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National Non-Fiction Day

According to the latest education report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), our young adults have among the lowest literacy rates of any country in the modern industrialised world. England came 22nd out of the 24 countries surveyed.

What is going on? It seems that for at least a generation all significant attempts by government and educationalists to nurture a love of reading among younger people have failed.

Recently I was asked to speak at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ annual conference, at Bradfield College near Reading. This august organisation is dedicated to instilling a love of reading in young people. The gathering, now in its 20th year, was packed with teachers and book lovers.

“How wonderfully refreshing to have a non-fiction author speaking,” said one delegate after I had given my 60-minute romp through the history of the world, with one of my giant Wallbook timeline as a backdrop.

Why, I wondered, should being a “non-fiction” author be such a big deal? After all, stories about the real world are so much more amazing than any number of fantasies you can dream up. If you love truly amazing stories, then non-fiction is the place for you – and most children I speak to agree.

Facts, encyclopedias, maps, how things work, explorers, books about nature, superheroes and villains from the past – this is the stuff that really sets off fireworks in many young brains. World records, bloody wars, space travel, the Titanic… to many youngsters these stories are no less incredible than tales of Harry Potter or Spider-Man.

As adults we forget that to the young mind reality is often far more magical than fiction. It’s only as we grow older that social conventions condition us to think that the world around us is “normal”. Far from it.

Take the birth of a child – it is a stunningly extraordinary occurrence. To any rational mind, the self-assembling mechanics of foetal embryological development defy comprehension. And just because a new baby is born on average 370,000 times worldwide every day doesn’t make it ordinary.

Frequency should never undermine wonder. In fact, to a curious young mind the more often something amazing happens, the more extraordinary it is. I recall visiting the Picasso museum in Barcelona with my wife and two young children when we were on our travels in a camper van around Europe. One display board explained how it was this great artist’s adult ambition to learn once again how to paint like a child. I remember how powerfully I was moved by his attempt to rediscover a sense of wonder about the everyday world. His paintings now seem to make so much more sense.For most grown-ups the world around us has long since become mundane, and fascination for fact is substituted by an addiction to fiction – as is shown by the difference in sales each week between fiction and non-fiction titles.As I left after the talk at Bradfield, that woman’s voice kept reverberating around my mind. Why did she say it was such a novelty having a non-fiction author give a talk at a conference on reading and children’s books?

Then the penny dropped. Almost without exception, the books that are used to promote literacy in schools are popular reading schemes based on a diet of fictional stories, graded into levels that can easily be monitored and measured.

Using the same set of books for every child means they can be measured against each other – ideal for an adult-centred approach to assessing performance in schools.

Now put yourself in the mind of a reluctant child who is being taught to read via such a scheme. The question most likely to be going through their mind will be this: why are these adult bullies forcing me to learn how to read something that I am not interested in anyway? What’s the point when I want to be outside playing with my friends?

And if the educating adult were being brutally honest, I suspect the answer may well be this: “Because it's my job. Because I want to help you succeed in life. Because it’s my responsibility to help you pass your tests (which means I will be praised by your parents and the head teacher and the school will look good in its league tables…)”

But all is not lost. Today, schools throughout the UK will have the chance to celebrate National Non-Fiction Day, now in its third year – an initiative organised by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.

Now imagine a child who happens to have a fascination with space travel. The teacher asks him — or her — to find a book from the library that he finds interesting. He chooses one about the true story of the astronauts who failed to reach the moon on Apollo 13, and only just managed to return to Earth in what remained of their spaceship after parts of it had exploded.

Now, the child is taking a book he wants to read because he is following his own curiosity about something he is already interested in. And the best way for him to find out more is to learn how to read.

When and where they will learn to read doesn’t much matter. It is far more important to ensure that we do not diminish their built-in lightbulb of fascination for the world around them by forcing them into senseless reading schemes, many of which have little natural context, meaning or purpose to a young spongy mind.


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