Thursday, March 28, 2013

Keeping the Story in Non-fiction

So I’ve been preparing for a workshop at the TerraMuseum.   The main tools that I will be attempting to share, have to do with engaging young readers in non-fiction text about art.  That’s a mouthful.

The basic idea though, is that there is a difference in academic writing – the stuff that gets across a message respectfully but maybe not effectively…

As a result, I’ve been studying examples and researching various sources which target youth for education around artwork.

There are some great ones.

1.     ScholasticArt- is a fantastic magazine with information about art and artists.  Its text is lively, full of thoughtful questions and quirky facts to draw the readers in.

2.     MOMA has a fantastic online interactive site that takes kids through a virtual tour of the museum.  On certain works of art, kids can click to find out more about the artist, suggests activities based on the work, assist in creating a poem related to the work, and an audio that describes some of the important facts related to the piece.

3.     A site that helps kids learn more about careers in art

5.     The National Gallery has interactive tools for creating individual art

6.     There are countless books about art and about artists but one that I particularly like is Looking at Pictures by Joy Richardson.  The book has beautiful images and great, engaging text about the art and the artists featured.

So what these resources do right, is that they respect the developmental needs and interests of young learners who might not already have an interest in the subject of art.

For example, the kind of writing that accompanies a painting could read like this:

 Van Gogh painted from his youth until the time he died in 1890 at thirty-seven years of age.  He is largely considered to be an impressionist painter whose work was not appreciated during his lifetime.

So what is wrong with this description?

First, any sentence that begins with, “so and so was born in…” is one boring mother of a sentence.

Next, text that is jam-packed with dates and ages tend to overwhelm the reader with facts that don’t fit into an overall interesting story.

And non-fiction has plenty of story, sister.  Non-fiction should be just as much about the stories – the real life true stories – as it is about the facts.  All we need for a good yarn is a main character, a setting and some sort of conflict.  

Any of these interesting facts about Van Gogh and his painting Starry Night, are truly stories.

So, instead, the writing about Van Gogh's Starry Night could be more like this:

·      Van Gogh had five brothers and sisters.  He didn’t get along with all of his siblings but was very close to his brother Theo.

·      Some say that Van Gogh’s style of painting was a representation of his inner chaos.  He was often depressed and took his life by gunshot when he was only twenty-seven years old.

·      Van Gogh was enthralled with night!  He once wrote to his brother, "It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day....”

·      After Van Gogh threatened his close friend Paul Gaugin with a razor blade, he went home and had a furious breakdown, cutting off a portion of his own ear.

It’s easy to see how a young person would be much more drawn in by the second example of text about Starry Night and its artist, than the first.  The second grabs us with details of conflict between friends, razor-blade fights, self-injury, depression and suicide.  This is an exciting story!

So don’t leave out the story in non-fiction.  Look for it.  Use it to make the text relatable, interesting and fresh.  Look, the popularity of reality TV proves this over and over:

When the choice is between the story of when so and so was born and how he painted for thirty years,

or the story of how so and so sliced off his own ear after a fight with one of his best friends, 

readers are going to pick the fight every time. 

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Story wins over dry facts, & it fleshes out the character & makes him more interesting.