As the author of books that are put in non fiction and fiction sections of libraries I don’t see that there is a hard boundary between fact and fiction. Look at any great works of fiction and you find truthful information about the real world – portraits of Victorian poverty and social injustice in Dickens or the pin sharp critique of the Russian revolution in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Photography, supposedly the most ‘non fictional’ medium of all, but you only have to reflect for a moment about how you’ve cropped your own pictures on facebook to know that photography’s credentials as non fiction are not impeccable. Robert Capa’s photograph of the Spanish Civil War  ‘Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death’ is one of the most famous documentary pictures of all time not for what it’s supposed to portray, but for the debate about whether or not it was staged.

My point is that the line between fiction is and non fiction is at best made with wiggly crayon and that trying to draw it with an indelible marker is actually getting in the way of children’s learning, reinforcing gender stereotypes and undermining libraries. Instead of dividing non fiction and fiction, we might do better to talk about different kinds of narrative, drawn from different sources.

I’m interested in igniting the spark of curiosity in my readers. My aim is to start a fire so big it can consume world of information and experience and burn for a lifetime. And the best way I know for doing that is using narrative. It’s an incredibly flexible and robust device – it can hold information about the deepest tides and currents in our nature, the instructions for making a soup or the life history of a polar bear. Narrative is good at providing combustible material in exactly the right form to get those sparks crackling away. A search engine provides you with a whole freshly cut tree. Just ask Ray Mears how good that is for firestarting. Narrative breaks knowledge into nice dry twigs and feeds them to the flames at exactly the right rate.

Narrative works by creating story space, which I would argue is perhaps the most important and powerful invention of human culture. Story space is a liminal region, a territory between the exterior world and the interior world of emotion and reflection. In it, boundaries are dissolved, the real and the imagined are combined in unique cocktails of experience, allowing us new insights into the world and our place within it. Story space allows us to to see things differently; it facilitates fresh thinking and helps both artists and scientists to formulate new questions, theories, new ways to investigate and describe the world. It is the business of the writer to create the narrative, to shape the story space; what goes in that space is information, either drawn from imagination or evidence from the real world.

Children understand the nature of story space and what can happen there. They are happy with narratives – both visual and verbal – that convey all sorts of information, factual, emotional, spatial, real and imaginary. This was vividly demonstrated to me a few years ago when I was working with Tate Modern, talking to groups of children about particular works in its collections. The work ‘Gothic Landscape’ by Lee Krasner, was particularly popular with the children with whom I worked – I probably should say here that these children had never been to any sort of art gallery before. A little girl said ‘This painting is about a bird landing in a tree. It’s about how the wings beat and how it feels to land in the tree going fast and then slow’. I think it’s telling that she used the word ‘about’. Not this ‘painting is a picture ‘of’ or ‘this painting shows’ but this ‘painting is about’. So this little girl was perfectly happy that the painting was a narrative that told a story about space – the tree and the bird; about time – the bird going fast then slow, and about emotion– how it feels to land in a tree. All real things, represented in an obviously fictional, abstract painting. (Jake Chapman put that in your ready-made-pipe and smoke it).

My narratives hold information about the natural world. Sometimes those narratives are found stories – real things that I pick up off the ground and sometimes they are entirely invented, poems, myths, made only from a weave of words. Sometimes the information I put in the story space is factual – the diet of a bat, the number of eggs a turtle lays – and sometimes it’s emotional – how you feel when you are close to a wild animal, or when you have promised to plant a whole forest. What this combining of fact and fiction offers me is the opportunity to convey the emotional roots that every natural history fact has put down in my own soul.

What I’m making the case for here is narrative non fiction with attitude, with voice with personality. Somehow we are familiar with the value of this kind of writing for adults, but not for kids. And far, far from being obsolete in a world where information is just a click away, passionate narrative non fiction has never, ever been so important. The division of non fiction from fiction, and the lack of attention to the role of narrative in conveying information about the real world has eroded the status of libraries particularly in schools. The line of thought goes something like this . Learning is about putting facts in your head. Facts are things you look up, and you used to look up facts in a library. That’s what libraries  are for. But if facts come from the internet, why then do you need a library? With so very much information easily available a child is at risk of being swamped by an overload of facts, demotivated by over exposure (see Ray Mears and the tree above). What narrative non fiction offers is a route, a guide a companion, a means and motivation for finding out, and structure in which to place new information. A good narrative doesn’t carry all the facts – just  enough to make the reader want more; it infects the reader with curiosity, the most virulent and powerful way to create self motivated learners, who will become the curators of their own minds throughout life. And at the moment good narratives are not the strong point of google search.

In America this is understood. I think the tradition of narrative non fiction there, of nature writing in particular is stronger. What they found was that high school graduates raised on an exclusive diet of fiction did not have the skills to interrogate a text – pretty essential for any university course. In the US they now place the reading and writing of narrative non fiction at the heart of their curriculum. This teachers children how to process information in one form, and present it in another – about the most transferable skill set you can acquire.

Writing non fiction based on personal observation of the world around them hones children’s ability to look, and to question; it gives them something to write about and helps them to find the power of their voices as writers, speakers and human beings. I represent this process through reading non fiction to writing non fiction very simply like this

your world into your words into my brain

my world from my brain into my words

my words into your brain you see my world

This seems so obvious, yet some children go through the whole of their education without understanding what words can do, what their words can do. Reading narrative non fiction models it; writing narrative non fiction teaches it. Simples.

Somebody asked me the other day if I’d ever written ‘a real picture book’. This question embodies the attitude to children’s non fiction in the UK. Frankly its a ghetto created by dividing fiction from non fiction and forgetting about the existence of narratives and the creative role of the writer in their creation. There is a perception that children’s non fiction books aren’t proper books and that the writers of children’s non fiction are not proper writers. I once heard a librarian tell children not to look in the non fiction section but to look for a ‘real book’ and I’ve frequently encountered teachers who encourage the reading of fiction but don’t count non fiction reading at all. I think this is at least in part a gender issue: women tend not to read non fiction and most teachers and librarians are women. But ladies, we need boys to read too, and what men and boys like are stories drawn from the real world. And girls need to read about more than fairies and witches if we are to raise female scientists and engineers.

The last twenty years has divided the world into Harry Potter on one side and google search on the other. Fantasy is not the only kind of narrative and ramming in lists of facts is not how we learn. We don’t even learn only with our brains, but with our bodies, our hearts, our souls. We need to rethink our concept of learning, and of how we learn best. We are, to paraphrase the conclusion of Phillip Reeve’s marvelous science fiction story cycle ‘Mortal Engines‘, ‘engines for making stories’. We are made of story, our very lives have a beginning, a middle and an end and to learn about the world, to learn how to be the best of ourselves we need all sorts of stories – real and imagined and mixtures of the two – and that’s what writers, and publishers and libraries are for.



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