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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Of Museums and Books

Yesterday I visited two museums here in Dallas, The Sixth Floor and the Dallas Holocaust Museum (that last site is very modest, but in a sense that suits the museum — as I’ll explain). I was impressed with both of them, and they got me to thinking — as I did after we went to Valley Forge — about how books relate to the other ways young people get information.

The impressive thing about both museums is how they understood their physical space and made best use of it. Like all musuems these days, they each had an audio tour that gives you a voice over related to specific places. But they also recognized that a museum is a physical space — it is a kind of stage set — as you walk through it you not only see what is on the walls, you experience the place. And that means the designers have to understand the space they have. A Museum is a three-dimensional, not a two-dimensional experience. The Sixth Floor Museum is located in the School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy. The show takes you through that space, with information on the Kennedy presidency, until you get to the corner window, filled with boxes, which Oswald used as his perch. 

The Sixth Floor Museum has a large horizontal space, the Holocaust Museum a small space, a corner of a building. They use that to their advantage. Instead of echoing the museums in Washington or Jerusalem, they focus on one day — when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising took place, when three young men stopped a cattle car and freed over two hundred Jews, and when, in Bermuda, the allies decided that they could not help the Jews. That tight focus is perfect use of their space.

So what is the similar "space" of a book? It is the trim size, the page count, it is the two-dimensional experience the author invites you to enter. In many ways the illustrated nonfiction book for younger readers is the model of the museum — an immersion in a visual field where words and images tell a story. But is there anything we can do in books to make use of the audio of museums, and physical experience of walking through them? 

Yes, if our books are designed to work with web sites — where the book becomes a kind of catalog for a show that exists in the digital world. I think we should all aim towards that. But, in the meantime, lets talk about the immersive space of a book. Stay tuned.


  1. It’s pretty ironic that your blog talks about this today. I now work in Childrens in a public library and I’ve been trying to help my (still) reluctant-reader son find something he “likes” (or at least can tolerate) for his required reading. The most recent was “Hiroshima” by Yep. He said to me, “it’s great”. WHOA! He read it for an hour and ten minutes (this is major). When I asked him what he found so great about it, he said, “it’s short and I could finish it”. Hmmm…
    So, at work yesterday I did something that as a reader and librarian I would never do. I walked the stacks looking only at the thickness of the binding. This really got me thinking about the reading experience and that even though we say, “you can’t judge a book…” many people do. And maybe that’s ok. With kids, boys especially, visual appeal is really key. Maybe it’s ok that he only wants to read “short” books for now. Hiroshima is short, but a very powerful story and he was certainly moved by it – he asked me lots of questions. Maybe what he likes most sometimes is the space of it — knowing that he’ll get to the end, complete the authors thought. This pretty much goes against everything I have previously thought… I find pleasure in the never-ending story of a book, lingering in it, etc.. But maybe, he’s not like me. Space, size of a book. I think you’re on to something, Marc…..

  2. Here’s my major rant: Picture books clearly for older and/or less able readers are the same size as picture bks. for pre-schoolers. I’ve worked in reading/sp.ed. most of my life and have seen many trade books that middle and h.s. students could use to get content who are turned off by a size that just yells “book for little kid.” Nat’l. Geo. has a “History Chapters” series, w/ books approx. 8×5 inches. I showed two to h.s. sp.ed. teachers at conference yesterday along with other trade books w/ reasonable reading level, white space, etc. that kids w/ reading problems could use. The Nat’l. Geo. books got the most positive comments simply because they knew their kids would love the size (the content is pretty good too, however). Why aren’t picture books about Civil Rights, WWII, and other topics not relevant for 2-6 year olds smaller size?

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    The comments from Nadine and Mary are exactly to the point — how the size, the physical space, of a book influences how we (and kids) read it. More on this soon.