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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Best and Worst of Newbery-Caldecott

Last night I heard (and more than heard) the two best NC speeches I have ever witnessed, and I’ve listening to them on and off since the 80s. If you were not there, you owe it to yourself to get the next issue of the Horn Book which, as you know, reprints the talks. I strongly suggest you do that, read the Horn Book, rather than listening to the Weston Woods recording. Nothing against WW — but this is one NC where seeing is believing. I am being coy, and probably there is no reason to, but you have a great treat in store if you read the issue.

Brian Selznik knocked his speech so far out of the park, out of this world, that everyone felt sorry for Laura Amy Schlitz, especially when she did not go up to the podium. Poor woman, we all felt, she is too daunted to even speak. But no, experienced storyteller that she is, she wanted to speak from her own spot, standing, with no mike. Using no notes, she gave a note perfect set of stories and tales that fully matched the power of his — with one unfortunate gaffe.

At one point she said that, perhaps like others in the room, she had a secret preference for fiction over nonfiction, because story makes meaning — as opposed to mere facts. The night had been, and continued after that, to be wonderful — but in every way that was a horrible thing to say. Nonfiction is not facts. Nonfiction is about thinking — which, just as much as story (actually much more so) creates meaning. And, worst of all, was that sense of a shared secret in the lean to fiction (which got several appreciative claps and laughs from the crowd). Of course we all know that many librarians feel that way, but to raise a confession of prejudice, of, I would say, disability, to a kind of badge of honor, a shared view, was precisely what I think is wrong in the library world. I did not mind her saying it, but she said it with no shame, no hesitation, no self-questioning — and with the sure knowledge that many others would feel the same way. You often hear a different version of the same view when librarians say "I hate math.’ As if that were not a limitation, but an obvious view most people would share.

She is clearly a great storyteller, a true professional. But that one aside, that one unfortunate phrase, shows wha we are up against: an industry in which a distaste for, and misunderstanding of, nonfiction goes entirely unquestioned — as if it were normal. Imagine if an author on that same stage had said that nonfiction is better than fiction, because ideas make meaning, and fiction is mere imagination. The audience would be insulted. Well all of the nonfiction fans in the audience felt exactly that last night.

Comments

  1. Judy Freeman says:

    A quick correction. Laura Amy Schlitz was wearing a clip-on lapel mike. About nonfiction, she was being a bit sly in that statement, but in fact, her book, Good Masters, Sweet Ladies, is interspersed with riveting nonfiction pages to explain many aspects of the personal narratives that make up the story.She’s also written a very respected and fascinating biography on Schliemann for kids, published about a year ago, so it’s not like she is lacking any love and appreciation for the genre. But WHAT a speech! No notes–just stood and told a 17-minute series of interconnected stories that held everyone spellbound. And Brian Selznick’s presentation was spectacular, not to mention those fabulous silver shoes he was wearing. It was a night I’ll remember forever.

  2. Shirley says:

    Marc,
    If we librarians could promote nonfiction with the same zeal that we promote fiction, perhaps we could have an even bigger impact on the improvement of scores of our students on the state, national, and college entrance exams!

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Judy — thanks for the corection. She was terrific, and I admire her work. But to associate story with making meaning, and nonfiction with fact is a error that I see and hear over and over again. We overvalue story and undervalue ideas. I don’t mean to be sour — as you say it was a magical night. But that made the one statement stick out all the more — and when we talked briefly in the reception line she told me she had written that several ways, so I suspect she sensed she was a bit “off” in saying it.

    Shirley — yes, I agree completely.

  4. John Mason of Scholastic says:

    Mark, you are right that “seeing is believing” and the Weston Woods CD set of recordings of the speeches contains a bonus DVD with Brian Selznick’s visual presentation. So Weston Woods, like Horn Book, will give people the full experience of the speech.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    John: Wow, thanks for the correction and folks, make sure to get that bonus DVD

  6. Judy Freeman says:

    This year’s N-C dinner had the most visually compelling speeches ever–and why both speeches weren’t filmed for YouTube, I don’t know. (If they were filmed, they need to be made available for the whole world to see. I teach storytelling at Pratt Institute, and I’d love for my students to see Laura Amy Schlitz as a model of great storytelling and delivery. It was amazing watching her hold that audience. Gave me goosebumps.) It’s not enough just to read or hear those speeches–and nowadays, it can’t be too hard to film. People who couldn’t attend would have the You-Are-There experience, and I’ll bet it would bring lots more folks to the conference and the dinner in the future.

  7. Kathleen Krull says:

    I nearly jumped out of my seat when she said this. A gaffe, indeed– a low blow coming out of nowhere in the middle of an otherwise enchanting speech. I was going to blog about this myself, but I’m trying to take a summer vacation from html. In any case, you said it all – thank you.

  8. Julie Larios says:

    As much as I enjoyed the speeches, I also was startled by the comment about non-fiction, so much so that I stopped listening for a minute and tried to get my head around what she possibly could have meant. Certainly, I grew up reading non-fiction, falling into it just as deeply (or more deeply) than any fiction I read as a child! There are so many wonderful examples out there of non-fiction books that are compelling, that move and change us, that leave us eager to turn the next page, and that make “meaning” in our lives. And all it would have taken to change the comment around was for a small qualifier to be added, “To me, it seems that….” That way, she admits to her own preference for fiction, but doesn’t try to speak for the crowd. A strange blip in an otherwise fascinating speech.

  9. Roxanne Feldman says:

    It was a slight “cringing” moment in the whole beautifully constructed and artfully delivered speech, for sure. And, it made me wonder (although I am definitely not denying my personal alliances of current reading taste with Schlitz) whether “facts” are not as fascinating, and some times more fascinating, to the young people we collaboratively serve in our various professions. If they aren’t, then how can we explain the perennial popularity of books like the Guinness Book of World Records, the Baseball Stats books, and the DK Eyewitness titles? I, for one, as a young (from probably age 7 to middle school) reader, treasured a set of books called One Hundred Thousand “Whys” (it’s a set of Chinese books on random scientific facts about animals, human body, the space, physics, etc.) I know there was not a “story” in each listed fact, but collectively, they became part of a bigger story for me, the reader — it’s a story of the world I lived in, a story that I was part of, and I made all the connections and saw all the connections between those facts and the “life stories” around me. And, many of such facts also presented themselves IN story books, as well.

  10. Jody says:

    My mother, Josephine Carr, once a member of the Newbury Committee (the year they chose
    SARAH, PLAIN & TALL)wrote a non-fiction book, published by the ALA called BEYOND FACT. She collected essays, and wrote introductions for each, on how non-fiction can be as creative, and full of vibrant story-telling, as fiction. Hard to believe we’re still fighting this battle!
    JosephineCarrWrites.blogspot.com
    http://www.josephinecarr.com

  11. Susanna Reich says:

    I agree, both speeches were dazzling. But my jaw dropped when Laura Amy Schlitz made the comment that “we librarians secretly prefer fiction.” If she had spoken only of her own preference, as she does in the recorded version of her speech, it wouldn’t have been so bad. She’s entitled to her opinion. But to speak on behalf of all librarians, as if that prejudice is acceptable, is dismaying.

    Yes, “dramatic narrative creates meaning” and “stories enlarge our lives,” but since when does fiction hold a monopoly on dramatic narrative and story? As the author of an excellent biography of Heinrich Schliemann, Schlitz certainly knows this. I bet she could tell an enthralling nonfiction story about having moles removed if she wanted to.

  12. Jonathan says:

    I think it was a good speech with a great delivery, but her comments on nonfiction touched a nerve with me as well.

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