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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What If This Is The Only Book…

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?

Comments

  1. Pauline Sparks says:

    I may not have been ‘rushing to put down’ my ‘champagne glass’ but, on returning from a week away from an internet connection, your column is one of the first I checked. I live on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, am a teacher of 9 – 11 year olds, and avidly read your column. Thank you for your thought provoking blogs.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Pauline:

    I had no idea that the readership for this blog reached across oceans, please join in and give your comments and perspectives, which will surely expand my all-too-American point of view.

  3. Kelly from the Isle of Man says:

    Hi Marc!

    I couldn’t have discovered this debate at a better time. I am currently pursuing a Masters degree and my current assignment is to write a report based on an identified change in user needs. I’ve noticed a considerable decrease in the number of non-fiction resources being used compared to Internet resources for completion of homework and projects etc. I am currently trying to assess how much of this is due to a natural reliance on the Internet, perhaps unsuccessful experiences with collections containing out-of-date stock, or whether it is simply lack of education in knowing how and where to find the information (i.e. non-fiction resources) that is needed.

    Your blog has given me a few more things to consider so thanks!

    Kelly

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Kelly:

    Keep us informed. I suspect that we (authors, publishers, reviewers, librarians) need to refine our understanding of what net NF resources and print NF resources do best. If print is competing with digital to be concise and current, it will fail. If it is competing to present an argument, or a well designed presentation, it can win. Each form of media should play to its own strength.

  5. Monica Edinger says:

    To me it is a question of child development and experience. Many of my fourth graders are just beginning to read confidently. Now they are not having to focus on the mechanics; they are newly free to attend to the meaning behind the words completely. And so their experience with informational books is limited. They’ve read them for fun, to get information for a particular school project, but they’ve not read them for varying opinions on a topic. This idea of multiple points of view is, of course, important, but it isn’t one they’ve dealt with when it comes to real life.

  6. Monica Edinger says:

    (To continue with a new paragraph) They have considered different ways of reading a work of fiction, but that is easier than doing so with a real life situation. Why? Well, because a story has borders, for younger children in a classroom who perhaps struggled to make meaning out of a book, it is an easier more managable environment in which to consider different ideas about a story. For example, in my school a 2nd grade teacher does this with the Grimm fairy tales — they look at different versions and critique them with feminist perspective guided by their teacher.

  7. Monica Edinger says:

    (and now another paragraph). And so they haven’t the experience with varied theories that older children and adults have. When they read a work of nonfiction they expect it to be true, to give them the one answer. Ambiguity is one of the hardest things for anyone to come to terms with. For young people who are just getting a grip on how to read informational text, expecting them to read such text with an understanding that it is offering them only one point of view is not viable. They are not there yet developmentally or experientially. Older kids, hopefully, will be, but not kids who are just becoming able readers.

  8. Monica Edinger says:

    (sorry, but one more). Expecting 3-5 graders to read an informational text with the underlying knowledge that it is offering only one point of view is unrealistic. They are still getting their basic skills together. Sort of as if they have just learned how to make an omelet and are busy doing it as well, totally focused on that. Being told they can put curry into it or some other thing that is not yet in their idea bank just isn’t going to work. They will ignore it because they aren’t ready for it; they are still refining their skill of create a good basic omelet. So it is with informational reading. They are refining and gaining confidence reading such books and pushing them to a place where they are reading with a sense that this is only one point of view is beyond them at this stage of their learning.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    I do not have your classroom experience, Monica, but I must disagree. Children hear multiple nonfiction points of view every day — gossip, “did you hear X did Y” they have to evaluate the truth of those stories, to compare and contrast, and to arrive and their own judgment.

    Or if a kid is a sports fan, “Roger Clements took steriods,” “No, he did not.” {break]

  10. m says:

    But there is a bigger point here — in fact every nonfiction book reflects a point of view. Being exposed to books that make a case, make an argument helps kids to understand that — and also gives them a model for their own expository writing.

    (more on this in another blog)

  11. Monica Edinger says:

    This idea of theories in, say, history, is pretty sophisticated. Yes, we have the kids begin to write expository pieces where they defend a point of view; perhaps have them read a few editorials. But this doesn’t mean they get that this is the case in all their books too. Frankly, adults don’t get it so why expects that kids will. You are expecting kids to read (8-10 year olds that is) at a level they are not ready to do. And more so ,that they don’t do. Talking and listening are not the same as reading and writing. Kids don’t necessarily move from one to the other at the same level. They may be at one level when they talk about such things and another when they read. And they may get this when shown some editorials, but not with all informational books.

  12. Peni Griffin says:

    Speaking for myself – I learned to think from reading lots of books on the same topic and seeing how they argued with each other. Books on Fortean topics (UFOs, ghosts, etc.) are stellar for this.

    You cannot control how many books a kid looks at. You can control how many books with strong voices and differing viewpoints are available to him. If you give him the chance, he may not take it; that’s not your responsibility. If you don’t give him the chance, he won’t, and that will be your responsibility.

    If a kid is interested in a subject, he will read everything he can find on that subject. You only have to have that “aha!” moment once.

    Don’t teachers require multiple sources on papers anymore? Mine always did, and a pain in the butt it was sometimes, too, when the library only had one ancient bio of Edith Cavell or Madame Chiang Kai Chek.