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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

View From Afar

Questions, Questions, Questions

I am writing this from The Chateau, a huge hotel in Bloomington, Illinois. The land around here is flat, flat, flat, so when someone builds big, he builds wide –the sight line is as horizontal here as it is vertical in New York City. I am here to spend a week with 9th graders, telling them about how I research and write books, and helping them formulate and refine their work. They have broken up into groups — one on technology, one on food, one on role of women, one on weapons, one on philosophy — and have studied their subject in now three different historical periods: Greece, Rome, and the Medieval World, with the Renaissance up next. Over the weekend I read the questions they have posed to themselves for their major research papers.

The questions were great fun to read, some really probing and brilliant thinking. But, of course, in general, they fell into two piles — those that were so large the students could not possibly answer them, or those that were so specific they could be answered in a sentence or paragraph, not a paper. That is just as it should be at this stage. But it does bring up the larger question for us — what is the scope of a question we can address in a book for younger readers — after all what we do models for them what they can do.

Russell Freedman’s Who Came First? Is, as it turns out, two such questions — who did come to the Americas first, and why are we inclined to believe one story or another: a question of fact is also one of point of view. Almost all of the students’ "role of women" questions were about how women wound up having their rights and roles restricted. None of them were aware that that question is completely modern, a sign of their times. It will be interesting to see if I can get them to see that. In other words, if they have no experience of an elderly aunt saying, "oh, leave it to the men, let them argue, we were happier when we didn’t have to trouble ourserlves over politics" — something like that — then they assume women always wanted to be involed in the public sphere. For that group, my challenge will be to get them to question their questions. Though it is interesting Myra Zarnowski showed us a letter at the Kennedy Library a few week ago, a letter written by a young girl in Queens to a pioneer girl in the 1800s. She identified with getting married very young, after all her family was from India, so her grandmother had been married at 12. So maybe there are ways to identify with a distant past that I had not considered. I’ll tell you how it goes.


  1. Being aware of your own milieu and habits of thinking is not easy. It wasn’t til I left this country and spent time in Africa for two years that i ralized how provincial my own assumptions were. Kids are barely able to realize they have assumptions. It’ll be fun to hear how this turns out.