I’m off to America tomorrow. Funny how travel never seems real when you write the words and only when you get on the plane. I’ll be traveling round schools in upstate New York talking to hundreds of children about animals and conservation and writing, focussing on my non fiction books. Narrative non fiction is huge in America and has just been shifted to the centre of the curriculum. Some bright spark in the Obama administration suddenly sussed what I’ve been telling teachers, editors, children …anyone who would listen…for years, that reading and writing non fiction teachers the most transferrable of skills: how to assimilate information and communicate it in an audience appropriate way. What the new curriculum (the Core Curriculum Standards) in the US acknowledges is that reading narrative non fiction, that has an opinion and a definite voice, encourages children to question how the writer knows what they know, what they think about it and why, as well as absorbing the facts packaged in the narrative. These skills of analysis and enquiry are hugely important and useful in every area of adult life from getting a degree to speaking to your boss about your performance, or explaining to your children why they need to wash their hands. We are bombarded by information, by data, by voices telling us things, so children need to practice assessing what they are told so they can sift the sense from nonsense, and conjecture from evidence. (I would venture to suggest that had Michael Gove had such a training he might be better at his job now).

Anyway…I’m delighted that in the US the penny has dropped, not just because it means my books will get more readers and I’ll get to play with more kids, but because I think it will make a huge difference to children’s education and to their reading. I wish there was some hope that this attitude would transfer to the UK, where there is huge resistance to non fiction amongst adult readers. I myself was one of those people who said ‘Oh I don’t read non fiction’ before I discovered the delight of ‘In Cold Blood’,  ‘ Sea Biscuit’, ‘A Perfect Storm’, ‘In the Heart of the Sea”…. (all American titles incidentally) and realised than non fiction is story-based too. This trickles down to younger age groups via teachers who don’t read non fiction and who therefore don’t value it as a reading resource for their pupils.

But, I must stop; I’ve ranted about this here before and for now I need to focus on rejoicing in the fact that the US loves non fiction even if the UK is lagging behind.

In any case, the first part of my trip isn’t about non fiction at all. I’m going to Louisian, to new Orleans and Baton Rouge. It’s all about my next novel for Walker Books, ‘Lost and Found’. I got the idea for it by re reading ‘Life On the Mississippi’ and decided I wanted to construct a setting that drew elements from that time and place. This is a tricky thing to explain: I’m not setting out to write an historical novel ‘set in the mid 19th Century in the American South’, not least because I would need to devote 5 years research to it and have come from an historical background rather than a zoological one. It’s more that the mixture of things happening in Louisiana in the mid 19th century provides a rich loamy substrate for imagination. There was a fabulous cocktail of races and cultures, of ideas and dreams and a back drop that was the cusp of what became the modern world right up against the wilderness documented in John James Audubon’s wonderful pictures and writings. So I’m going to get the feel of the place, to visit museums and archives, to gather voices and places and objects to help me construct a story world. I have some characters already, but it’s too early to tell you about them. One or two are already jostling their way to the front…

The concept of ‘The Wild’ is going to run through this story I think as a fat vein. The new world as Eden was hugely influential in Europe  in the early days of American settlement by Europeans and it’s remained so in US culture, giving birth to a strong genre of environmental and nature writing that we don’t really have to such an extent here. One of the drivers of that vision of wilderness here and in the US was John James Audubon, born in Haiti, the son of a french planter, who grew up to be perhaps the greatest wildlife artist of all time. The  most exciting thing I’m going to do in Louisiana is visit Audubon’s elephant folios, held in the Louisiana State University archive. I’ve known some of these pictures since I was tiny. I can remember copying Audubon’s picture of a blue jay when I was about six. Filling an A4 drawing pad with the sweep of its body from tail to beak in the bottom corner. So the thought that I will be in a room with the folios (elephant because of their size) is fizzingly thrilling.

This is not so far from non fiction. I never see the line between fiction and non fiction as a solid one anyway. It is in fact in my favourite place, that space one can create between the real solid world and the interior world of dreams and ideas. The story space, where you can put all sorts of real and imaginary things together, like a cook or a chemist, experimenting with ingredients and chemicals to get unexpected explosions, bubbling froths of colour and flavour combinations that linger on the tongue and turn your heart to long forgotten things.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.



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