Where Engagement Needs to Take Over From Storytelling — and Doesn’t
At year’s end a conversation I had helped bring together my perennial interests (which you see discussed here all too often): nonfiction, kids, reading, school, authors and how they all do, or don’t, fit together. Summarizing one discussion, a teacher said: in early elementary school kids are nurtured on story, then as they reach 4th, 5th, 6th grade they are expected to have higher order thinking and reading skills — but just at that moment, story disappears from their NF books. So there is a double gap — they need to make a leap ahead, but they are loosing the foundation that made them comfortable. So the content gap — the need to find a way for kids to think in themes and causes and effects rather than individual storylines — becomes a literacy gap — kids have trouble reading, lose interest in reading, associate reading and story only with fiction.
This knot, this double problem, had never been as clear to me. But friends that is where we all come in. Because the leap — the jump from one trapeeze to the other — is from being pulled along by story (three beats, suspense at the page turn or chapter ending, satisfying conclusion where you have arrived and been changed by the journey) to being intrigued by your mind — by detective work, problem solving, mystery investigating. The child goes from the empathic guest, carried along in someone else’s adventure, to the active agent, the thinking mind, the person gaining his/her own mastery of the world by both seeking out its wonders and developing the skills to make sense of them.
This is where our books can and must live — and which no database, no textbook, can supply. We embody the bridge from story to quest, we bring that alive on our pages, and we invite readers to join us in further adventures of the mind. That’s our reason for being. (By the way, I don’t mean to say that we need to avoid or neglect storytelling, only that however well we do that, we are not just taking readers along on interesting journeys, we are of necessity also helping them develop the tools to set off on their own.)