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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Chasing Its Tail

Subjects, Scope, Sequence

One of the first questions an editor will ask when an author suggests a nonfiction subject for younger readers is "when do they teach that subject in schools?" Of course the idea is that if you write a trade book on a topic that comes in a particular grade level, you should aim your book for those readers. If kids study local history in younger grades, it does not make sense to aim your state history at YA. If teachers only rarely get to modern history, and, if so, only late in high school, it makes sense to pitch your book on Vietnam or the Persian Gulf War at older readers. That is the simple part. But what if your subject is, horror of horrors, not on the scope and sequence?

This is not a total veto — as Jim Murphy’s American Plague clearly shows. But it is an obstruction, a roadblock. But the more I look at those state standards, the more doubtful I am. On the one hand, very often the areas to be considred are so broad that a creative teacher can use just about anything and still match the standards. On the other, the very point of a trade book — a new take in which an author gets you to see the past, and thus the present, in a new way — is to change minds. Why couldn’t it be that a great book causes the committees that create those standards to add new topics? 

You might think that it would take an adult book, or even an academic monograph, to cause standards to change. But why should that be? If a book aimed at readers of a certain age also brings new ways of thinking that would seem the ideal candidate for inclusion in a curriculum. No translation is required, the book (or books) is already aimed at the readers it needs to reach. 

I don’t fault publishers for asking a reasonable question (I have often posed it myself when wearing my editor’s hat). But I think it is really a secondary question — the first one should be, is this a great book that may get teachers, students, to see the past in new ways. The second is — if not, does it at least match how they think now.