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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Presidents’ Day Musings

Valley Forge National Park was our mini family trip this weekend. We were drawn by the advertised activities on Monday — George Washington was to be there, with Martha, kids could make hats, and eat a special GW birthday cake. But the highlight of the trip turned out to be on Sunday — a regular Sunday at VFNP — where the reenactors showed how troops loaded and fired cannon and rifles, how their wives cooked for them and sewed and cleaned their uniforms, how the doctors dealt with their medical needs (mainly disease). The men and women were very knowledgable, and all of us learned a lot. I have studied the Revolution in some depth in graduate school, but I never needed to know the level of detail of military matters that these people have mastered.

The reenactors again made me think about what books dealing with history should be. Just as Google is giving kids a way to get any fact or date that they need, reenactors are providing thoroughly researched historical experiences, with the added benefit of a live people in interesting clothes. And while a kid in Hawaii is probably not going to visit Valley Forge often, and some families just cannot afford to dash off to visit a National Park and stay at a hotel, those limitations are surely temporary. Even today a company was showcasing a podcast they are developing based around Valley Forge. Soon enough, I bet, any classroom, or any motivated kid at a library, will be able to go visit reenactors digitally — perhaps at first watching a tape, but soon enough, sending questions to be answered in real time.

I think we have to develop our books in the assumption that they are part of a spectrum of ways kids are getting information, and that, thus, what we do as writers must change. What would be the point of writing a book about what it was like to be a soldier at VF, when the reenactors already do a better job of presenting that information? I don’t think this means books are in trouble. Just the opposite. We must think about what it is that books do best, and do that, so that that book experience fits in nicely with the web search, the visit, the podcast, and the game. 

So fellow authors, reviewers, librarians, critics, teachers, parents: what do NF books do best, and what should they be in the future?


  1. Books on the Civil War, both fiction and non-fiction, built an appetite in my husband and myself to know more about the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. From there we visited an encampment and battlefields with living historians as you have done Marc and the next thing I knew we were donning multiple layers of hot wool clothes to teach others about the Civil War.

    There are many good things about being a living historian. I have firsthand knowledge of how hard it is to maintain those clothes and how long it takes to put them on. The amount of work involved in cooking over a fire witout ruining those same clothes defies belief. My huasband and I have been invited with our unit, the 10th Illinois, to spend a night camping on Civil War battlefields and no words can express the time travel we all experienced as we woke up and viewed ourselves surrounded by rugged landscape and cannons (now memorials, but easily envisioned as the real thing).

    The questions from children at these events make history a living thing. Adults at times stick on the historical details (How many layers of underwear did the ladies wear (tons) or how fast can the guns be loaded). The kids ask some of that too, but also many astute observations – did girls fight in battles? (yes, some, in disguise) What did the women back home do to help?

    My husband has come many times to my Teen Advisory Board to talk about Illinois Civil War history and he always dresses them up in full battle gear with all the weapons. Then the teens start talking about how young those soldiers were, and how young many are today in Iraq.

    I understand that there may soon be historical reenactments in Second Life soon and that would be another great way for classes in Hawaii or Alaska to see one in ‘person’ and experience some of that time travel. The podcast is another good idea. However the senses can be engaged to stimulate that thirst for knowledge should be implemented, even if you don’t want hoop skirts, dirty wool uniforms and historical weapons filling your home and vacations.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    Thanks — SL, podcasts, visits to Teen groups, visits to sites — I just know that reenactment is now an important strand in how we tell history to young people, and one more interesting kind of storytelling for us to consider when we weigh what our books ought to do.