Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Imagination in All Things

We nonfiction writers often puzzle over the prejudice many teachers have against nonfiction. Sometimes these are so strong that they won't even allow a child to read a nonfiction book for credit or use one for a book report. One reason for this makes sense at first. Most of the school day, they will say, the children are reading fact after fact as they study math, science, social science, and grammar. They need a break. They need reading that will stimulate their imaginations.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Let's give the kids something to read that's different from what's required of them. Facts aren't all that matters in a good education; exercising the imagination is also important, and novels are what do that. But wait a minute--what's wrong with this picture? For one thing, where do the ideas for fiction writers come from? They come from the real world, from real events, things that really happened. And think about science fiction--it's a wonderfully imaginative genre that takes its inspiration from real scientific discoveries and inventions.

Some people prefer to call nonfiction books "informational books." I agree that the word "nonfiction" can have a negative sound to it--it says what our books are not instead of what they are. But "informational" sounds plodding and boring, and our books are far from that.

Reading exciting history, such as the recounting of the adventures of great explorers, for example, can really get children imagining. Take this tidbit from my book, The Lewis and Clark Trail Then and Now, describing the journey ahead:
"For more than two years, your diet will be limited to a few items.......You will work so hard that you can easily gobble down a meal of nine pounds of meat. Many times you will go hungry. You will be completely out of touch with family and friends except for one chance to send, but not receive, letters after the first winter."

A mathematically inclined reader might think for a moment, then realize--wow! Nine pounds of meat--that's 36 Quarter Pounders! The child who is constantly visiting his Facebook page and texting on his cell phone may wonder--how could I survive not being able to contact my friends? These kinds of reactions stimulate the readers imaginations to take them places mentally and emotionally that they have never been before.

Good nonfiction writing can also take something that seems mundane, like dust, and transform it into something magical. Here's a sample from April Pulley Sayre's book, Stars Beneath Your Bed The Surprising Story of Dust:
"Dust can be bits of unexpected things--a crumbling leaf, the eyelash of a seal, the scales of a snake, the smoke of burning toast, ash from an erupting volcano.......Old dust stays around. Dirt that made King Tut sneeze is still on Earth. It might be on your floor. That dusty film on your computer screen might have muddied a dinosaur." Now that's writing that will stimulate any reader's imagination!

One final point that has been brought up before in our blogs--there are children out there whose imaginations are more stimulated by nonfiction than fiction. They may even put down fiction as "just made up stories" and only be interested in reading about "real" things. If one goal of education is to help children develop a love of reading, then not allowing these children to read the kind of books that they find interesting can only work against this goal we all share.


Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, Dorothy. Putting the right nonfiction book in a child's hands can turn a reluctant reader into a voracious one. There are many kids out there that crave the real facts as much as, if not more than, made up stories.

Unknown said...

The ccbc list serve has been discussing nonfiction this month. One topic is the name of our genre. I hate the term "informational" because it sounds like a litany of facts, devoid of imagination. The term I like to use is "conceptual" because we present big ideas about the real world and decorate them with facts. A story is a conceptual framework--whether it's about the real world or an alternate universe. Great post, Dorothy--got me using my imagination.

Dorothy Patent said...

Thanks, Melissa and Vicki. Since I was one of those kids myself, I especially appreciate our efforts on the behalf of children like I was! No Nancy Drew for me--unveil the mysteries of the natural world, thank you very much.
Vicki--I'm not sure about 'conceptual'--concepts can be conjecture, not necessarily purely fact-based. But I like that we 'decorate them with facts.' Russell Freedman prefers 'fact' or 'factual' books--I'm not sure which, but so far, I haven't found a term that works well for me.

Jan Greenberg said...

I dislike the term "informational" too. Unfortunately there are plenty of books for young readers out there that are just that, filled with facts and figures, diagrams and definitions. But where is the lyrical language, as Melissa says, or the sensory imagery? Where is the story? The challenge is not only to decorate stories about the real world with facts,but also to make them come alive for the reader.