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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Playing Favorites


Over the Vacation

I realized what it was that bothered me about those end-of-the-year favorites lists that had little or no nonfiction. Sure one thing was that I’d have loved to have seen books I liked, or edited, or wrote up there. But the real nub of my objection is the meaning of the word "favorite." In one way a "favorites" list just means — which books did you read this year that you liked? From that point of view, there is no inherent reason why there should be any nonfiction, or poetry, or books by new authors, or books by minority authors on those lists. You look back over your reading, and tell people what you enjoyed most. But the problem is that those lists double as "best books" of the year compilations. And there we are all obligated to think not only of what we happened to come across and like (which reflects our own personal tastes), but of what books best serve the broad and complex readership of books for young people. If we are answering that question, then list makers cannot use their own taste as a guide.

And this, friends, is what I see missing in those lists — a self awareness, a hesitation, a gap between the adult’s taste and the adult’s awareness of the range of possible reading tastes in young people. Try this thought experiment: what if almost all kids librarians were men, and nearly all of their favorites lists were books on sports, war, math, engineering, grossness, and hunting. What if there were no fiction on those lists, or, one token book to show they were aware of the genre. Wouldn’t you want to protest and say — hey, you are taking your taste and pretending it is universal, don’t you know there are girls out there who don’t like the same things you do? Wouldn’t you tell those men to stop associating what they like with what kids like? You would, and so that is what I am saying, from a male POV. 

The issue is not just these lists, which come up once a year. Rather it is how we map the whole idea of "favorites" — my own taste — onto "best" — that which is of superior quality. Of course we all do that, indeed learning to refine our taste is part of what gives us some ability to judge books. But I ask all of you to cultivate that hesitation — am I judging within the world of my taste, am I aware that there is a whole subset of readers who may be looking for very different qualities in books, am I looking out for their interests? 


  1. Dick Head says:

    1. Deborah Stevenson at BCCB notes the weakness of the nonfiction field this year and states that they would rather sacrifice list length than standards. Okay, fine, no problem, but then why does *Prom Dates for Hell* make their list in the fiction category? You can’t talk about high standards in nonfiction and then turn around and have all the critical acumen of a bitch in heat where the fiction is concerned.

  2. Dick Head says:

    2. Karen Breen and Vicky Smith at Kirkus named 40 Best YA books this year. It is a remarkably diverse list with one notable exception: no informational books. Nope. Not one. I’m sure they would claim, as Deborah Stevenson does, that it has been a weak year for nonfiction, and they would not necessarily be wrong in that regard, but just as BCCB is the only journal that liked Prom Dates from Hell, Kirkus went out on a limb for about a dozen fiction books that nobody else liked. Why couldn’t they take that chance for nonfiction? If Vicky Smith cannot find a single worthy young adult nonfiction book, how can I vote for her as Sibert chair in the upcoming ALSC elections with any degree of confidence?

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I have not read enough of the YA fiction to compare, but I do find the absence of NF distressing. Maybe we can get one of the listmakers over here to discuss the issue. One part of the problem has to do with what constitutes excellence. We tend to use literary standards — expression — not intellectual ones — ideas/content — in kids books. And that disfavors NF, where the excellence may be in the scope and thinking more than the sentence structure.

  4. what if almost all kids librarians were men, and nearly all of their favorites lists were books on sports, war, math, engineering, grossness, and hunting.

    that’s a generalization if i ever saw one. ::grins::

    p.s. is the above commenter’s name really “dick head”? !!!!