Bringing Non-Fiction into the light

Anandita Rao

My exploration with non-fiction began when during the summer holidays of 2018, everyone at Bookworm, an organization that works with children and community through libraries, took on a summer project called ‘Drop everything for the Library.’ Within the scope of this, each of us explored a particular section of the collection, in search of a newer understanding so that we are better informed about our collection at Bookworm and that we grow in understanding.

Bookworm is a library based organization in Goa, committed to inspire a love for reading in everyone – child and adult. The library is at the core of every program and outreach at Bookworm, and everyone on the team is consistently encouraged and pushed to explore the collection more deeply. The library at Bookworm has a curated and extensive collection of over 26,000 books and contains a good collection of non-fiction books in varied sub genres of information, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, letters, diaries and that elusive in-between hybrid category.

My drop everything for the library task was to find three literary non-fiction books that use the narrative style for three different age groups. Non-fiction, as a genre, used to be among my least favourite. It reminded me too much of the school textbooks from which we had to extract the precise information that was needed to reproduce on paper and get marks. While fiction and fantasy could lead you into worlds and stories that stretched your imagination to the fullest, I felt non-fiction limited you to just this world and these people, and these problems.

However, following a conversation with Sujata Noronha, Director of Bookworm and a very special mentor and guide on my journey with books and library, I realized that by being extremely limited and precise in my definition of non-fiction, I was in turn limiting my selection to books that could be neatly slotted into that accurate category. Through this realization, I abandoned all that I thought I knew about non-fiction and emerged with just one truth: ‘All fiction is non-fiction and all non-fiction is fiction.’

While non-fiction could be broadly stated to be any fact-based text, it is also true that besides expository non-fiction, all non-fiction books have elements or grains of fiction in them. Non-fiction is the literature of fact (Moss, 2003), but the most beautiful and connectible non-fiction books for readers like me who are also seeking narrative writing and structures are those that introduce true information through the medium of a story. Similarly most fiction books are created from reality – settings and contexts that are real and are therefore non-fiction. There is no escaping the fact that while we have tried desperately to create categories and divisions for our ease of understanding, in truth literature refuses to be limited or contained within these boundaries. As I started going through the non-fiction collection in the library, I got introduced to three main ‘domains’:
Narrative – which usually follows a linear storyline and relates/conveys true information through the form of a story.
Expository – which is usually non-linear, and is written for the sole purpose of conveying information on a particular subject to the reader.
Hybrid – where factual information is embedded within a somewhat fictional storyline.

While keeping these three categories that would appear to encompass non-fiction in mind, I remembered a visitor who had come to Bookworm about a year ago. She was researching stories, particularly of conflict and abuse that she placed under the broad term of ‘fact-fiction.’ Books that were fictional in plot and storyline but which talked about events and conflicts that actually happened and are happening in this world.

While my understanding of non-fiction was starting to grow, I also felt a need to reflect on what ‘literary’ means and what makes a book ‘literary’. There were three points that appeared to cover the mantle of literariness: How well it is written (linguistically), how well it ages; and words that force you to consider its meaning whether or not you agree with it. However, and as is with many other aspects of picture books, the concept of ‘literary’ does not seem to have had time to catch up with the growth in quality and appreciation of picture books. A response to ‘what makes a picture book literary’ would or definitely should include the quality of meaning and depth of pictures in bringing out the story in a way that had the pictures not been there, the words on their own would be hollow and meaningless.

Emerging from this immersion into non-fiction, one of the things that struck me the most, was the amount of criticism non-fiction is vulnerable to. Non-fiction as a genre, is expected to be true and factual. While a writer may interpret and express this genuineness in different ways, a reader as a critic is much more viable to pick differences in fact and story that amount to unauthenticity and what may appear to be a disregard to what is being represented in the story. While reading about another Bookworm favourite, ‘Brother Eagle, Sister Sky’, I came across numerous critical reviews that highlighted the misrepresentation of Native Americans as well as other cultural aspects in the book. While a reader may overlook these minor variations in a fictional story, a non-fiction book by default elicits a lot more critical review and criticism and there is the expectation and requirement for accuracy. This more than anything brought forth an understanding of the complexity of a non-fiction story.

A few months following this immersion into non-fiction, during a session on Bookworm’s Library Educator’s Course (LEC), I observed and co-facilitated a session on the place of non-fiction in the library. In this session, we opened out a paper (The Classroom Library: A Place for non-fiction and non-fiction in its place) that exposed certain preconceived ideas about this genre, and navigated each one’s understanding of non-fiction into a more open one. Certain questions that this paper brought up, I explored more deeply in the years that followed through direct practice with children. Some of the direct outcomes of my learnings, I list here.

What percentage of non-fiction books should a children’s collection consist of?
In all the schools and community sites that we go to, we make sure that the lending collection includes varied genres of fiction, non-fiction, folktales, poetry, comics and others, with around 35 per cent of the collection including non-fictional books. We also make sure that the stories that we Read Aloud are across genres. The non-fiction books that we Read Aloud often involve certain concepts that softly take shape in each one’s minds. A kind of sequential understanding that some concepts need at their formative level emerges from Read Alouds such as A Sea in the Bucket, where instead of an impersonal relationship with the water cycle, the mere focal point of a character and his bucket needing water helps many children shift into the concept in a ‘softer’ way (Bookworm, 2020). For older children, Galileo’s Leaning Tower Experiment has always made it easier to understand the science of how objects travel at the same speed regardless of weight.

All our sessions also include ‘Book Talks’ as a core element. Each child shares a little about the book they have read, encouraging another child to read the same book. One aspect of the book talk that is encouraged from the beginning is the identification of the book as fiction or non-fiction. Children as young as 8 years are often able to identify a book by its genre and in doing so, already process what kind of a book it is for themselves. They also discuss what makes that book fiction for them or not and in doing so are building schemas in their minds that represent the world. This is what reading and libraries intend to foster anyway.

Do children enjoy non-fiction books as much as they enjoy fiction books?
In many of our community sites where we hold library sessions, children naturally gravitate toward the non-fiction books (on animals, birds, space, different cultures, biographies and those that provide answers to specific questions). We often talk about why children should read non-fiction, and that this is something we should be pushing them toward. However, there is a need to stop treating children’s reading appetites as a reflection of our own outdated thinking (Young, Moss & Cornwell, 2003). Many of our children often find comfort in reading about something that is familiar and not too alien to them, something that is easily connectible. There is also always a curiosity after listening to a story, to know whether these events actually happened and hear more about the background of a story. There is also always the few children in the group who are drawn to the natural world, who want to know about birds, snakes and such and their entry point into non-fiction is much more seamless.

Our role in the library
My first reflection on our role as library educators, came with a realization of my own leanings toward certain genres, and the importance of being aware to not transfer this preference, through the book talks and activities that we do. For some, access to books is all that is necessary to promote reading. Others, however, need multiple experiences with books before they will read them (Bruning & Schweiger, 1997; McGill-Franzen, Allington, Yokoi, & Brooks, 1999).

Book Talks, Read Alouds, themed book displays and other games and activities are some ways in which children are brought closer to non-fiction books.

At Bookworm, new games and materials are developed as ideas emerge and the need arises. One of the sections in our library that was being largely ignored was the reference section that included dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, atlases and other reference books. Together we created a game that pushed participants to open these books, browse through them, get to know how each one could be used and have fun. With every group that we open out this activity, the first reaction is tentativeness and uncertainty about what exactly each book contains answers to. By the second round of the game, there is intense competition, lightning responses and rapid browsing through these non-fiction books.

At a session we recently had with our community children, we listened to Stitching Stories by Nina Sabnani, in film and in text. Prior to the story, in groups each child went through a non-fiction book that captured different themes of the story; war, earthquakes, stitching, and migration, and discussed and shared with each other their own experiences with these topics. At the end of the story, the characters’ real photographs were shown and together we traced on a map the journey that they had made from Pakistan to Kutch. At the end of the session, there was a certain togetherness in collectively exploring a true event together, and one child declared it to be ‘the best story he had ever heard’.

As I journey on with non-fiction, I am reminded of the fact that while the lines in literature continue to lap and overlap, there is always a need to both broaden and deepen our own clarity and understanding of each genre and subgenre as we move forward and share this same understanding in practice.

References
• Bookworm (2020). Non Fiction and Read Aloud. https://www.bookwormgoa.in/2020/04/27/non-fiction-and-read-aloud/
• Bruning, R., & Schweiger, B. M. (1997). Integrating science and literacy experiences to motivate student learning. In J. T. Guthrie & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Reading engagement: Motivating readers through integrated instruction (pp. 149-167). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
• McGill-Franzen, A., Allington, R., Yokoi, L., & Brooks, G. (1999). Putting books in the classroom seems necessary but not sufficient. Journal of Educational Research, 93, 67-74.
• Moss, B. (2005). Making a case and a place for content area literacy in the elementary classroom. The Reading Teacher, 59, 46-55.
• Young, T. A., Moss, B., & Cornwell, L. (2007). The Classroom Library: A Place for Nonfiction, Nonfiction in its Place. Reading Horizons: A Journal of Literacy and Language Arts, 48 (1).

Picture Books cited
Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message by Chief Seattle, by Susan Jeffers, published by Dial Books (1991)
Galileo’s Leaning Tower Experiment, Wendy Macdonald, illustrated by Paolo Rui, published by Charlesbridge (2009)
Stitching Stories: The Art of Embroidery in Gujarat, by Nina Sabnani, published by Tulika Books (2011).
The Sea in a Bucket, by Avehi-Abacus, illustrated by Deepa Balsavar, published by Eklavya (2003).

The author is a library educator at Bookworm Goa. She can be reached at [email protected].

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