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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I got two Google Alerts this morning, one from Read Roger, and one from INK,

The two posts are both about nonfiction, and both mention conversations with me, and they point in two almost diametically opposed directions. Roger Sutton in his best Roger voice, is cooing about a book of Transit Maps. And boy is he right. In that Deerfield Park talk I gave last week I said that for males, we would often just as soon read something that resembles a blueprint, a schematic — a map — than a rich and complex story. As Roger suggests, I actually feel more excited about some kinds of reading because it is pure facts and has no personality. That clarity is not disappointing, it is thrilling. Roger mentions ghost stations on old Berlin subway maps — I remember as a child taking the NYC subways and passing ghost stations. I did not want a novel about them. I did not want someone else to envision what could have happened there. I wanted to study and learn about them myself. 

Tanya in her post discusses a conversation she and I had one morning at a Starbucks in New York. In her case, I was encouraging her to think and write nonfiction with as much of a story-writing, fiction-like mindset as possible. If Roger is tracking how boys may prefer a map to a story, I was telling Tanya to make her non-fiction more like a movie than a report. I did not mean she should invent anything. But as they tell you in script-writing class, I wanted her to begin each scene, each chapter, as far into that moment in the story as possible. Begin in the action, with an event unfolding — don’t carefully build up to it, jump into it, catch us up in drama; then, if needed, swing back to fill in background. 

Was I contradicting myself in favoring facts and also cinematic writing? No. Rather I am saying that we in nonfiction have to jump in and do whatever we do with more gusto — we can’t be dutiful and bland. If it is fact time, let’s have maps of the old Barcelona subway system, if it is a gripping historical narrative, make sure the reader is on the edge of his or her seat. 

And — I am sorry folks, this a bit of a personal plug– but when we talk and write about difficult subjects like race, we can and should risk showing our own hands. I just got comments from ninth graders in rural Illinois who are reading my Race book, and they are terrific. Often they disagree with me, but they are pushed to think. If you’d like to see that in action, catch Book-TV on Sunday where I am meeting with Brooklyn kids who are equally disputatious, probing, smart, engaged — especially when I speak about my prejudices. 

Nonfiction means taking risks — for the clarity of facts, the intensity of story, the passion of our own personal emotions.


  1. I love your call to writers to be more cinematic and to come at writing from a storytelling mindset. What worries me are the number of assignments I see (as a public children’s librarian) coming out of schools in which only the “straight facts” are deemed important. So many nonfiction assignments demand that the students focus their attention on dates, names, and numbers, not on the beauty and complexity of a subway system or the far-reaching effects of events and people. It’s like pulling teeth to get kids to take the more thoughtful, literary nonfiction for assignments, because they don’t want the extra work of teasing the information out of the text. Conversely, when I encourage kids to read non-fiction for pleasure, it’s a challenge to convince them that there are non-fiction books out there that don’t read like all those books they’ve read for their assignments. Thankfully, once a kid is turned onto these rich nonfiction works, I find that they are highly self-motivated and adventurous as they broaden and deepen their reading. It’s like the whole world opens up to them and they just take off.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    It is so useful to me to read these reports from the field. I only know what it is like in the lab, creating the books. I wonder what we can do to help — book talks, discussions of what a fact is and is not? What can we authors do to help you in the libraries?

  3. I think our biggest adversary is the current worldview that nonfiction books exist only as factual repositories, and as such, are read only when you have a factual need. We use them like dictionaries. I think a large part of the solution needs to come from how schools teach our children to read and learn about our world, to understand the fact and the truth. As for authors, I think we just need more and more books that meet the student’s need to quickly identify and understand the facts all the while addressing the accompanying truths and complexities within any subject. We have to remember that kids are often intimidated by books; they worry that they won’t be able to find or understand the information they need. We need to reassure them that this is not a test, that there are no trick questions.

  4. mr chompchomp says:

    I think one way to get students to engage with more literary texts is to allow them to write that way in response. By encouraging students to respond to a narrative with their own narrative, for example, they may engage texts on a deeper level than the typical term paper or book report. Teachers do need to take this approach seriously and help students to develop this kind of work.