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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Researching the NF Question

From Baltimore to Staten Island

I am on the road today, going to a booksellers’s convention Baltimore, then a Teachers’ Night in Staten Island. This seems like a perfect chance to visit the debate going on in PW about nonfiction. After all, Shelftalker is a children’s bookselling blog, and the whole discussion over there began with a report from one store that NF sold well, and from another that it was dead. So it will be interesting to take the temperature of the booksellers, then shift directly over to the classroom. I know in advance that many of the teachers actually have a different concern, but one which relates directly to the NF discussion: they worry about getting kids (boys) interested in reading at all. 

I don’t want to cover everything Jon Sciezca says in the current Horn Book, and I agree with the poster over at PW that neither all boys nor all girls fits the slots he describes. But it is true that facts, pure, straightforward, unnarrative, unreflective, hard, cold, facts make great reading. And so long as adults resist that, so long as they treat baseball cards, and lists of fastest cars and deadliest snakes and power ratings on Magic cards as nonreading, they are going to convince large numbers of avid readers that they are nonreaders. Think of the current election campaign, how much weight is there in a poll number, in the amount of money one candidate has raised as opposed to another, to the date of one primary as against another. Soon enough we will be tracking delegate counts, and then projected electoral votes. In every one of those cases a number will carry with it the hopes and fears of millions, as well as a broad range of policy choices. Why shouldn’t we treat the numbers that weigh heavily in our kids’ lives as equally important? 

There is another twist in this NF, children, and popularity issue that I noticed with my about to be 3 year old son last night. I was reading him one of our many Fire Truck books. I wondered, why is it that inpicture books NF is so evidently popular where it is, well, factual — this is a hook and ladder truck, this is a hose truck, this is the pole the fireman slide down — but once we move to chapter books and beyond, the fact book becomes the "informational," the reference, a lesser species than a novel? I know, novels offer interiority, depth of character. What is the equivalent for NF? Clearly, it is thinking — pondering, wondering, comparing, learning to engage with and master the world. But I think many adults want the next step in NF to be the same as that in fiction — story, character — rather than thought. Am I right? 


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Wow, I’d never say that story and character are better than thought, but maybe some of us are more comfortable there. Like so many writers, librarians, booksellers, and teachers, I was an English major, brought there by love of story that has stuck. And like all those people, I’ve read my share of truck books and put books with little narrative shape that I can perceive into readers’ hands. We know the world of books is way bigger than our own personal tastes. As is the world beyond books. I teach at UMass-Amherst, where you won’t see any tours of the pretty decrepit English-foreign language building, while the sparkling and towering engineering and marketing halls get shown off. My point? I’m not so worried about the kids who love numbers and charts and formulas and machines.

    With all due respect for other forms, story has given me an entrée into unfamiliar worlds. I’ve sometimes wondered if biography had been part of my science classes, would I have done better in them? Maybe not, but I’d have had more fun, as I am with David Toomey’s The New Time Traveler’s: A Journey to the Frontiers of Physics, which begins recounting Toomey’s childhood experience with H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and includes vivid portraits of Einstein, Hawking, etc. Maybe these won’t enhance my very vague understanding of black holes, quantum thises and that’s, but they are pulling me through.

  2. Betty Carter says:

    I’m wondering if this discussion about facts and story doesn’t bring up a really important point about reading. While story allows many of us that entrée first into the book and then into unfamiliar worlds because we begin to identify with characters or situations, facts provide the same service for many other readers. When many youngsters, and, yes, in my experience they have been boys, read something like the Guiness Book of World Records, they begin the same kind of identification with facts that others have with story: What would it be like to be Michael Jordan with the strength and power to play so well or to have the longest fingernails in the world? That’s the identification — the insertion of self in print — we’re looking for in reading. In the case of Marc’s three-year-old, and millions more like him, I suspect he is getting praised for knowing the difference between a cement truck and a dump truck, which is a great step towards being recognized as an individual with all kinds of intellectual experiences. Often, adults think of these experiences as vocabulary building, but I wonder if they aren’t indeed experience building. Do children wonder “What would it be like to have on that cool hard hat and drive one of those trucks?”