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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

One Book Two Views

Since the Comment Boxes are Filling Up

I thought I’d do a quick blog to say a bit more on the If Only One Book issue. I have invited Monica to have this blog to herself to state her case, and she will — but later in the month, she is on Newbery and that last round of rereading will keep her busy until after midwinter. 

1) Monica has seen far more 4th grade readers up close than I have, so her experience and training count. But I think she is misframing this issue. First: in fact there is one category of NF for readers 4th grade and younger that clearly presents a theory, a POV, and we eagerly look for the next one: dinosaur books. One book says they were warm blooded, another cold; one books says a comet killed them, another speaks of volcanoes; one book says they were the ancestors of birds, another treats that as, well, a theory. If we believe kids can handle theories about dinosaurs, why not theories about anything else?

2) The obvious answer is that there are so many dinosaur books, kids can compare and contrast. Well that only means we need more books on other topics that present theories so there is, again, a critical mass.

3) Speaking of dinosaurs, the Intelligent Design advocates argue that, since evolution is only a theory, they deserve equal time. Most of us would not agree with that argument. But if we don’t, it must be because we feel not all theories are equal — some have more weight than others, even if the weightier ones continue to evolve and change over time. For example, we don’t give equal time to Flat Earth theories when we say that the world is round (or pear shaped). We do, now — just now in fact — give space to Pluto is Not a Planet advocates when once upon a time we did not. Why should we present a theory on the planetness of Pluto to 4th graders and not, say, a theory on some period of history? Same with the Who Came First issue — once upon a time pre-Chisolm advocates were hardly mentioned in kids books, now two books by leading authors explore this area — which is entirely a matter of competing theories.

4) The above gets to the heart of my concern: in reality, a great deal of the NF reading 3rd-5th graders will do is in school or in the library. That then means there are adults who have every opportunity to frame a book, to show two books together, to raise questions. The onus, then, is on adults to come to grips with the validity of theories — as they do, say, when they select a book on evolution, or Darwin, not ID or the bible. And that is the piece that I find missing in the One Book discussions — adults are unwilling to tangle with the validity of theories, instead they object to the fact that a book has a point of view. If an adult is unsure about the argument a particular book presents, it is up to him or her to talk with experts or consult academic texts (as we authors must do), and use that frame to help judge the book. We are constantly relying on academic books, references, and experts to formulate what we create — if those books create uncertainty in you readers, then do the same work we have. Then, when you have a more firm sense of our contentions, present those books to young people. The issue is your adult judgment, not the receptivity of kids.
            In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen a review of a middle grade book that centers on whether the author’s argument is valid.

5) Monica has mentioned to me, in a private email, that part of her concern comes from seeing how 4th graders treat historical fiction: no matter how many cautions you give, they see it as true. But, as my wife the English major points out, the entire goal of a fiction writer is to create the "wilful suspension of disbelief" — the author uses all of her skill, her craft at plot, character, voice, telling detail, to weave a spell around you, to make you feel the world she is creating is real. A nonfiction writer may use some of those techniques, but, ultimately, he or she is relying not on fictional narrative but on argument, logic, evidence. So the NF writer is giving you, the reader, more places to agree or disagree — especially with a teacher there to challenge you.

6) And that leads to my final point: as I have said before, in the age of Google, the place of books as a resource that touches all the bases is shrinking. So what is left for those of us who write nonfiction? 

You know what I think — what do you think, what is the future of nonfiction for younger readers?


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I don’t have time to check, but recent children’s books on dinosaurs only offer one theory each? They don’t mention the variety of valid theories in each book?