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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

That’s What Lurking Gets You

Aggravated, That’s What

So I’m hanging around over at CCBC, watching as well-read folks list their favorite books of the year — picture books, chapter books, middle grade books, YA books. Guess what all of the fine selections have in common? Fiction, fiction, fiction, fiction and more fiction. I find it, well, weird that none of the posters even pauses and says, gosh, I’m only mentioning fiction. I don’t mean that they should say "these are my Sibert choices," but, rather, that this group of experts in children’s literature, many of whom see a wide range of new books each year, either dislike nonfiction so much they don’t read it, or have not seen anything in nonfiction that measures up to the best fiction, or somehow treat "best" in nonfiction as a matter of accuracy, reference, in short utility — good perhaps, but not even worth mentioning in the same breath with "best." 

To be clear, I am not saying that any particular nonfiction book this year was, for sure, "better" than all of the fine fiction that is coming up in posts. For all I know, it was a terrible year in nonfiction, and a great one in fiction. But what I find just astonishing is that none of the posters seems to have noticed this trend. If it is such an unbalanced year, wouldn’t someone want to talk about that? Of course I am being silly. We all know this is not about one year or another. Just about any year we would be seeing the same lists. I feel the same way about the National Book Award — which has had, I believe, three or perhaps four nonfiction finalists, and no winners, in a decade. Now the NBA does have a bit of an excuse, it can only consider text, not art, so it really is for the best middle grade or YA book, and the pool of truly excellent older nonfiction is limited. Fair enough. But end of the year lists that deliberately range from the youngest picture books through the most challenging YA have plenty of nonfiction to consider.

We have the Sibert — an ALSC award, so for readers 0-14, and YALSA is moving forward towards a YA nonfiction prize — readers 12-18. Great, and yet horrible. Sure we all want awards. We also want awareness and recognition. And it is the invisibility of nonfiction that bothers me. Can you all help me — what is that quality, that experience, that reading epiphany that folks find so readily present in fiction, and so unavailable in nonfiction? I honestly don’t know what it is. And even if we all agree that there is such a quality, a certain something about the best fiction which moves some readers in ways that only the extremely rare nonfiction can, why are we so certain that all young people are those kinds of readers? What am I missing? Is nonfiction really so tarnished by its association with lessons, assignments, servicable prose on standard subjects that, around this time of year when we are all gushing about our favorites, it simply disappears from sight? 

I truly do not understand how nonfiction can be so invisible, and how well-read, well-informed people are not troubled by that. Can you explain? Please do. Enlighten us.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Maybe the key word is “favorites.” The word is almost gushy, so points us to books that speak more to the heart, often fiction, rather than those more directly addressed to and from reason (not that there aren’t ovelaps). Of course there’s no reason why you can’t start a discussion about our 2007 nonfiction favorites….