Robert Hull questions some standard beliefs about the Language of Information Books
1. The library will have the books you want …
I’ve made several earnest forays to libraries recently, looking for non-fiction for children to read – the sort the reader picks up, gets hooked on, and goes through from end to end. And I’ve been left with some dismally clear impressions, puzzles for the teacher and parent in me.
i) Why, even at first and junior school level, are there far more books that are good to look at than there are books which children can read? And why so often does quality of text lag behind quality of image?
ii) Even more acutely, why, in the 11-16 age range, is there a desperate dearth not just of good non-fiction to read, but often of any non-fiction at all to read?
iii) Why are some subjects so much lazier than others that they ought to be told to pull their socks up?
Have I been to the wrong libraries? Were the good books all out?
I wonder if part of the trouble isn’t the words. It might be better if we had a less sombre lot of grey-suited terms than ‘information’, ‘facts’, ‘non-fiction’. The other side has ‘story’, ‘play’, ‘drama’- it’s not fair.
To children, it really wouldn’t be fair if, because we ourselves couldn’t shake off a grey Gradgrindian legacy of stern-speaking about facts, it were to infiltrate books for children, and help deny them access to the intellectual worlds we say we want them to enter.
I wonder also, reading so many of these books, or rather wandering uncertainly about in them, whether our basic hang-up isn’t still the feeling that reading is not what one does with a non-fiction book. Perhaps we really still think that a science book for 13-year-olds has to be arranged ‘logically’ in chapters which contain ‘the’ suitable subject-matter for that age, and that the essential function of such books is to ‘transmit information’.
2. Non-fiction books are for conveying information …
The best books I’ve found – or been offered to read because as parent and teacher I couldn’t find them for myself – say, in effect, that the essential job of their kind of non-fiction is not to ‘transmit’ and ‘convey’, and that ‘facts’ are not its defining concern.
The word ‘fact’ is a thorough nuisance, in fact. Take what sounds like a fully paid-up history fact: ‘King Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow at the Battle of Hastings.’ Definitely a fact; more so than this, perhaps: ‘And after the battle were over, They found ‘Arold so stately and grand, Sitting there with an eye-full of arrow, On ‘is ‘orse with ‘is ‘awk in ‘is ‘and.’
Yet surely neither is, in itself, a fact; both are statements, formulations. The facts are long gone, in 1066. The only thing these statements ‘transmit’ is themselves. The writer makes statements that refer to (distant) facts, and the statements put together make a world. Which is why I want to say that what the most potent, readable, necessary (and mainly non-existent) non-fiction does is create a world, the world of a writer, a human self.
The books that are a delight to read do exactly that. I found, for example, Fred Wilde’s The Clatter of Clogs in the Early Morning in which each spread has a reproduction of one of his paintings opposite his text: At the top of his stick there burned a small acetylene flame made by dripping water on to carbide of calcium. He would push his stick up through the hinged window in the bottom of the lamp, turning on the gas at the same time. The gas mantle would go ‘plop’, and immediately there was a lovely pool of soft, golden light on the pavement.
‘Information’ in this book is not a marshalled battalion of ‘facts’, but a pattern in the intensely aware and informed vision of someone seeing and experiencing things. We meet not ‘knowledge’, the noun, but the man speaking knowingly, knowledge as adverb, as the accent or attribute of a writer’s personality. Of itself, the encounter with such a book should settle an argument for us: we may say that the ‘logical’ or ‘structured’ text-book-like book is necessary, but we can never say that books in a particular subject must take that form.
I wish to pursue this fundamental point with reference to a recent picture-book from Michael Foreman, War Boy, published by Pavilion Books, which like Wilde’s also shows how marvellously possible it is for history, at least, to be a compulsive read. It is an account of his life as a young boy in Lowestoft during the Second World War. This, underneath a drawing, is the first page: I wokeup when the bomb came through the roof. It came through at an angle, overflew my bed by inches, bounced up over my mother’s bed, hit the mirror, dropped into the grate and exploded up the chimney. It was an incendiary. A fire bomb.
There’s history in the grip of the detail: Ivan threw sand over the bomb but the dry sand kept sliding off.And in sharing the small boy’s experience: My mother grabbed me from the bed . . . The sky bounced as my mother ran.And in local significances: The Germans were trying to set alight the thatched roof of the church to make a beacon for the following waves of bombers. And in the comedy: At the beginning of the Black Out there were many more casualties from road accidents than from enemy actions … Men were encouraged to leave their white shirt tails hanging out at night. A local farmer painted white stripes on his cows in case they strayed on the roads. Foreman’s book is what books of non-fiction could far more often be like. It is a young boy’s war world, presented with an immediacy that you can’t resist; the ‘information’ about the war is integral to that world, and indeed through this idiosyncratic character adds its uniqueness to our understanding of the war.
3. Narrative is a good dramatic way to convey information …
Foreman’s text is narrative, and narrative – story-telling – is perhaps the best way to hold the reader’s attention continuously. That is, provided it works. Narrative is difficult, and needs a writer to write it; it can’t be taken up, as it often seems to be, in the expectation that it will somehow create interest of itself. There are many non- fiction narratives that do not convince, and some that do. The assumption that narrative is essentially a (painless) way of ‘conveying information’ may well be very unhelpful.
‘Informative’ but inadequate narrative is so widespread that examples can be found almost at random. This is the first paragraph of Columbus and the Age of Exploration, by Stewart Ross, published by Wayland in 1985: In the crow’s nest the look-out screwed his eyes up against the glare of the tropical sun. Beneath him the little forty-ton ship Nina rolled heavily in the Arctic swell. The sailor took a piece of dry biscuit from his pocket. It tasted foul, but there was no other food. They had been at sea for forty days now and supplies were getting perilously low. The problem here is the writer’s reluctance to commit himself to narrative, and to the viewpoint of his narrator. He has half an eye on the fiction and one-and-a-half on the information; the look-out screws up his eyes to think about the food situation and the weight of the boat. There’s no focus; we can’t believe it as narrative.
Almost equally at random is some narrative text from a new book for lower juniors, called The Tiny Seed, by Eric Carle. A strong wind is blowing. It blows flower seeds high in the air and carries them far across the land. One of the seeds is tiny, smaller than any of the others. Will it be able to keep up with the others? And where are they all going? On the next page: One seed drifts down to the desert. It is hot and dry, and the seed cannot grow. Now the tiny seed is flying very low, but the wind pushes it on with the others.
At first it isn’t easy to see anything greatly amiss here. The text is ‘true’, it’s ‘easy’. But there is a fatal absence of particularity about it – not restored by the non-committal illustrations, in which the seeds look not that different from leaves. We don’t know what kind of seed it is; we know only that ‘One of the seeds is tiny’, the phrase ‘far across the land’ leaves us groping for a sharp picture of fields, a ditch, hedges. Then we turn over the page to the most token of deserts. The fate of the tiny seed leaves us deeply unmoved, because the narrative doesn’t believe in its own story.
In other words, taking on narrative as a method, to remedy things, only works if the method is well handled. That seems obvious, but it is odd that we so often don’t notice what’s going wrong. Perhaps this is because we are bemused by the brilliance, often, of the visual component of non-fiction and the professional panache of glamorous packaging into not noticing the grotesque inertia of the text. We may even then also fail to notice that ‘simple’ text is also frequently difficult – not totally unapproachable, but sufficiently misty and gappy, in a low-key way, to keep the reader just missing the point.
Take for example – it could be many others – another new book in a nature series, Earth, written by Alfred Leutscher and brilliantly illustrated by John Butler. One spread has these bald sentences opposite a beautifully drawn squirrel: When autumn leaves fall and decay they add more humus to the soil. In a forest of evergreens, however, there is little humus; the soil is poor and acid. The few pine needles that fall do not add much nourishment. The permanent gloom shelters deer and other shy animals. .. And so on.
This is far less easy than it looks. How do children of eight or nine pick up from this context the significance of ‘evergreens’ – as meaning trees different from trees whose ‘leaves fall’, while their own ‘needles’ puzzlingly, fall too? Is ‘however’ a word familiar to them? How do they know what, or maybe who, the ‘nourishment’ nourishes (assuming they understand the word ‘nourishment’)? Will they make the inference that ‘The permanent gloom’ is produced by ‘the evergreens’ or treat it as a different entity of some sort, just introduced?
This awkward text cannot tell its story, because it cannot dwell on anything for long. There is too much to do – one spread on farming, one on earthquakes, and so on. For me, it is just not readable. And the reason for that, ultimately, is that it is committed to a notion of ‘information’ that is diffuse, dislocated, uprooted from the personal intellectual history of the writer. It offers satellite pictures of what we need to see much closer up, out of a human eye in a place.
Compare it with ostensibly more difficult text, intended for older readers, from Richard Adams’ Nature Day and Night (Penguin 1976):
I see a grey wagtail bobbing and strutting on a flat stone under a little waterfall. He is bluish grey above and yellow below, very handsome; but it is his brisk, cocky walk (he never hops) and dipping flirting flight, and above all the long tail forever wagging like a clockwork toy, that make him so buoyant and attractive.
4. Some subjects are not suited to non-fiction …
I see that Adams writes here as implying an offer of access, through continuous engaged reading, to an intellectual world, and the other way as implying denial. I sense behind all such denials the conviction that the facts matter above all, and a belief that the topic-seen-necessarily-as-facts cannot be also shaped as personal vision. From that it is a step to saying that only chatty areas like history and nature are amenable to humanising treatment through personal intellectual adventure stories.
This is a dubious argument. Over the years there have been some fine books on architecture, to take a subject at the border between the two cultures. (Is architecture a science? I’d have thought so. Certainly, if geography and sociology keep putting their hands up saying they want to be, I’m going to let architecture be, too.) This is despite the fact that apart from the compulsory manic tour of English castles, it’s a subject that’s historically enjoyed little support in schools.
David Macaulay’s Cathedral – like his other books – is as much ‘technology’ as ‘architecture’, and shows that it is possible to write, for junior school children, technical text that is effortlessly readable. His story of the building of a fictive ‘Chutreaux’ is engrossing as narrative, and intimately informative, visually and textually, at the level of (everyone’s) mundane questions like ‘How did they get the arches up there?’ or ‘How do they make bells?’ and so on.
Perhaps, some might say, you can only do it in some subjects. With maths, chemistry and physics, especially, text had to be impersonal, objective, etc. This is surely nonsense. Here is some physics: Go with some friends under the hatches of some big ship and see that you have some small birds with you, and also a small bucket with a hole in suspended high above another one, so that the water will drip slowly from the higher to the lower one. Observe very carefully, when the boat is standing still, the way the birds dart about to and fro in all directions, and the drops fall into the bucket underneath. Get the ship to move as fast as it can and so long as the movement is steady and uniform, you will not see the slightest alteration in the way the birds fly or water falls, and you will not be able to tell from them whether the ship is moving or not. Physics to read… from Gallileo.
The largest puzzle of all therefore remains: why isn’t there, twenty-odd years after the comprehensive idea threw open, at the level of ideology at least, academic subjects to all, more readable non-fiction? Why are books written for 7-9 year-olds and later for adults and A-level students, but not – so far as I can see – with anything like the same concern, skill, or commitment for children of 11-16? Do we perhaps not believe that books are the one most effective means of enabling children to enter academic worlds?
If we didn’t, it would explain to some degree why – especially in subjects like chemistry, physics, maths, even (amazingly) geography the dearth of non-fiction reading books continues to block access to those worlds. Is that continued denial a consequence of comprehensive school versions of subjects, in which universality of access was not perceived as a problem? No need for children to read their way into commitment; you were either ‘good at physics’-our physics – or not. Perhaps it is this reactionary aspect of the work of comprehensives that has come to roost in the monumental apathies too visible in schools.
5. The textbook has the basic information needed for the course …
The contents list of Cotterrell and Russell’s new GCSE Social Science (Heinemann Educational, 1988) makes, so to speak, interesting reading. This is Section 1 (nine to come):
Methods Used in Social Science
1.1 The Questionnaire
1.2 Asking Questions: Interviews
1.3 Participant Observation
1.4 Surveys and Sampling
1.5 Secondary Sources: Documentary Evidence
1.6 Presenting the Information
What is worrying is the sense that this all-too-complete course not only can be, but probably has to be, accomplished without independent reading. The subject is already by page 5 defined in such a way as to put pupils’ own language resources under suspicion, technicalising words pupils will know, like ‘interview’ and ‘observation’: The interview is a conversation between an interviewer and a respondent with the purpose of eliciting certain information. Observation is a method in which the researcher becomes involved in some way with the person or group being studied.
The ‘Extension Activities’ that follow the ‘Question’ section at the end of each chapter might imply here and there that reading is needed, but of what kind and at what pace is unclear. Nowhere is an actual request made to read a book, only to Make a study of the upper class (p.53), Make a study of gender socialisation (p.57) and so on. The iron insouciance of all this makes it likely that pupils will have their hands if not their minds only too full.
6. Exciting works of non-fiction can always be found …
Perhaps this close control over secondary school subjects, and the denial of reading it entails, explains why so many of the good works of non-fiction one finds – on subjects just right for 11-16 year-olds – seem to be written and packaged for the sixth form or tertiary level. It is tantalising to see a beautifully produced book, the concept of which is just right for 11-16, skew off towards that higher level.
One book that I found, for instance, seemed an ideal way in to aspects of (at least) maths and biology. Peter S Stevens’ Patterns in Nature, published by Peregrine Books in 1976, has fascinating photographs and a very well-written text which one would love to see translated, or rather transposed for 12-year-olds: The leaves that curl counterclockwise on the left side of the front of the sago palm shown in fig. 54, are opposed by clockwise curls on the right side. Storms spiral counterclockwise above the equator and clockwise below, just as in a more abstract realm, negative numbers camp to the left of zero and positive numbers to the right.
Time and again, one finds that the fascinating topic is only done in the adults-only version. Whether it’s computer graphics, clouds, geology, the working of the brain, the structure of the eye, or whatever, readable non-fiction seems to be far more available for the older student. There are exceptional writers – Asimov, Grigson – who seem to enjoy writing for 11-16s, despite the cultural pressure not to; but I’ve found it very difficult to discover any really good new through-read non-fiction for that older group.
That seems the most baffling of the puzzles. Not far behind is the puzzle of there still being so little really good text for 7-11 year-olds either. Considering the brilliance of the illustration in so much work nowadays, it begins to look like a mystery. Perhaps non-fiction is more mysterious than fiction.
Robert Hull taught for 25 years in state schools and is now a freelance writer and lecturer, He is the author of The Language Gap (0 416 39400 0. £7.95) and Behind the Poem (0 415 00701 1, £10.95) both published in paperback by Routledge.