That A Young Person Reads About …
Happy New Year friends, sorry for having been away. I did not think too many of you would be putting down your champagne glasses and rushing to check out this blog, so decided not to post during that off week. But during that "down" time I had a lively, engaged debate with a friend who is also a very well informed children’s librarian. We often disagreed in our views on one book or another, but the heat was in the service of light — both of our undersandings grew from the exchange. Still, there was one phrase she used that really bothered me and that I would like to discuss with all of you. She said that part of her evaluation of a particular nonfiction book was the fear that it might be the only book some child would see, and so would have a totalizing effect — the one book would eclipse, would silence, any other. Since we were talking about, say, 3rd to 5th graders, she felt that any one book must be very careful to acknowledge its own limitations, to make space for other views, so that readers see it as a perspective, not the truth.
I have to say this objection really bugs me. I think it favors blandness, it pushes towards the textbook "balance" in which there is no voice, it forces books towards being weaker versions of what is available on the net (references without personality) while steering them away from their own strength — the expression of an author particular take on a topic. More broadly, though, I think the objection is disingenuous. People only bring up the "one book" objection when a book has a point of view that makes them uncomfortable. If a book agrees with the critic’s views, the critic does not worry about that being the only book in the classroom — she is happy about that. So the issue is not the singular book, it is the discomfort felt by the critic.
I have heard from many people, including my librarian friend, that while the internet gives kids many possible resources, they overwhelmingly will leap at the first one they find. So the fact that kids can find many points of view does not mean they will. I am sure that is as true today as it was when I was a kid, and, told to research something in the library, we made a beeline for whatever encyclopedia could give us the most answers in the shortest time. And yet I cannot really believe that given the ever expanding information streams around young people today, given the fragile place of books in their lives, that any one poor book will take over and shape a child’s thinking.
The "if this is the only book" objection to nonfiction reminds me of the "what is the message this book has for young people" interpretation of fiction. In both cases adults gives books great power, in fact they are expressing the fear that kids will be too influenced by what they read, while everyone else seems to be wringing their hands over kids not reading enough. I feel that both objections are really an adult’s objection to a point of view (or character) she does not like. But rather than debating the theory directly, the critic deflects the issue onto supposedly impressionable children. The hypothetical child is the stand in for the adult’s own fears and anxieties. I wish that, in talking about nonfiction, we could argue about the actual validity of the arguments in the book, not the question of whether young people should see one, two, five, of fifteen arguments in any one book.
What do you all think? Where do you stand on the "if this is the only book a child reads on X" line of thought?