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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Experiments

Let’s Try Out Several Versions Of the Same Sentence

In my last post, and response to Tricia, I argued that there are three issues in judging non-fiction, and judgement in kids’ books tends to slant toward the first two. The three I listed were factual accuracy, Tricia stressed engagement, voice — literary qualities, and then I made the pitch for argument, logic, conceptual approach. So here’s an experiment — feel free to post your efforts — in a flash any of us could churn out an accurate sentence that is dull ("Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. It was signed on July 4, 1776)." Although at once that very sentence begins to fall apart — in fact Jeferson wrote it with Franklin and Adams, and the clauses were debated and approved by the delegates. It was approved on July 4, but, outside of John Hancock, it is not clear that the rest of the delegates signed it before August 2. So challenge one — write a sentence that is accurate and interesting. And, related to that challenge, what standard of accuracy would we apply to this sentence? In a picture book on the Declaration, would the book be wrong if it said Jefferson wrote it? Would that be a fatal error? Would it be OK to list the three authors, but not engage the question of the clauses that were rejected by the Second Continental Congress? Would it be OK to use the word "signed" since at least one famous signature came on that date, the iconic date kids know, and the debate over the others is too fine-tuned to matter? 

In other words, is accuracy as clear cut as checking a fact, or — as I contend — isn’t accuracy itself a reflection of a set of judgments — what is important, what is the goal of the book, what conceptual approach is the author taking?

The second case is accurate, interesting, conceptually flat. ("Jefferson, the pen; Adams, the mind, Franklin, the businessman, spoke for America.") I am sure you can do better than that dashed-off effort. But it is not hard to picture a sentence that is true, that catches our ears, our eyes, as a nicely said, which makes us curious, but which fails to stretch our minds. Want to give us one?

In reverse, it is easy to think of sentences that are conceptually fascinating, but dull in expression. For example, I remember being in high school and learning about infinite numbers. While, by definition, an infinite number has no end, there are, actually, a hierarchy of infinities — in fact there are an infinite number of infinitely larger infinities. And if you are a teenager, that psychedelic vertigo of cascading infinities is, literally, mind blowing. (to make this really simple, there are an infinite number of odd numbers, there are an infinite number of even numbers, there are an infinite number of whole numbers, but, of course, there are an infinite number of fractions between any two whole numbers. So the infinity of even numbers, say, is smaller than the infinity of all numbers, even though both are infinite).  So here is an idea that conceptually thrilling, that can easily be expressed in dull, accurate fashion: "there are an infinite number of infinitely larger infinities." 

Want to try your hand at conceptually thrilling, accurate, dull? And then, for our grand finale: accurate, interesting, conceptually thrilling?

 

Comments

  1. Tricia Stohr-Hunt says:

    In reading your sentence about Jefferson, I had to ask myself who the audience was. Many times history is “watered down” for elementary grades, though I’m not sure why. Wouldn’t it be just as easy to say that while many recognize Jefferson as the primary author, he had help? Would this still be accurate? Why are important facts left out for younger children? Is this all about what they need to learn for the test?

    Sorry for all the questions, but this issue of how much history we present at different levels bothers me. Why do we assume younger children can’t handle this information?

    Okay, now that we’ve been challenged, I’m off to write.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Tricia:

    I could not agree more — I’d love to see a primary level DOI sentence that gives a nice shaded sense of who did what.

  3. DIANE CHEN says:

    I agree with your providing more information to younger children. We need to encourage deeper thinking instead of blind adoration of history. I often will interject extra facts for “the rest of the story” to students in a secretive manner. Yet one of the kdg teachers covers her ears when I discuss reality and morality tales such as George Washington’s Cherry Tree. If she loved the story and it helped “raise her right,” why shouldn’t she just be allowed to teach it to others? This is what she has asked me every year. Her students have learned MUCH more about biographical figures from library lessons as I try to help them understand that the truth and the areas of grey are often more interesting than black and white beliefs.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Diane:

    That is so ignorant on the part of the teacher — and so proudly ignorant. I just wrote an SLJ column about this question — when to introduce doubt and questioning in biography; when do we go from the hero to the flawed person.