Dara Ó Briain: Why reading non-fiction to children could help them find their passions

Published on: 01 November 2018 Author: Emily Drabble, filmed and edited by Robbie Hunt

Dara Ó Briain has built up a loyal following of children with his brilliant non-fiction books, including his new title Secret Science: The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes.

To celebrate Non-Fiction November, we caught up with Dara to chat about why fact books are so great, how he makes science interesting for children and why we shouldn't take the phrase 'bedtime stories' so literally - why not try some non-fiction at night?

Watch our interview with Dara below, or keep scrolling for a transcript (and a clip of him reading from Secret Science!)

Can you remember which non-fiction books captivated you as a child?

The simple answer is no, I can't remember. because it was 40 years ago! I remember it all kicking into place when I was about 14 and went into a science fiction and science phase in my reading, but to be honest that was probably the point I stepped into adult non-fiction, reading Chaos by James Gleik, Schrödinger's Cat and books that were about physics and space. Weirdly. I don't remember specific books I read when I was the age I'm writing for now. I'm sure there were books about space. But there wasn't one particularly when I was 12.

Why did you decide to start writing children's non-fiction books?

I've been doing Stargazing on TV for 10 years and got very used to enthusing about science. I don't make any claims to be an expert on science, but I can enthuse and I can communicate it. I like to leave the public science books that scientists write to the experts, then I second-handedly take those ideas, zhoozhing them up with jokes and cherry picking the best parts to get to the audience at their most curious age.

How does your comedy inform writing your books?

When you write a book like this, the flow of ideas is similar and then it's not that dissimilar to writing a book for adults. I write in a fairly open conversational style, and with the point of view of how well it reads and whether it's a smooth read. Much like you would if you were writing a comedy show, you want it to roll very naturally from topic to topic, so the the audience goes, 'Was that an hour?' And it's gone. It's kind of about pacing it, with the extra effort of sprinkling actual facts rather than just comic inventions.

Why do you think non-fiction books perhaps have the reputation of being a bit dry?How important is it for you that your non-fiction is highly amusing?

Weirdly, I'm not worried about them being dry. As I've seen with my own kids, non-fiction tends to be big on the graphics, big on the facts and pockets of facts here and there. They are normally gorgeous, big, glossy books.

But one that can actually be read, that flows like a story, is quite rare. And I want my book Secret Science to flow like a story, as one piece of reading: you wake up in the morning and this is what's happened to your hair! Before you know it, you've gone through the whole day.

I want my non-fiction to be something you can read to a kid. I find it kind of frustrating that you can't really read a big book of dinosaurs to your kids because there's an arrow pointing to its foot, and you have to get their eyes to go over here, as opposed to something that just rolls until the point when you say, 'Well, you've had ten pages and now it's time to sleep'.

I think most non-fiction books are gorgeous, glossy and fantastic, but I think non-fiction is a bit like modern museum design - very directive - and for me there's a tendency for it to go in one eye and out the other. I wanted my books to feel more like a conversation.

Which was the most difficult concept to explain to 9-11 year olds in Secret Science?

The more abstract it got, the more difficult it is to earth it in their experience. So I'd say the most difficult concept was the electro-magnetic waves. Well, the electro-magnetic field is difficult enough to explain at the best of times to grown-ups: the notion that we swim in this sea of potentialities of the forces of electro-magnetism, that's all around us at all times.

It's an abstract question and ot's easier to talk about sleep. But the flip side is that if you can get them into that, then it opens up a more general view of things. In my first non-fiction book for children, Beyond the Sky, I made a point of quietly setting it in a relativistic universe, which means rather than teaching gravity as a string that connects two things, we went straight to teaching about how space itself is bent, and if you can get them used to that, you don't have to correct things later in life!

Should adults who know nothing about space and science fear reading your books out loud?

I don't think you should ever fear additional questions! But if your kid's asking extra questions, then well done! And well done on that kid! Sorry, you'll just have to go to Wikipedia or whatever to Google the answers!

Was it your experience of reading non-fiction to your children that made you want to write your books differently?

To be honest, no. This is just the way I write and it's the style of writing I use both in print and spoken word for some time now! And it's managed to get me this far, so no, it's only later when I've written the thing. Again, a comedian trait is that you don't try out your material on just one person. If one person doesn't like it you'll go, 'Well, this is obviously rubbish', whereas if 2,000 people watch it they have more of a nuanced view. I tried to read it out loud afterwards to the kids but to be honest, I started adding things in. So my tip is that you should feel free to add things in as you're reading.

Do you think people should jump up and down a bit more about non-fiction books in this country?

I know in the US, non-fiction authors are household names and teachers are encouraged to split their use of non-fiction and fiction 50/50 in primary schools, whereas the balance is much more to fiction in Ireland and the UK. I personally tend to balance my reading 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I bounce between the two.

It's interesting that in the UK non fiction is less high-profile. I think there's a fear of reading non-fiction with kids in case they find it less interesting. I think we have a tendency to to think of it as being linked to a school subject rather than an interesting thing in itself. I think the age that I'm writing for, it's still the age of wonder, rather than picking topics that you'll do at school and be examined on.

I suppose most people would choose to read a story to kids at bedtime. And we could easily shake ourselves out of that - the world is not short of books on dinosaurs and space, let's put it that way! But there is a lot of stuff out there they can find with the extra heft of it being real!

I think we may need to move that dial slightly more towards non-fiction. We've got in our heads bedtime stories, not bedtime reading, and I think we take that too literally at times.

You're not short of choices with non-fiction. There are huge shelves of brilliant books about whatever you want to get into. We made a virtue in Secret Science of going, 'There's stuff here you'll love and stuff you won't love that much. Skip the stuff you don't love.'

The thing about non-fiction is it's about specialising and kids finding their passions. Start general and burrow down, dive deep. Find the things they really enjoy. There's an element in both my non-fiction books about finding out more about what it is you really, really enjoy.

In space it's about, 'Yeah, I know you all want to be astronauts, but you can also build robots and they can investigate space'. Secret Science is about all general science, from hormones in the brain, neuro-transmitters, to animal sleep patterns, to engines on aeroplanes. Part of the mission statement of the book is that there'll be bits in this you don't enjoy and that's okay, but actually what happens over life is we find what we're passionate about. Keep track of the bits you really liked, at the back of the book - did you like that bit? You might want to be a neurologist. Did you like that? You might want to be an engineer. It's not like I want to pigeon-hole children or go into career guidance but they should unburden themselves of what they find less interesting and investigate more of what they're really passionate about.

Dara Ó Briain's Beyond the Sky: You and the Universe was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award for Books with Facts 2018. His latest book Secret Science: The Amazing World Beyond Your Eyes is out now and published by Scholastic.

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