News & Events

The magic month of Non-Fiction

October 23, 2015

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IMAGINE a child born bored. He won’t smile. He won’t interact with others. He won’t even throw his food on the floor, or spit in your face just to see you get cross.

Doctors would say that the poor infant is suffering from some kind of mental disease, because, as we all know, it’s impossible for a normal, healthy child to be born bored.

Curiosity is the most fundamental of natural of all instincts without which survival itself would not be impossible.

So it’s odd then that we tolerate boredom in young people as they get older. What is inhuman in an infant becomes somehow regarded as inevitable as we grow older. That’s what happened to our oldest daughter when she was 8. It became such a big deal for us that we ended up taking her out of school and home educating her (and he sister) for the next 6 years.

It was this profound experience, of seeing boredom developing in a young child, that drove me to become a writer of non-fiction.

It made me realise that nothing matters more in an individual – regardless of age, sex or culture – than the preservation and cultivation or our natural curiosity. My daughter’s reinvigoration helped me rediscover its power for myself. I started with a realisation of how embarrassingly little I knew about the world around me.

Even though I had studied history at university and become technology correspondent on the Sunday Times, I still had no idea – aged 36 – how old is the planet Earth. – is it 5,000 years or is it 5 trillion years? Or, as is likely, somewhere in between?

How utterly embarrassing. I then realised my mind was full of fragments of knowledge but there was nothing in between to connect them together. That’s why for the last five years I have been striving – with my friend and fabulous illustrator Andy Forshaw – to create a series of detailed non-fiction timelines called Wallbooks that bring out the fascinating interconnectedness of everything across history, nature, science, sport and even Shakespeare.

9780993019968.PT05National Non-Fiction November begins on Sunday next week. It is a month long celebration, organised by a well established regional volunteer organization called the Federation of Children’s Books Groups (FCBG). For the last 26 years, these volunteers, mostly parents and teachers, have been stalwart champions for promoting literacy and a love of books in homes and schools all across Britain. Part of the purpose of Non-Fiction November is to encourage schools across Britain to put non-fiction first in their drive towards teaching literacy.

What the FCBG has realised, unlike many in our traditional education system, is that tapping into a child’s natural curiosity is often the most powerful gateway into instilling a love of reading.

Science, inventions, nature, history, conflict, disasters, battles, sport – all of them are charged with energy from the fact that they are based on the magic of reality.

Zoe Toft, director of Non-Fiction November, puts it well when she says that the key to so many children’s desire to read is giving them a purpose to read – which means allowing them to read about what they are already interested in.

“It’s not just encyclopaedias, and world records that fascinate young minds,” she says. “The point of non-fiction November is to celebrate the innate fascination that young people have in the world around them and to use this as a way of stimulating their interest in learning to read….”

So Non-Fiction November means thinking beyond reading schemes that help adults measure one child’s progress against another. Such programmes run the risk of destroying a potential love of reading with either a fear of failure or the feeling that reading is pointless because its content has nothing to do with a child’s personal interests.

Boredom will be banished. Kids can read whatever interests them. It is a great joy to know that this is what will happen – at least it should in November.

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