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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

And It Can’t Just Be an Encyclopedia

Changing On the Fly

First off, thanks to all of you for your nice, encouraging, posts. At AASL, an audience member asked the panel Jim Murphy, Ann Bausum, Kathy Krull and me why we write for young people, not adults. I said, "because you are all so welcoming, so it is your fault." And so it is — the fact that our books are read, engaged with, discussed, valued, makes us want to keep writing them.

I thought that, in the spirit of interactivity, I’d try an experiment here. We all know the assignment where a student has to get information, but is required to use more than an encyclopedia. But what exactly is an encyclopedia these days? That gets to the really interesting new meeting place of nonfiction and young people. We are in November, so assume a kid needs to find out something about Thanksgiving. I don’t have a print young reader’s encyclopedia at hand, so I can’t look it up. But I can presume that an entry would be visually appealing, written and edited with the younger reader in mind, and pretty careful to be aware of both the Indian and Pilgrim experiences. In other words, it would be carefully crafted to hand the students what thoughtful authors, editors, publishers, educators, historians, and art directors believe they need. 

What would wikipedia give us? Clear information, written for adults but not overly daunting, with links pointing in directions from cranberries to Thanksgiving in Canada. There is also a "simple English" version that is a bit like a book for younger readers, except in a book aimed at this reading level there would surely be many pictures. So it is a kind of half book. Now take a look at how Thanksgiving is handled at, Here you can find the Wiki version, as well as the Columbia Encyclopedia, and the shorter Britannica, and others. Surely this is more than a young reader would want, but it shows, at a glance, how the very same event can be described, discussed, treated many different ways. In the digital environment, the Encyclopedia is almost the opposite of the print version: the Wiki leads you to links you need to select from yourself, turns the encyclopedia from the one-stop-product of adult selection to an instant portrait of the many forms of adult writing and thinking.

In hockey, when teams trade shifts while play continues they call it, "changing on the fly." What we are seeing in these digital encyclopedias is knowledge changing on the fly. So I think that rather than tell students not to use an encyclopedia, or to use more than that reference, we should have them compare among print and various on-line encyclopedias. Lets use the print to get the benefit of adult judgment, then on-line to spur kids to do their own thinking, their own comparisons, they own judgments. Instead of being a source for canned knowledge that ends enquiry, the many encyclopedias can now bring young people to the frontiers of changing ideas, and spur their own thinking.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    In a writing course I teach at a university, we ask students to write a “review of the literature,” a few paragraphs stating their sources and what about them seemed useful and reliable, or not, and why. I think younger students might enjoy doing this. The language doesn’t have to be formal (I’ve gotten “the history channel rocks”) and it may be easier than trying to incorporate this kind of analysis into the body of the paper.

  2. David from Alaska says:

    Students should be comparing encyclopedic sources, noticing the facts that stay consistent between them and questioning the information that isn’t. Plenty of interesting correlations exist between what information is presented and who is presenting the information. The most interesting details of this sort probably go unnoticed, considering the lifespan of reference material. Wikipedia is a great place to begin… the tricky part is getting kids to think the kind of thoughts that will illustrate Wiki’s limitations naturally.

    I had fun hearing you describe how you chose to illustrate your book about Columbus at AASL. I especially liked the analogy between what the “new world” was to them and what space is to us, logically ending the story of Columbus with an image from NASA.