, even though they clearly preferred not-stories. We said they wouldn't develop imagination or empathy because they didn't share our enthusiasm for made-up things over true things to the exclusion of the latter. And then they grew up and found that hardly anyone can be a footballer or musician. They did degrees they didn't really like or couldn't really use, running up large bills that will have to be paid back, and they still ended up working in call centres. Those few that did do what they wanted and made a career putting on make-up on YouTube or dancing in their underwear on TikTok, we sneered at for not having a 'proper' job. We told or implied to them that reading Harry Potter was 'better' than reading the Guinness Book of Records. We relentlessly promoted fantasy over fact. And now we act all surprised when they ignore the mainstream news media, believe conspiracy theories and get sick of staying indoors in a pandemic. What happened to believing you can change the world and be a dancer and see no evil? What indeed.

This is the shortlist for the Carnegie this year:

What do you notice about this list? You're probably primed to look at gender balance, ethnic mix, any representation of disability. You probably didn't notice that they are all fiction (again). This is not because the Carnegie is not open to non-fiction (it is), it's because the literary world is not really open to non-fiction, at least in children's publishing. There are a few prizes for non-fiction books. But when did you ever see media coverage of the ALCS prize for an information book? Or the the Royal Society Young People's Book Award? Prizes are not — or should not be — a method of celebrating writers. They should be a means of celebrating books and their readers, of endorsing and validating the choices of readers. But around half of young people prefer to read non-fiction; their choice is not validated. Until a few years ago, even teachers and school librarians often derided children's choice of a non-fiction title when they were allowed free choice of a book. Many parents still do, and I suspect some teachers still do. 

I have nothing against fiction. I did a degree in it. I sometimes write it and even make money from it. But it's not all there is, and we are unbalancing children's lives in dangerous ways by treating it as the 'better' choice. By over-validating fantasy and under-valuing fact, we do young readers and ultimately ourselves, our whole society, a disservice. We have biased a generation or two against truth. Why put the work into learning about statistics or epidemiology when you can jump on a happy bandwagon and declare covid a hoax, then still go out and have a party? After all, when you wanted to read about the plague, they gave you a story book, and when you wanted to know about the Holocaust they gave you The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. Many adults associate fact and truth with their work, and fantasy with blobbing on the sofa watching Netflix. They prefer the second. We should not be modelling and nurturing a dislike of facts, though. It's fine to prefer fiction yourself in your leisure time, but pushing fantasy like a drug to youngsters has turned out to be a costly error.

Good fiction teaches us a lot. It shows us people confronting and dealing with the vicisitudes of life, developing the psychological tools to weather misfortune and press on with a challenging endeavour. It raises important ethical debates and metaphysical issues. Even not-very-good fiction has its uses in modelling relationships and behaviour that children can learn from. All those saccharine stories about fairies and ponies who are super-best friends and are sorry when they do something wrong are trying to sneak in lessons on being a Good Friend. They are the Water Babies disguised in shiny hooves and gossamer wings. I would not be rid of them.

Fiction can help children to develop empathy and imagination. But so can non-fiction. Do you develop more empathy reading about an imaginary character facing obstacles than a real person who has faced obstacles? If so, why? 


Pick a pirate: Is the life of the pirate on the right less interesting because she existed?

Do you become more imaginative reading about a Pokemon or a superhero than a Dunkleosteus, a lamprey or a parasitic wasp? Why? All fiction is rooted in fact. Take the fact away, and the fiction of the future becomes parasitic itself, feeding only on previous fiction. Perhaps that's why so many young writers start with writing fan-fiction, the ultimate parasitic genre. It requires no hard research and not even much experience of real life.

All 'fantasy' monsters are rooted in nature — so why is nature boring?

We now have the strange position where a government which benefits from people having a complete disregard for facts and the truth is promoting (for supposed economic reasons) a secondary curriculum denuded of arts and imagination. Of course young people should learn about and practise the arts — not so that they can be promised a career as a dancer, musician, painter or writer, but because it will enrich their entire lives and will be a lasting source of pleasure. We educate people to live, not only to work; work is part of life, not all of it. We need balance, equal promotion of and respect for humanities and scientific and technical subjects. At the moment we seem to teach the youngest children that their interest in fact marks them as unimaginative, unexciting, dull. A passion for fictional flying ponies and monsters is somehow more child-like, more normal, more endearing than an interest in spacecraft or trees. Then they get to secondary school and are told that music GCSE is a waste of time and why don't they like engineering? Well, why do you think? Because when they wanted to read a book of monster trucks, you rolled your eyes and gave them a story instead. Now you've a bunch of disillusioned kids who were told stories were 'better' than encyclopaedias who are being told facts are king and of course they can't earn a living as a musician. They have to spend their time doing the very thing you discouraged them from reading about and enjoying before. Of course they are disillusioned.

More importantly, the process instills early on the notion that facts don't matter as much as being imaginative. Truth becomes not a thing of joy and wonder but associated with hoop-jumping and becoming fit for the workforce. That's not very joyful. Couple that with the well-documented psychology of how people make choices and are attracted to easy and optimistic options, and you have a large number of people ready to believe conspiracy theories (which offer easy explanations and someone to blame) and vote for serial liars who make attractive promises. People are taken in by these ideas because they never been taught critical thinking, the bedrock of which is respect for the truth. They have never been told to respect facts or how to handle them. If you don't know how to handle information, you can't tell when others use it to manipulate you. So, yes, it's a long road from My Little Pony to QAnon. And not everyone who reads My Little Pony books will end up believing we are ruled by elite lizard people and Bill Gates is trying to put a microchip in you. But perhaps if we nurtured an interest in facts — in the truth — alongside a love of creativity, people wouldn't be so willing to accept all the fantasies they're peddled.

Anne Rooney (being deliberately provocative)

Out now: Our Extreme Earth, Lonely Planet, 2020


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Lies, damned lies and alternative truth; or, the Moon is not part of Mars - Anne Rooney

Mars — nothing to do with the Moon
There are lies, there are damned lies, and there's a lot of confusion. It's quite hard writing factual books in an age where truth is considered optional, over-rated or even a ridiculous pedantry.

I write a lot of children's non-fiction, a lot of adult non-fiction and some children's fiction. Fiction is currently beset by arguments about what counts as cultural appropriation. I'm not going into those arguments, but they revolve around ownership of story and whose truth should be told by whom. This is not going to be about cultural appropriation, but about truth.

The truth about human history, whether of an individual person or a nation, is partly subjective . There are facts, though they are not always discoverable — how many people died of a plague, how many people attended a president's inauguration ceremony. Then there are causes, which are more complex and open to interpretation: what really caused World War I, why does Trump lie about his inauguration crowd? These are not objective truths; we can discuss them until we agree but we might still be wrong and there is no conclusive proof to be found.

It used to be universally acknowledged that you could get a straightforward fact right or wrong. What was accepted as true might change over time as more is discovered, but it wasn't a matter of opinion. The age of the universe was until this year thought to be 13.77 billion years. New data suggests it might be a billion years younger. But the universe does actually have an age which we could, in theory, discover. People have never liked challenges to what has long been perceived as true. When European scientists first discovered that Earth orbits the Sun rather than the other way round, they were condemned and forbidden to teach this new knowledge as it was seen as a contradiction of the Bible. Consensus reality has a powerful hold, especially when backed up by religious belief. But still, the new truth - or more accurate version, the closer approach to the truth - usually takes root. Now, only some rather odd people believe the Sun moves round the Earth.

Let's take that small faction as an example as that belief is less contentious than some others we could use. There is no emotional investment in what celestial bodies do, as there is in, say, the anti-vax position or whether climate change is 'real'. It is clearly demonstrable with mathematics that the planets orbit the Sun, and if you don't like mathematics, you can go and sit in a space station and watch. There is no argument to be had. Yet some people prefer to believe something demonstrably untrue. Why? Is it because they don't like being told what to think? They don't 'trust' science, even though they have no better way of judging for themselves? They prefer to feel special (humans are at the centre, despite not having existed for the first 4.4 billion years of the solar system)? They are just uneducated and think it's a matter of opinion?

The latest nonsensical bit of untruth is Trump claiming yesterday that the Moon is part of Mars. Reader, the Moon is categorically not, and never has been, part of Mars. Some Americans will presumably now believe this. Some American children will grow up believing it (unless he backtracks today, of course). When did objective truth become a matter of opinion, or of choice? When did it become OK to spout nonsense? We are seeing some of the impact in the 'lies on the bus' issue. It's going to get a lot worse if truth has no perceived value. How can we proceed with education, or with writing factual books, in this kind of climate? 

It is an odd world in which fiction demands more truth (the 'true' experience of the right kind of writer) and fact demands less. I waiver between thinking my job is utterly pointless now and thinking it is needed more than ever. Maybe both are true at the same time. Writers and educators must keep the flame of the Enlightenment alive so that fire of rational enquiry can be rekindled later. How much later, though?

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Hallelujah Science! by Joan Lennon

To celebrate all sorts of things at this time of year, including the Joy of Science, here is Animalia!

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

What to read on holiday Moira Butterfield

Since the newspapers and bookshops are all coming up with lists for holiday reads, I thought I would, too. I hope you will find something here for you or people you’re going with, and please do add your own suggestions at the bottom. The blog’s not about kid’s book-writing today. It’s for us to share recommendations.  I'm looking forward to reading yours! 

The only problem is that I’ve come back from my holiday just as everybody else is about to go. Doh!

My embarrassingly messy home bookshelves, mostly two deep.
No wonder I go on holiday, basically to live somewhere tidy for a few days. 


The hugely uplifting A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. A Russian aristocrat finds himself under house-arrest in a Moscow hotel and stays there for decades discovering the best way to live life. Feelgood read. 

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Waters. The glamorous world of 1960s Hollywood comes to a peaceful Italian village. Surprising and absorbing. 

The Food of Love by Anthony Capella. An American exchange student falls in love in Italy while eating the incredible food. Read this if you love holiday food. Don’t read this if you’re on Slimming World.

An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay. Following the fictional life of a female artist who finds her calling in postwar Britain. If you enjoy art, this is one for you. Beautifully written and a short read, though it does fall away towards the end. 

I'm currently reading The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley, which is shaping up nicely. The intriguing main character has been sent to Peru by dodgy elements of the British government to steal quinine trees. Sadly I'm not on holiday any more, so I can't read it while dipping my toes in the Ionian Sea. 


Gotta have some crime on holiday! My taste is for the decidedly quirky, so I love the two Auntie Poldi books by Mario Giordana. Their funny feisty middle-aged heroine gets up to high jinks and crime-solving in Sicily. Eccentric, with a great female character. Someone make a telly series, please! 

Bernard Cornwell’s crime novel on Shakespeare’s brother – Fools and Mortals – is a lot of fun. I find his history novels too violent but this was completely different.

I always get the latest Brunetti mystery by Donna Leon, whose detective wonders around Venice, always stopping for a large lunch.

I recently read two cracking crime books by Australian author Jane Harper. The Dry – an atmospheric murder investigation set during a searing drought in an Australian small town. Plus Force of Nature – a company team-building trip goes very wrong in the Australian bush.  Don’t go out on that path alone…..Noooooooo!


I love a bit of Terry Pratchett-type magic. If you do, too, be sure to try The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaranovitch.  His London detective Peter Grant must learn how to solve the crimes of the city’s hidden magical underworld, negotiating with the capital’s personified rivers. Particularly fine on audio, read superbly by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

Try the absorbing Lies of Loch Lamora by Scott Lynch to discover a magical criminal underworld set in a strange city based on medieval Venice. Great on that sunbed if you like a bit of fantasy!


My partner prefers reading non-fiction.  He says he was the same as a boy. So HELLO Waterstones. You didn’t put a single kid’s non-fiction book in your summer picks…Grrrrrrrrrrrr! Here are Ian’s suggestions, plus a couple of mine:

Anything by Ben Macintyre for Twentieth Century intelligence/spy material. Very readable and interesting.

Anything by Richard Holmes for Nineteenth and Twentieth Century conflict. Strong on the experience of soldiers in war.

I enjoy the non-fiction books of Jon Ronson – Always quirky and thought-provoking. If you haven’t read him before try The Men Who Stare at Goats – about the jaw-dropping special ops of the US army in the 60s/70s.

Read White Gold by Giles Milton to discover the true story of the many thousands of people snatched from the UK and Irish coast by Barbary pirates for a life of slavery. It might make you feel a little bit nervous when you look out to sea…

 Over to you. Do you have a failsafe holiday author you always pack?

PS: If you're going on a car journey with school-aged kids I thoroughly recommend the audiobook of Terry Pratchett's Nation, read by Tony Robinson. It should keep everyone quiet. 

Moira Butterfield
Twitter: @moiraworld
Instagram: moirabutterfieldauthor

Moira's latest children’s book is all about the cultures of the world: Welcome To Our World, illustrated by Harriet Lynas and published by Nosy Crow.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Black and white pictures - Anne Rooney

Only pink people have anatomy
This will be a short post, or a short grumble, as this issue is taking a lot of my time at the moment.

I write a lot of non-fiction which is illustrated from picture libraries, as well as a lot which is illustrated with commissioned artwork and some that combines the two. At the moment, I'm working on a series that combines the two. The publisher has an aim of at least 25% non-Caucasian people in images and a 50:50 gender split, which is fine. With commissioned illustrations it's easy to achieve, obviously. With images sourced from picture libraries, whether photos or artwork, it's incredibly difficult. The (cheap) picture libraries don't have a good diverse mix of images. It's a little easier with photos, often (but not always), but virtually impossible for anything but the most generic and anodyne illustrations.

For example: search on Shutterstock for 'geologist'. It displays 100 images per page. Not all have people in, but at least half do. Of those, one is clearly female and one is possibly not-Caucasian (but could be Mediterranean or tanned). These are photos. Search for 'baby'; five out of the first 100 are non-Caucasian.

'Baby' is about as generic as you can get. Search toenails (don't — it's not a pretty sight) and they are all on white feet.

 Illustrations are just as bad, with some subjects completely unrepresented by non-white characters. One of the books I'm working on is about the human body and will use vector artwork. Body parts, organs, activities—all seem to be almost exclusively white concerns in picture-library-land. You'd think people of other ethnicities didn't have bones, brains or babies if you went by the pictures you can buy to show these things.

An obvious solution is to be more precise, but that brings up other problems. Specifying 'black' often just brings up black and white images rather than images of black people. 'People of color' delivers images in color with people in. Of course, it should be unnecessary to specify; there should be no massive default to Caucasian. Most alarming of all, 'black' sometimes delivers a completely different type of image. A search for 'black fetus' (sorry, but you have to use American spellings on these sites to get anywhere) brings up foetuses with guns (how is that even a thing?) and miscarried or aborted foetuses. This is truly disturbing and clearly symptomatic of some far deeper malaise than just an absence of diverse photographers or artists putting their material on Shutterstock.

Our budget will go largely on creating images that redress the balance of diversity in the book, making up for the short-fallings of the picture libraries. That's not how it should be. Next time you see a book that doesn't have enough diversity in the photos or library artwork, don't blame the publisher or author—blame the picture libraries.

Anne Rooney
Out now: Dinosaur Atlas
Lonely Planet

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Telling the truth in an age of lies

NOT how a Diplodocus walked
The USA presidential election, like the Brexit referundum, has seen lying enter mainstream politics as just another tool. It doesn't seem to be considered reprehensible, it doesn't seem that truth is particularly valued over lies, or that lies need to be apologised for or even explained away as mistakes. The value of truth and accuracy has never been lower. We are in the age of post-truth politics. The people, Michael Gove told us, have had enough of experts. For a man once charged with overseeing education, that's a damning indictment of the current intellectual climate.

Truth is a slippery thing, but that's no excuse for ignoring it or waving it off with a cheery smile or shrug of the shoulders rather than trying to identify and grasp it. I currently spend my days reading academic articles on paleontology and on neuroscience because I want the books I write to be as accurate as possible. It matters whether dinosaurs swallowed gastroliths (they didn't) and how the plaques that cause Alzheimer's are formed (by the build-up of amyloid proteins between synapses). It would be easier - and possibly more entertaining - to perpetuate the myth of dinosaurs swallowing stones to help break up their food. It would give us a nice lift-the-flap look inside a dinosaur's stomach. Just as it would be nice if voting for Brexit produced a massive influx of money for the NHS or if there really was no one with greater respect for women than Donald Trump. But just because these things would be nice doesn't mean they are true, and doesn't mean we should deceive people into thinking they are true, or that we shouldn't care whether they are true or not.

Thankfully, truth is still valued in books, especially fin books or children. Children have to trust us - the adults who have control of the flow of information - as they have no way of verifying facts for themselves. But how much is that trust eroded in a world where truth has no civic value? What is that trust worth? Is it, in fact, turned into a form of gullibility? The quest for accuracy, which used to be taken for granted, has slipped down the agenda and down the value-scale. Now, if something is stated on the web or in the media enough times, it's considered true, or at least true enough, or at least not worth examining. If I tell people I research books for children using academic journals, they are surprised. Some think it's overkill, others think it's noble but amusing. It's neither - it's just how the job should be done. Children deserve the trust they place in us - authors, teachers, parents - to be respected and rewarded with truth.

Giordano Bruno: 'Truth does not change because it is, or is not,
believed by a majority of the people.'
Science, unlike belief, makes progress through acknowledging its mistakes and overturning theories and paradigms that are not supported by new evidence. So yes, the truth shifts. Once you would be laughed at (at best) for believing the Earth goes round the Sun or that diseases can be caused by living things too small to see. Seeing this progression towards truth along a path littered with errors validates not only truth itself but the endeavour to discover truth. It spurs young people on to be curious, and bravely curious, because getting it wrong doesn't matter. Getting it wrong, indeed, is often a necessary step towards getting it right. But to do any of that, you have to value truth and be able to discern it. Current political and civic life does not set a good example to young people. They see adults lying to each other, accepting and acting on those lies without asking for or looking for evidence, or - if Gove is to be believed - even wanting to see any evidence. How will we raise the next generation of scientists, critical thinkers, philosophers, lawyers or even vloggers if they don't see any value in truth? ('Put this rat poison on your face; it makes you skin whiter...' Yes, but.)

And finally... there is not empirical truth in all areas. There is no single right way to govern a nation (as far as we know) and no objective answer to whether, say, abortion is wrong. As a society, we arrive at the answers we will accept through debate and discussion, through examining evidence and hearing and assessing different views. The skill of listening and assessing is one our children will not learn, as they have no model for it (and even the National Curriculum does not value it). If we demonise experts - and how well did that path serve China and Cambodia? - and our political 'debates' consist only of shouting the same thing louder and louder and launching personal attacks, how will our children learn to value learning, or to discuss, debate and negotiate? When the response to an opinion you disagree with is to blank it or to meet it with a personal attack, or trolling, there is no space in which discussion can take place.  When did it become OK to assume people are acting out of malice rather then ignorance if we disagree with their views or actions? If we don't treat other views with respect and dignity, and treat those who hold them with courtesy, we make it impossible to keep an open mind and then it's impossible to change anyone's mind (even our own). If I think someone is stupid and malicious I won't want to agree with them as that would obviously align me with the stupid and malicious, too. If someone thinks I'm stupid and malicious, I won't be inclined to listen to them or even try to talk to them. This, surely, is not what we want our children to see and think?

I will continue to write 'true' books - non-fiction, books that are not made up, books that are carefully researched and try to present a balanced view where there is doubt and the truth where doubt is minimal. And as it is non-fiction November, please try to reflect on the value of showing children not just the truth, but the value of truth. Before it's too late.

Anne Rooney

Monday, 7 November 2016

For the love of glossaries and lost words by Dawn Finch

One of the things that most people don’t know about me is that I love glossaries. I don’t remember when I first fell in love with glossaries, but it must have been when I was a very small person. I have always been thrilled to discover words that are new to me, and I suppose that first started by using glossaries in the school library. One of my oldest friends (hello Janet!) tells me that she remembers when I was about 15 I told her that I was going to learn a new word every day for the rest of my life. Well, I’m hurtling towards 50 now and I’m still doing it.

This means that I really love glossaries. I’ve worked with children’s books for a very long time and I have often based a purchase decision on the quality of the glossary. In fact, writing glossaries was my first paid writing job, and so I have even greater affection for them. I had an arrangement with some educational publishers and they would send me words, and I would write the glossary entry for them.

Now, with my own non-fiction books, I am quietly very proud of my glossaries. It’s not an easy thing to take a complex or abstract concept, and turn it into a simple sentence that can be understood by a child who has probably only just learnt to read. It’s not a full definition, just a clean and simple sentence that allows the child to turn back to the page, apply contextualisation, and understand the word. Writing a good glossary is a bit like a cracking a puzzle backwards.

When I write non-fiction I usually rely on my experience of children’s learning to know roughly where their point of understanding is by the time they reach for my books. For example, I’ve just finished books on stone circles and hill forts and so I know that they will have done work in school on prehistory, archaeology, history etc. They will already know some of the words aurally, and so the words included in the glossary will reinforce their understanding, and introduce new words to their vocabulary. This is an important point; children will have heard the word and then will look for a way to see the word and understand it.

Last year the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled dozens of nature words from their printed volumes. This caused an outcry and many writers and wildlife experts pleaded with the dictionary to put them back in. As a writer and educator I realised that in the future I would come up against children who had never met words like bluebell, buttercup, heron, newt, pasture, fern, conker, lark, nectar, or acorn. Nature words that I have taken for granted, and assumed children did too, could slip through our fingers. Nature writer, Robert MacFarlane wrote a passionate piece for the Guardian and many other experts and nature lovers joined in. Artist Jackie Morris was one of the people justifiably outraged by this and has leant her magical skills to supporting a campaign to never forget these vanishing words. She has teamed up with MacFarlane to write a book about these lost nature words and The Lost Words, a Spell Book will be published by Hamish Hamilton in Spring 2017. I think that this is a wonderful thing and I know it will not only gift those words back to us, but it will be a thing of great beauty.
Jackie Morris' glorious kingfisher - one of the Lost Words

My grandfather was a country man, and when my sister and I were small we were taken on walks and told the names of the things we found. He talked in the language of the countryside and so we learnt scampering along beside him. We learnt of adders and cowslips and mistletoe and kingfishers and willow and cygnets – these words have now also gone from the OJD. We learnt to feel as if we had a place in the Wild and that we understood nature.

My parents were young when they had me and my sister, and there wasn’t much money to spare and so most of our holidays were out in the Wild, camping and running free. We had books from the library about nature, and we had our I-Spy books, and we had them to guide us to a better understanding of nature. Our parents knew we were safe in the countryside because we knew the difference between an adder and a grass snake, and we knew what nightshade looked like, and which mushrooms would kill us, and we understood that dark waters run deep. In short, our understanding of nature allowed us to feel safe in that environment, and our parents felt safe too.

Risk is a funny thing. Risk is the thing that most parents claim stops them from allowing their children to run free, but greater understanding minimises risk. If you understand a thing, you will be less afraid of it, and the risks associated with playing in the countryside are actually very slim. A report from 2015 found that three-quarters of children are spending less time out of doors than prison inmates, and fifth of children do not play outside at all. I have written before about the importance of wild spaces and how playing outside supports creativity and empathy, and so I find this information deeply worrying.

I genuinely dread a time when my glossaries are crammed full of words that I assumed children already knew. I don’t want to arrive in a time when I have to explain words like conker, meadow and willow. I have already anguished over whether or not I need to include the word pasture in a glossary, and that makes me very sad.

My grandfather told us that it was important to know the names of things. He told us tales of faeries that were dark and mischievous and he said that you should hold onto your own name because to name a thing is own a thing. That is what knowing the names of things does – it allows us ownership and lets us feel safe. If we feel safe in the countryside then we feel a greater sense of belonging. If we don’t feel a sense of belonging and ownership then it becomes easier for the Powers That Be to nibble away at our green and wild spaces and take them from us. Losing the names of things is not a small thing, and it’s not simply losing words, ultimately it is the first step to a world under concrete.

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian, and President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and a member of the Society of Authors, Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee (CWIG)

You can follow Jackie Morris’ blog here, and watch as she weaves the spells to make up The Lost Words.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Adventures in the real world - Anne Rooney

How many times have you heard of or witnessed a child being told to choose a 'proper book' rather than, say, a book about pirates or cars or football, a book of funny science facts, or a book of riddles or jokes? Why? Why we should we tell a child what they are supposed to enjoy when choosing to read for pleasure? And why is reading 'not real reading' if it doesn't include a portion of stuff that is made up? If a child prefers tennis to football, we don't say that's not a proper sport. If they prefer bananas to apples, or fish to chicken, we don't say it's not proper food. It's not as though non-fiction books are unhealthy, or take any less skill to read, or demand less of the child's intellect or ability to project imaginatively or to empathise. And, curiously, it seems to be the other way round when it comes to watching TV. How many people would rather their child watched a wildlife documentary or Newsround than Hollyoaks or another re-run of Friends?

There are many different types of pleasure to be gained from reading. One of those kinds is escape into an imaginary world - the pleasure offered by fiction. But that is only enjoyable because, however implausible the setting and action, we recognise that the emotions and behaviour of the characters are realistic - they are true to life. We enjoy recognising the true bits. Indeed, it can make no difference to the degree of empathy and imagination involved whether the story we engage with is made up or true. Shackleton's heroism in saving his colleagues is every bit as inspiring and engaging as the actions of a fictional hero. In fact, I'd say it's more inspiring and engaging for being true.

Of course, Shackleton's Journey is a story, it's just a true one. It may not be fiction, but it is narrative. Is story the only valid structure for pleasurable reading? Of course not. And to defend the pleasures of non-fiction by recourse to narrative is cowardly. Non-fiction offers much more than narrative. Released from the straitjacket of having to be made up and have a narrative arc, books can explore further afield. They can explain, reveal, instruct, question, describe, list, amuse, astound.

The child who bores everyone at Christmas reading out endless facts or jokes from their new book is getting pleasure from reading, and it's a social pleasure that helps build their communication and interpersonal skills as well as their skills in reading and processing information. Understanding jokes takes a particular type of mental agility with language - it's a serious business. The child who reads the technical details of vehicles is processing complex and often mathematical or scientific information. They are comparing and evaluating. These are skills we value. And the child is enjoying doing it - where's the harm?

There is a dirty pleasure involved in the reading of non-fiction. It's the elephant in the room. Let's look at it face on. It's thrilling to acquire new knowledge. Thinking about things in a deep and meaningful way is a rewarding and pleasurable experience. Challenging and stretching your mind is fun. There's the bit of pride in knowing something that other people don't know - that appeals to children ('did you know...?') But more than that, there's the feeling of new vistas of potential discovery opening up, and of things falling into place, of making sense of the world, and the wonder at realising there is so much more to everything than you ever suspected. (There is also something I call cognitive angst which is the opposite of this, and comes with knowing enough to realise how little you know, but I don't think that hits in school years, so we'll leave that for now.)

Why is this pleasure, which readers can gorge on in non-fiction books, not spoken about and celebrated? I think it's because intellectual effort and its rewards are considered elitist and divisive, even in schools. There is so much effort put into making learning 'easy' and 'fun' that the thrill of learning and understanding something hard has been pushed under the classroom mat. It makes the mat rather lumpy at circle time, but it can be easily stamped down. You can pretend you know things by listing the ingredients in a Harry Potter potion. You'll get more kudos for that than for knowing how antibiotics work, how a spacesuit protects an astronaut, or how to make an engine. The child (usually a girl) who wants to read about horses can indulge in horsey stories with facts slipped in like hidden vegetables in a pie, but the child who wants to read about trucks or computers is stuck with a geeky label and a 'not proper' book. This is actually shameful. It is a despicable tyranny, even. When did knowing things and wanting to know things and enjoying learning become something to hide, even in schools? And why does no one recognise the disconnect: we want more STEM graduates, but if you're eight and you want to read about molecules, well - put that back and laugh about how the Wimpy Kid screws up at school (an easy pleasure, no challenge to anyone else).

Perhaps the most iniquitous aspect of it all is that the children who are struggling suffer the most. They are most in need of sensing the excitement that knowledge can bring, so that it spurs them on to want to learn and to read. These children, many of them boys, often don't see the point in reading stories. For them, reading is a means to an end. The end is knowledge, even if it's not 'proper' knowledge, but information about sport or computer games or skateboarding. They enjoy knowing it, and will read to get that - so let them! Knowledge - information - non-fiction - can be a gateway drug to all kinds of reading and to success in life. So why shut the gate in the face of a child who wants to step through and start the journey? Why insist they take another path that they will 'learn to enjoy'? Fiction might be an acquired taste for some children, like olives. But - like a taste for olives - it doesn't matter if they never acquire it as long as they are enjoying themselves reading something else. Reading for pleasure is reading what you want to read, whatever it is. How can that be so hard to grasp?

Next week (19th July) I'm chairing an event at Waterstones Piccadilly, called Adventures in the Real World and it's all about reading for pleasure. But not 'normal' books. It's about reading those books you have to hide under the desk and aren't allowed to choose when you go to the library - books about things that are true. 

There's a brilliant panel lined up, so if you want to hear what some better qualified people have to say about this, come along and listen to Jenny Broom (publisher, and author of Animalium), Dawn Finch (president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Informational Professionals, and author), Nicola Morgan (author, and expert on the brain and how reading affects it) and Zoe Toft (children's book consultant at Playing by the Book).

Anne Rooney

Currently writing about: astrobiology, dinosaurs, astronomy, maths.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

But is it true? - by Anne Rooney

We've probably all been asked that of stories, whether stories we have written or stories we are reading or telling to children (or even adults). On one particularly memorable occasion, one of my own children asked 'is it true?' of a story  which she had helped me to make up (though I suppose the lag between invention and publication is so long a child will forget). The story featured two of her friends, which I would not usually do, but they  had just moved into a house with an ancient well and I'd used the well as a time portal. (In the story, not really.) The use of real people in an invented story was too confusing.

We tend to answer 'yes' or 'no' to the question 'is it true?' but the truth is not that simple. Here's Boccaccio, defending fiction against the charge levelled against it by the Catholic Church in the 14th century of it being iniquitous lies:

‘There was never a maundering old woman, sitting with others late of a winter's night at the home fireside, making up tales of Hell, the fates, Ghosts and the like … but did not feel there was a grain of truth in them.’

There is psychological truth in the untruth of stories. But what of the untruth in the supposed truth of information? 

Exobiology and the truth dilemma
in one go
I have been working on exobiology the last few weeks. That's not a thing, really. Or rather, it's entirely conjecture. It's about the life forms that might exist on other planets, including exoplanets (those outside our solar system). We know nothing about it - it's all theorising. And yet the papers I am reading are published in respectable peer-reviewed journals. You can find more detailed accounts of alien life in science fiction stories and films, but of course those are entirely made up. 

The difference between the science fiction and the science non-fiction is hard to pin down. Many science fiction writers do a lot of research, and it's likely that at least some read the exobiology journals. Even if they don't, they think hard about how their alien life-forms might work and what they would look like. The difference, really, is in presentation. Instead of 'alien life-forms might have a biology based around silicon' (unlikely, as it happens), the sci-fi novelist will name the creature and say it has a biology based around silicon. 

There are other dodgy borders between truth and fiction. I have written books about zombies and vampires that are classed as non-fiction because they are about the traditional beliefs about these non-existent creatures. So a true book about something that doesn't exist. The contracts include clauses that state everything has to be true and accurate. It's true and accurate that people believe you can make a zombie following a certain procedure, but it's not true and accurate that you actually can. 

In 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for, amongst other things, claiming that the universe is infinite and contains many inhabited planets. That's now a mainstream belief and is supported by many scientists as the most likely state of affairs. Truth shifts.The border between truth and untruth is porous. Truth leaks into fiction - both historical truth and psychological truth - and leaks out of information books, where conjecture and theory have to replace certainty. It's not black and white - not at all. And that's without even considering the subjectivity of 'truth' - that one person's 'true account' of an event is another's misrepresentation. 

Fiction and non-fiction in publishing are two realms supposedly occupied by lies and truth respectively, but that's far too bold a distinction. Some fiction is published in 'non-fiction' lists, including re-tellings of old tales and sometimes early readers - stories sold into schools and as part of reading schemes. They are sold as non-fiction because they are intended to help children develop their skill in reading, rather than being good stories ifor the sake of a good story. (I know, don't even start on that one.) 

Which brings me to the labels fiction and non-fiction. It's silly to describe a huge category (the majority) of published books by what they are not - not invented stories. I have tried saying 'information books', but that sounds dreary and as though they are not there to be enjoyed every bit as much as books that are 'untrue' (fiction). If we went for a week calling fiction 'untrue' books, that might make people pause to think about the negative connotations of the 'non' label. But all books contain truth and all books contain uncertainty, contingency, theory, partiality. So perhaps it's just time to stop trying to use true/mad-up as the way we distinguish between them. Any suggestions for new labels?

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Don't stop children reading facty books - by Nicola Morgan

Two notes first:
It's National Non-fiction November, hence this topic. I've also blogged on the lack of respect in some quarters for non-fiction and on the importance of facty books for dyslexic readers, all in support of #NNFN.

You'll notice I use different words to describe "non-fiction". I don't really mind which we use. I rather like facty. "Fiction" can have facts in, too, and "non-fiction" can have imagination, narrative and drama. But what we tend to call non-fiction majors on its factual truths, so I like facty.



Recently, a parent told me that "non-fiction" had been removed from (or banned - I'm not quite sure) her son's school. Even though I've heard of this on another occasion, I find it hard to believe so let's say at least that there was a teacher who thought boys would be better not reading fact-based books for pleasure.

Why? Apparently, among other things, because non-fiction doesn't boost empathy.

Oh gosh.

I know where this comes from. It comes from some research - many small studies - which does suggest that fiction has an important role to play in developing empathy. (Read Such Stuff as Dreams for some detail.) Although there's lots of interesting and thought-provoking content to that book and this research, and although I believe that yes, fiction does have a role to play in empathy-building, and that the act of "narrative transportation" into the minds of other people is important for developing one's own mind and Theory of Mind, I urge caution before you wrap yourself in the blanket of some of the conclusions.

For example, it's not surprising that, when a beautifully-written piece of fiction (a Chekov short story is a specific example) is turned into a dull piece of non-fiction (a courtroom transcript, in this case), the people reading the short story might increase in empathy (on certain measures) more than the others.

This doesn't prove anything other than, perhaps, that people reading beautiful writing by a master writer can engage on a more personal level than people reading a piece of dud dullness. It fails to acknowledge the potential of the best words in the best order. It fails to acknowledge (because it wasn't looking at that) whether other things promote empathy, such as having a loving parent or carer to both show empathy and give insights into how other people feel.

However, imagine for a moment that it had been proven that fiction boosts empathy and that non-fiction (any of it, from a dictionary to the most elegant narrative non-fiction) doesn't. 

Even in that case, telling people that they shouldn't read any non-fiction because it doesn't increase empathy is like telling people they shouldn't eat fruit because it doesn't contain protein and therefore won't help their cells regenerate. Or not to eat asparagus because it doesn't contain iron or not to drink milk because milk doesn't contain vitamin C.

I hope you get my point.

My other point is that by telling half the school population (boys, in the example given) that their first choice (often) of reading material is not worth their time both undermines them quite horribly and risks turning them off reading forever. It is misguided and counter-productive. It doesn't make sense. 

Parents, please don't listen to anyone who tells your sons or your daughters not to read non-fiction, information books, facty books, whatever you want to call them. What you want is your sons and daughters first to read and then to read more. Isn't it hard enough to get young people (often especially boys) to read, without making it a load less attractive and judging them negatively for it? Reading for pleasure, anyone? The clue is in the word "pleasure".

SO, people, tell me: what are your recommended facty reads? Tell me the title, writer+illustrator, and what sort of reader you think would love it. And maybe some lucky young readers will receive something really inspiring this Christmas! 

Btw, if you'd like to give one to a child in difficult circumstances, then DO check out the annual Blackwells book tree.

Monday, 9 November 2015

You couldn't (or shouldn't) make it up

It's National Non-Fiction Month, and Dawn Finch has already done an excellent post on running a school visit around a non-fiction book. So that means non-fiction is covered, right? No. It's now the 9th and definitely time for another post about things that are true. At least half the posts this month should be about factual/information/true books. In fact, why not all?

Before we get any further, I want to take issue with the name. The non-fiction label is iniquitous - why do we define factual books by what they are not? How weird is that? I don't have a cup of non-tea in the morning, nor am I non-male. I drink coffee and am female. So I don't write non-fiction. I write about things that are true. Maybe we should call fiction non-true books. To cheer you up after that grumble...

Look at these fish. Aren't they cool? They're weird, but they're not made up.

Now back to the business in hand.

True books have always been considered the poor relation of those books that are a bunch of lies, the untrue books. True books have little shelf space in shops. They have virtually no review space in the media (though the wonderful Shackleton's Journey winning the Greenaway changed that briefly). Parents grumble if their children want to read 'only non-fiction', but they never grumble that their children want to read 'only fiction'. Teachers sometimes challenge pupils' book choices if they don't select a fiction title. Why? The truth can spark a child's imagination and curiosity as much as fiction. A true story can rouse empathy as much as a made-up story. Most adults have forgotten how to be wonderstruck. Perhaps that's why it's adults who don't encourage children to read about things that are true. Or maybe adults think that information is what school is for and it's all linked to exams. Well, they're wrong. Here's a totally brilliant example of a book that is as true as you can get:

It's by the Children's Laureate, Chris Riddell, and it's about how important  Humans Rights are. You can't get a better endorsement than that for books about true things. (Though the day the Laureateship goes to someone who only writes or illustrates true things the air will resound with the flapping of porcine wings.)

But it doesn't all have to be serious.

Which is the most fascinating pirate?

Jack Sparrow, a bumbling fool, entirely made up; a bit pretty.


Shih Yang (Zheng Shi), the most successful pirate of all time. She ran a pirate fleet of 1,800 ships and controlled the China Sea. (Also a bit pretty.) And why is she never in pirating books? (She's in mine, coming out next year from Carlton.)

Most adults are embarrassed at being surprised or impressed by the world around them. Most adults prefer cynicism and to look world-weary, though who would want to be that? Well, that's their loss. Children are not so disabled, fortunately. Of 8-11 year olds who read for pleasure outside school, 40% choose to read true books. Sales of books classed as children's non-fiction rose 36% last year.

There's even a sound educational reason for promoting true books, as if pleasure were not enough. In the USA - but sadly not in the UK - the curriculum demands that 70% of a child's reading is non-fiction by the time they are 11 years old. The reason? Employers complained that potential employees couldn't construct or follow an argument, process information or extract meaningful data from written information - because they had no practice at doing it.

But the life-skills reason is not the best reason to celebrate information books and to encourage children to read them. Knowing and valuing the world is a better reason. Nourishing the sense of wonder that is every child's birthright, and all too soon eroded, is a better reason. Enjoying it is the best reason of all.

 Which monster(s) is/are made up?

Where do you think the ideas for fiction come from?

Any kid who wants a cool job designing monsters had better have a good library of fact books to draw on.

You think Indiana Jones is cool? What about Barnum Brown? Named after a circus, he spent his life as a fossil-hunter. He went on digs dressed in a floor-length fur coat and discovered the T Rex.

If only we'd been around to see mammoths... Well, mammoths were still going while the Egyptians were building their pyramids (though there weren't any in Europe).

Stories about children with pet dogs are popular. But dogs are so mundane. Salvador Dali had a pet anteater. The astronomer Tyco Brahe had a pet moose; he also had a metal nose, as his own was cut off in a duel over a maths problem. The painter Rossetti had a wombat.

The truth is great - you couldn't make it up.

(Answer: Only monster A is made up.)

Anne Rooney

Latest true book:
The Story of Maps, November 2015

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Oh, the places we can't go..... by Dawn Finch for FCBG

November is National Non-Fiction Month and I was contacted by the Federation of Children's Book Groups with a request to write something about non-fiction.

Well that was easy, because I love non-fiction.
Those of us who work in reader development and literacy have mountains of fiction to use to develop the skills of young readers, but that doesn’t help all children.  Many children are not engaged by fiction and have a natural tendency to favour non-fiction. Using non-fiction for the teaching of reading is inevitably much more difficult, but potentially even more rewarding as these children are often the hardest to reach.

When I was first working in this field I found that educational non-fiction broadly fitted into two categories. The first was the picture-heavy book with text that was often too simplistic to bring on or engage a developing reader. The second was the text-heavy book that did little to support a child who may only have low level reading skills. It was genuinely hard to find books that I could use to keep a developing reader interested, whilst maintaining a progression in their reading.

Thankfully the last decade has turned the industry on its head and today the publishing industry is taking greater risks than ever before and most reading schemes incorporate a good number of high quality non-fiction titles in their catalogues. This year William Grill won the Kate Greenaway Award with his beautiful book, Shackleton’s Journey, and now publishers are looking to commission other high-quality non-fiction books with strong visual impact.
A double page spread from Grill's Shackleton's Journey

This has meant that those of us who write non-fiction have also seen a change in the way our materials are being used in schools. My recent book for KS1 and 2 about the Neolithic site at Skara Brae has fitted neatly into a gap in the curriculum and this meant that I was being asked to do school visits connected to the book. This left me with a bit of a dilemma – how can I do a primary school visit based on a more traditional non-fiction book?

I knew right from the off that I did not want to do a visit that was just going to be a history lesson. One of the main things that I learnt from my school visits for my novel (Brotherhood of Shades) is that pupils do not need another lesson and want to be entertained. When I was organising author visits in my school I dreaded the authors who seemed hell-bent on teaching rather than engaging and inspiring. (I won’t name names but I once had a former headteacher turned writer visit and they spent the entire visit talking about manners and better behaviour – yawn!) This meant that I was determined to find a way of making my Skara Brae visits cover different ground from what the pupils might have been taught in school.

Skara Brae is specifically mentioned in the National Curriculum as a history subject and so I was aware that the pupils I was visiting had probably covered the history of the site and the period, and other elements such as clothing, food and archaeology. I needed to find a new angle and it occurred to me that the one thing they might not have covered was how creative people were in that period.
I went back to my files and looked at all of the site notes that I’d made but not used in the book. I realised that I’d jotted down all sorts of things about how imaginative and creative these people had to be to survive in that environment. I had pages of notes speculating about how they had come up with the ideas for their tools and houses when they had little or no wood and simple tools. This gave me the foundation of the ideas that I needed to take into school, but I had seen the objects and the place with my own eyes, the children did not have that luxury. This led me to the creation of the Neolithic hamper.

I began to source and collect all manner of unusual objects that would have been available to the people of Skara Brae. First up, a roe deer skin. I found a supplier on Ebay and purchased a treated hide so that the children could touch it. Next came roe deer antlers and I found a farmer in Aberdeenshire who collected the naturally fallen ones and sold them cheaply. After that I collected limpet and clam shells and dried kelp from the beach, and a couple of good smooth beach stones. The next bit was not as simple as I needed to add in some other basic food items but I did not want them to stink the place up or pass on bacteria. Thankfully I found some suppliers of plastic food that is made for display purposes in the food industry and I was able to add in eggs, crabs and a lovely lobster. I tried to make my own nettle string, but this was doomed from the off as it’s really not easy, or pleasant. I was worried that the twine might still cause skin problems and so I settled for some hemp twine and stained it greener to look the part.

Some things could not be sourced, and that’s where your own creativity is needed, and large pack of air-drying clay. A friend (who I can’t thank enough) made me a replica of one of the mysterious objects found at Skara Brae and plans are afoot for a couple more of these items too.  I do also take some fresh items such as blackberries because I wanted to show the children how they can be used to stain cloth and skin. I added in things like barley and a huge bag of bone beads of various shapes and sizes, and managed to fit it all into a wicker hamper for travelling.

After that I designed my presentation based around a question – would you be creative enough to survive in the Neolithic? I started off by getting them to tell me what a Neolithic person looked like (much laughs at the Flintsones and Captain Caveman) and then showed the pupils what they would really have looked like. I asked them what the houses would have been like inside, and then showed them the beautiful cosy houses of Skara Brae. We talked about what life might have been like at Skara Brae, and what sort of materials the people had available to them. The pupils found it difficult to picture a life without the luxuries that we take for granted today.

Then out came the hamper. Oh my word, every fiddly moment of putting it together was worth it. The children were so excited by the mysterious contents of the hamper that they were buzzing with ideas each time something new came out of it. Class after class and children had extraordinary ideas of what they would do with lobster shells, or fur, or antlers. None of them had ever felt deer fur, or held an antler, and because of this they couldn’t imagine how to use them. Many of the children had never seen limpets, kelp or driftwood. Handling the items was a revelation and they immediately came up with creative ideas for their own stories.
"Is that a real lobster?"

It was the most fun I’ve had on a school visit, and the children were buzzing with ideas as they returned to hold the items again and imagine how they could fit them into their stories. The children who were not strong readers were supported by having access to solid objects to embed the understanding and feed their imaginations. The visit was essentially about Skara Brae, but my focus was all about creativity and storytelling. The youngest of them (Year 3 children) did wonderful drawings of their Neolithic homes, and the older ones planned out extraordinary stories about their lives as Neolithic children. I didn’t want them to rush this process and so I left them with a competition so that they could take their time and finish them at their own pace.

Skara Brae is in such a remote place that visiting it is out of the reach of most children, in fact it’s out of the reach of most adults! I travelled up from Aberdeenshire and it still took me almost two days to get there. A book can skip the long and expensive journey and magically take you right to the site, and even better it can take you back thousands of years and drop you into another time.

Non-fiction opens a wide window on the world and takes us to places that we might never see. As a child I wandered along the library shelves, working my way through the mysterious clues of the Dewey decimal system to find long-lost civilizations and exotic locations that were far from my reach. My creative imagination was fed by books about places I thought I'd never see with my own eyes. Fiction can do this too, but with non-fiction the creative ideas were all my own and I felt a stronger sense of ownership. Thanks to non-fiction I sailed on pirate ships, trekked through dark jungles and swam in deep oceans. I met the platypus and the dodo, stroked the long tail feathers of the quetzal,  hugged a kakapo, and fought alongside Anne Bonny on wild pirate seas.

Non-fiction is far more than just an educational tool, it is a glorious adventure to somewhere far beyond our reach and oh, the places we can go!

Dawn Finch
Children’s author and librarian
Vice-President CILIP - for more information or to book school visits.

Skara Brae is published by Raintree