There also hasn’t been a single Open Evening where I’ve not had a parent come into the library with their child and announce “he’s not a reader” (sadly it tends to be boys) – what the parent usually means is that they don't read fiction. And I've worked with teachers who hold this viewpoint. Yet when I think about my own reading it definitely includes non-fiction, books that I will pick up and browse, either because they tie in with my interests, intrigue me or I’m drawn to the illustrations.
The importance of reading for pleasure has been well documented with academic, social and health benefits, and reading non-fiction feeds into all of these.
· It helps you learn about the world, history, other cultures; reading non-fiction will give you an insight into how the world works and increase your general knowledge. Children leap from one interest to another and we never know which is going to be influential in steering their future, impacting on their career and life choices. It is imperative that we enable this exploration to happen. Children need to be able to explore and investigate the random topics that pique their curiosity.
· Non-fiction exposes you to new words and information. So many stories are embedded in facts, especially historical novels, with references to people and events. Without this background knowledge, you can lose the context and essence of the story. Imagine reading “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne without any awareness of the Holocaust? I recently read “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton in my book group, and investigated the period and place in which it was set (1680s Amsterdam). I knew absolutely nothing about this time in history and the knowledge enriched the book for me, adding depth to the characters.
· Non-fiction helps develop the information literacy skills of locating, evaluating and using information, supporting comprehension and offering increased engagement with texts through personal interests. If you understand how information is organised and presented, it will help you to find and organise information yourself.
· Non-fiction exposes you to different styles of writing – text, captions, annotations, explanations. Reading non-fiction sets you up for the more complex texts you are likely to meet, not only in further and higher education, but also in many workplaces. Writing non-fiction also requires recognition of the building blocks of language – how to introduce and conclude, argue and compare – exposure to these techniques will inform your non-fiction writing the way exposure to fiction informs creative work.
· Non-fiction is often more appealing to visual learners as well as EAL and SEN students. It is also important in helping to lure boys into books. Research indicates that boys read non-fiction, autobiographies and newspapers; we need to send the message that reading these texts is just as valued as reading fiction.
· Non-fiction engages the mind and allows you to become “lost” in the text the same way that fiction does – I have seen this many times in school libraries with students totally absorbed in information books.
So, make sure you promote non-fiction in your libraries. Some easy ways of doing this include:
· Having lots of choice – magazines, newspapers, atlases, information books on popular topics, etc.
· Value all sorts of reading – different books require different reading skills and they are all needed.
· Mix fiction and non-fiction in displays.
· Link fiction with relevant non-fiction. For example, “The Bubble Wrap Boy” by Phil Earle with books on skateboarding and graffiti art.
· Add the relevant Dewey numbers to genre book lists so students can find appropriate non-fiction titles that link with the stories.
· Use titles and covers to hook them in – toilet humour works well, such as “Why Eating Bogeys is Good for You” by Mitchell Symons.
· Promote books about things they can relate to, something that is happening in the world or that ties in with recent events, or utilise a local interest – one of my schools had a large contingent of ice-hockey fans due to the local team.
· Have a non-fiction book of the week – displayed and promoted.Later this month, on 22nd November, the School Library Association Information Book Award winners will be announced. Have a look at the shortlists (and those of previous years) for some great non-fiction suggestions for all ages.
I know the Holy Grail is to have every child reading fiction for pleasure and we should not abandon this ideal or stop encouraging students to read stories but it is important that we do not diminish or downgrade non-fiction whilst aiming for this. One of my pleasures is to spend an afternoon browsing the shelves of my local library – as well as fiction, I always come home with a very esoteric pile of non-fiction books too!