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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Of Jane Eyre and William Shirer

What Literature Do Teenagers Need?

I met with Anita Beamon’s library school studentsin Illinois  last night through a mixture of technologies. They students could mear Anita and me speaking by phone, but they posted their responses through a real time chat room. It worked very well — anyone wanting author visits who doesn’t have a travel budget — try this. Anita again brought up the issue she had mentioned when I did visit the 9th grade in Normal: the lack of true YA nonfiction. As we talked about it in class, I realized that we are in a time warp.

In the early 90s — the YA IS Dead phase of children’s publishing — I often heard adults, even, expecially, thoughtful and well read adults, say there was no need for YA fiction. "After all," they’d say, "after I was done with Little House I went straight to Jane Eyre." I recall serious articles that claimed YA was a way of restraining teenagers, holding them back in an artificial and prolonged childhood when they should be reading ahead to adult. You rarely hear that today and we have populated YA with many, many kinds of fiction, from Traveling Pants to Gossip Girls to Octavian Nothing and endless novels in verse. We expect teenagers to read up, but also sideways and down. It is no longer an either or choice.

Except in nonfiction. I recall being about 12 when I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. I was proud to be hefting around this huge book that adults were talking about. And I got something out of it. But much of the time I was lost. And yet, you still hear adults, parents, teachers, even librarians saying: when a kid is done with Russell Freedman, he’ll read adult books. If he really cares about The Second World War, we have plenty of adult books for him. In other words we treat nonfiction today exactly the same way we did fiction just before the YA fiction boom took off.

So, friends, if you agree with me, speak up — we are mistreating, misreading, misunderstanding YA nonfiction exactly as we did YA fiction. And, again, I hope to see you at Annual.