Once upon a time, and not so distant either, there was a child – actually there were plenty of children – who didn’t really like stories. It may be that quite a few of them were boys, but by no means all; from an early age, they just preferred books about real dinosaurs, animals, trains and trucks, with real facts, to the ones where all these things weirdly pretended to be people. In nurseries, playgroups and libraries, they might well gravitate to photographic word books, or have a favourite dinosaur book at home. Plenty of adults, after all, don’t care for made-up stuff: it was one of the early surprises in my brief bookselling career to discover that biography, and especially celebrity biography (yes, it does count as non-fiction), far outsold novels in my mid-level chain bookshop.
So far, so good, but the big shock comes when the fiction-averse child learns to read. I have enough opinions for a whole other post on the many constraints and compromises of early reading: it’s still a bitterly contested and far from ideal process, to which most children prove remarkably adaptable – but the child who doesn’t like stories is truly badly served. Most reading schemes, and certainly the one used in 70-80% of UK schools, have stories or even a single story at their heart: an average family doing ordinary things, with an informal, mildly cartoony illustration style. If you don’t identify with the family, or care for the cartoony illustrations, that’s your bad luck: you’re more or less stuck with them for the rest of Reception and much of Key Stage One. Some reading schemes rise to the challenge: New Zealand’s PM scheme has somewhat fallen out of favour in the prevailing phonics climate, but it has always been valued by teachers for its range and its clear incremental structure, and when I was a volunteer reading helper, the books about different animals in the mid to upper levels were always popular. It’s also a shame more publishers don’t exploit the powerful motivational draw of learning to read simple recipes and then make things. Pearson’s Bug Club scheme and Collins Big Cat heroically attempt to produce non-fiction within phonics constraints; having myself attempted to write fiction within phonics constraints, I know just how hard that must be.
The problem continues through the short chapter books that are essential to building reading confidence and stamina, not to mention enjoyment. If you like animal tales, pseudo-myths or fairies, you’re well on your way to reading through half the library; if you’d rather read non-fiction, you’ll soon find that the other half is mostly geared to topic work for older readers – unless you happen upon, say, Usborne’s Beginners series. (I will be referring to Usborne a lot, and I make no apology: it’s a company that made its name in quality information books for children, and continues to keep faith and innovate when most other publishers have largely given up on young non-fiction.) Now rising 60 titles and covering a broad range of natural history, history, geography and transport topics, the series is pitched at Key Stage One and the text checked by a reading expert; even pre-readers love the lavish photography and accessible, bite-sized facts.
Although aimed a little older, Usborne’s See Inside series is remarkably age-elastic, with the non-linear, lift-the-flap format making information approachable and easily digestible. Again, a broad range of titles appeals widely, from the familiar (castles, world of dinosaurs, trains) to the frankly aspirational (maths, houses long ago, your head). Standouts for me are See Inside a Pirate Ship which is lively and historically truthful (harder to reconcile than you might imagine) without being in the least hackneyed; See Inside Planet Earth, engaging and aware without clunky proselytising, and the insanely ambitious but brilliantly accessible See Inside the Universe and See Inside Space.
Templar, a company that made its name with the technically brilliant and intriguing “ology” books, has made some appealing forays into non-fiction novelty books: How the World Works and How We Make Stuff are do-what-they-say-on-the-tin books that are exceptionally stylish and inspiring, ingenious with their flaps and sliders and wheels, and don’t just answer questions but ask some good ones too. Marvellous Maths has a similar mission to Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s The Number Devil, covered in an earlier post: to make maths intriguing and inspiring and more than just stuff you do at school – helped here by clever design and by Thomas Flintham’s quirky illustrations. There are also two parallel science titles, chemistry-based Molecule Mayhem and physics-focused Feel the Force.
The Zoological Society of London (parent organisation of London Zoo) has done some clever collaborating with Bloomsbury, and developed not only a series of conservation-focused animal stories by award-winning author Sally Grindley, but also a series of factbooks on endangered animals, “Animals on the edge.” I have a particular soft spot for these as, when helping Year 4s to choose their library books a year or two back, I had a classic case of fiction aversion, a clearly bright girl who dismissed all my many and varied fiction suggestions as “boring.” Three things worked: Laurence Anholt’s delightful “Artists” books, based on the true stories of famous artists and real children’s encounters with them; We Are All Born Free, Frances Lincoln’s collaboratively illustrated production of the Declaration of Human Rights, light on text but dense with ideas; and those ZSL books. Choosing books became a weekly challenge, and it was a triumph when we got it right.
Horrible Histories weren’t, in that case, among the triumphs – but they certainly do work for millions of children, with or without the animated and TV versions, and now with successful series in not only history and biography but also geography, science and maths (and other stuff like art, music, theatre, film and football – not forgetting possibly one of the most-read books in this house, Triffic Chocolate). I remain in awe of Terry Deary and his publishers’ ability to impart huge amounts of information with no reverence whatsoever and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of terrible puns.
Horrible Histories are among the very rare success stories of current children’s non-fiction; there is a prevailing feeling that “they can just look it up on the internet,” which I believe is wholly mistaken. It takes a great deal of guidance and experience for children to learn to search for information effectively, and along the way there is a huge amount that is irrelevant, unreliable, aimed too high or simply dull. Apps may be more child-friendly, but still tend to present information in a very channelled way. Nothing yet quite matches the book’s capacity to show you what it’s like in a quick riff-through, to let you find what you want easily and then surprise you with incidental gems you’d never thought to wonder about. What’s more, although screens play an increasing part in out lives, and specifically in teaching children to read, it’s still the case that most children learn to read, and almost as importantly get better at reading, from the printed page.
Anyone who has read a few of my previous posts will know how attached I am, personally, to stories and storytelling, not only for sheer entertainment but as a way of opening up the world and understanding ways to respond to it – not only the exciting and exotic, but also the difficult and frightening. At the same time, far too many children aren’t engaged with reading as it is: we should be making every effort to draw them in not bore them away with a one-style-fits-all approach. All credit, then, to the publishers taking trouble over some of the most appealing and innovative non-fiction ever produced for children.