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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Just the Facts

Thanks Jennine and Betty, this is going in a really interesting direction. To be clear, I have nothing against "story" — I try to weave in all kinds of narrative and drama when I write. But I just got an email from a mother that fits precisely with what Betty says. Her son is bright, but in1st, 2nd, 3rd, grade kept saying that he "hates" reading — he would do anything, even clean up his room, rather than read a book. Then he heard about the World Almanac and Book of Facts. He loved it. Though, unfortunately, his teacher would not count that as a book he read. For that boy — any many boys (and even some girls, I suspect), facts do allow a kind of identification that story does not. As I wrote in my HB piece about stats and baseball cards — when I was a kid and read batting averages, and, today, when my older son looks at RBIs, or ERA, or attack ratings on Magic cards, I do, he does, just what Betty says. We identify, we picture ourselves as that strong. The other day, I saw that son and his buddies acting out Pokemon — they were the creatures, who had the ratings listed on the cards. I am sure someone will be really mad at me for saying this, but a female analogy to those emotionally-rich stats is dress sizes. She is a 4, a 5, I can still get into a 6 — those numbers are emotional, erotic, psychological, they are, in a word, charged, and they are charged precisely because they are numbers. Believe it or not, many kids see as much emotional power in a list of highest and lowest temperatures as adults do in ranking their dress size. Ranking carries meaning.

See for those boys, they want just the facts, then they inhabit, they create, the story. They do not want the author to give them the story that they passively absorb. I realize that story need not be passive, you can imagine yourself into it. In fact, most authors probably believe story is what allows active engagement. My whole point here is to say, as the blog is titled, it ain’t necessarily so. The reason why those engineering buildings are so spiffy is because we like building stuff, we pay a lot to folks who can construct better computer programs, and cars, and spaceships. And those folks may well find much more engagement in pure facts than in stories. 

I chose this title also as a way to report on my visits yesterday. The teachers’ night was interesting in that all the teachers were women, and almost all taught preschool. What, I thought, can I offer them? I reduced my presentation to two two-word phrases — which are, I believe, keys to making history exciting: the first phrase is, "what if" — instead of marching through what did happen, let kids play out what might have happened. The second is, "how come" — not just what events took place, but why? Both of these serve the function of making the student an active participant in history — she or her does not receive wisdom, instead young people experiment in their minds, try out ideas, and then learn from that.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I love the idea of working with students with those two short questions. ..and I heard Jessica Stern speak last night, then, taking a question from a polite but bristly student re her book Terror in the Name of God, Stern thanked her for “reading with such skepticism and care,” which I thought a wonderful phrase and goal.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    sounds exactly right