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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Flash Back

On a snowy day in February, my kids were out playing, which reminded me of….

yesterday. Yesterday I had the opportunity to serve on a dissertation committee with three professors. For those of you who have not been through it — after you pass all of your exams, you write up a proposal for the doctoral dissertation you plan to research and write, and you and your advisor ask four folks who know something about that topic (not necessarily in your school) to judge your work. The idea is that you will make use of all you have learned in grad school to create a piece of original work, and that dissertation will become your calling card when you go looking for a job, and, eventually, will form the basis of your first book. 

I was on the committee because the subject of this dissertation was the multi-voiced YA novel. The grad student was interested in the fact that such novels have proliferated recently, the nature of the books, the possible link between the use of devices such as multiple voices, mutiple type faces, flash back and flash forward and, for example, teenagers’ use of the internet. (I am being slightly coy about the student and the school only because she has not yet published any of her interesting work, but she wil soon). One key point in her work is that, today, just about everyone (reviewers, librarians, editors, authors, and many teenagers themselves) says that the use of multiple voices in YA novels actually makes the books more appealing to teenagers. Yet, not so very long ago, almost all of those same people (leaving aside the teenagers) claimed that kind of book was too hard for teenagers, who needed a single, first person, past tense narrator.

And that brings me back to this blog, and the question of flash back and flash forward in NF. Right now, to this day, many reviewers argue that nonfiction must be in straightforward chronological sequences — birth to death, for example. They argue — just as the reviewers of YA novels did, once upon a time — that kids will have trouble starting out with a present tense opening incident (my kids playing in the show) and then flashing back to the thematic background (the committee yesterday). Is that true? If kids do better with multiple voices, perspectives, time periods in novels because of changes in technology and their lives, why shouldn’t the same be true of NF? Why should reading styles change in fiction, but not nonfiction? 

What do you think? 

In other news, I believe we will have an exciting new WIP on Monday — from an author who is about to fly off to Kenya to research her book, stay tuned.


  1. leda schubert says:

    Good question. My own BALLET OF THE ELEPHANTS begins with the description of an event and then goes back decades to relate the lives of the people who made the event happen. I struggled for months to find a way to tell the story which so captured my imagination. It’s not the only example of NF told this way, but it’s (obviously) the one with which I’m most familiar. And I’m not sure if it actually fits your criteria. So what am I saying? I guess that any approach can work if it’s done well. In books such as THE RACE TO SAVE THE LORD GOD BIRD and GOOD BROTHER, BAD BROTHER, two of my favorites, straight-ahead chronology couldn’t possibly have been as engaging or as memorable. And what about the spate of recent books that develop the history of a commodity such as salt or cod? Perhaps it’s all just a different way of organizing events. A new history? Do I have any idea what I’m talking about? Help.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Leda: Right on. You are pointing to several books that violate straight chronology and make it work. I want to ask reviewers to think about just what you are pointing out — and to think about why we have come to consider this so normal in YA fiction, and yet still seem uncertain about it in nonfiction.

  3. Betsy Partridge says:

    Just to be clear, who are these reviewers? Is this something people say in a review, or is it some kind of gestalt? I have been completely unaware of it.
    There’s nothing you can’t do in YA non-fiction — flash forward, multiple points of view, etc. The trick is just to do it well. Can be a tough trick.

  4. Marc Aronson says:


    Believe me I have seen that critique in published reviews in key journals. I totally agree with you as a matter of policy, but that does not mean we have won over the folks who review our books.