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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

I Want to Be a Historian

Of School Visits and the Debate Over at PW

I was not here in blog form yesterday because I spent a glorious day at the Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, PA meeting with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. That itself was fascinating — the effervescent 6th graders — all sparkle and bright eyes, the more self-conscious, and self-aware, seventh graders, the 8th graders whose adult selves are coming into focus. Having just watched 49-up, this was like a super fast forward version, seeing how dramatically lives change, year by year. Surely this is old hat to those of you who work in middle grades, or whose kids have passed through those stages. But for me it was just great fun — finding out how to match the history I was going to talk about to the sensibilities of the kids. That said, it was a thrilling day of high-spirited discussions ranging overthing from Race, to Transnational History, to the great fun of finding mistakes in textbooks, to Bill Gates.

At the end of the day I was at the gym, now set up for the school book fair. Two of the kids (sixth graders as I recall) came up to me and said, "I want to be a historian." I’m sure any visiting author gets a similar gush, but it was really gratifying to see that. By contrast, take a look at Shelftalker, Allison Morris’s blog over at the Publisher’s Weekly site — it is all abuzz with views on fiction and nonfiction. Some of the posters are passionate in saying that kids hate NF, others (a homeschooling parent in particular) say just the opposite. But when I contrast the excitement in that school, the nearly universal buzz in the kids in talking about ideas, facts, theories, interpretations, the past, with those who say kids don’t like NF — something just does not make sense.

Sure, an author visit is different from reading a book. Any author generates buzz just based on his or her classroom behavior. But it seems to me that kids who are that thrilled with thinking about history are going to read history. Unless: unless the adults around them view NF as boring, or less than fiction, or just "good for reports" and pass on that judgment, or if the books those kids have available to them are confined to the most straightforward and dull writing. All I can say folks, is that there is a hunger for NF that I see in those kids, and if we fail to feed it, either because of our attitudes, or because our books are not good enough, we have failed in our responsibility to young people. And that is simply wrong.


  1. Becky at Farm School says:

    I find the same thing with poetry for children, too. Most adults seem to foist their own expectations that kids should find nonfiction or poetry boring (just as they should be happier with chicken nuggets than chicken parmagiana or piccata), when I think adults — parents, teachers, librarians — should be doing their darndest to leave their personal prejudices behind and letting kids make up their own minds, based of course on the best and tastiest offerings.