Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Cynicism and Nonfiction

Let’s Face It

We all have a list of reasons for why NF books for younger readers are not greeted with the same love and passion as either picture books (I know, there are NF picture books, but you know what I mean) or novels. But at ALA, a friend put his finger on one that we don’t always discuss. As we walked through the show and looked at one too many display of color-photo-illustrated simple NF titles, he said to me. "These books are cynical." He was exactly right. Row after row of full color images of Truck, Plane, Frog, Shark, Wolf, T-Rex, Volcano with very simple text, all said the same thing: these kids don’t need much — give them a large image, lively if you can, certainly as inexpensive as possible, don’t waste too much time on thinking about what to say, run the books through a simple design program with a couple of sidebars, and print. The books are cynical because they assume you can get away with it. Your readers won’t know the difference, neither they nor their parents, teachers, or librarians will know the difference.

The more cynical NF there is, the easier for people to get a general impression of NF as stamped out, industrial, somehow less individual, less crafted, less personal, then a novel or, say a picture book by Chris Raschka or David Weisner.

Do I mean series? Yes and no. A series does not have to be cynical, I know that for a fact. But it is true that some are. So in saying "cynical" I am not being euphemistic. There are cynical poems and novels and picture books and biographies. There are highly personal series. Still, there is a warning for all of us in my friend’s impression. The more books we produce that lack individuality, the easier it is for others to see all NF for kids as having that characteristic — the easier it is for them to see our work as, well, less crafted, less personal, than other genres. And that is bad for all of us. We cannot afford to be cynical.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    Perhaps, but the books do not stand alone. A child can interact intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically with the most cynical of books.

    I’m currently teaching on online grad course in fairy tales and, as was the case the last time I taught it, many of the students were weaned on — what else — Disney. Now many accuse Disney of cynicism, but the classical fairy tale films have more depth than may be apparent on first viewing and provide much thoughtful discussion.

    I would suspect even the most pedestrian book on Trucks will provide a young child who is fascinated by them with plenty to work with, cynical the production of the book may have been.

  2. Chris Barton says:

    Monica wrote, “I would suspect even the most pedestrian book on Trucks will provide a young child who is fascinated by them with plenty to work with, cynical the production of the book may have been.”

    As a two-time parent of 3-year-olds, I can vouch for that — if not about truck books, then about bird books, or books about gears. The writer in me may be turned off by these seemingly cynical books, but the parent in me can’t (shouldn’t) complain — especially when I see how those books can serve as a gateway to more thoughtful, advanced books on the same subjects, to the point where the household experts on birds and gears are under 4’6″.

    Of course, I’d hope that writers and editors and publishers would all strive for the middle ground — where the nonfiction we produce is meaningful to us as well as our readers.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Betsy Herne wrote a piece some years ago, in the Horn Book as I recall, on Disney fair tales that did a good job of unpacking their complexity and cynicism. Sure, my two year old likes the simplest Truck and Plane books. But I resent them. With the slightest extra expense the publishers could have made them not merely OK but good. We too often settle in especially younger NF — and that “settling,” that acceptance of “good enough” is what taints NF in general.