I Am Working On a Book About McCarthyism
as is Jim Giblin (and a number of novelists — some of you posted to this site when we were talking about Betty Partridge’s Pete Seeger book). Jim has told me that he is writing a full fledged biography of the senator — much as he did for Hitler. Of course that means I am not going to do the same. I hear tell that both Jim Murphy and Russell Freedman are writing about World War I. These overlaps should be very good for you librarians — because they will clearly show teachers, and students, the wide range of narrative styles that can be used in nonfiction. If a library just needs a book at a given Dewey number — so there is a shelf spot for every topic — then the overlap of topics would be terrible. We would be playing a zero-sum game where if you bought Jim’s book you could not buy Russell’s. Now budgets may push you towards that kind of choice. But I would argue for a completely different view — there is a shelf spot for each significatly different approach to a topic. Much like a search engine, the library offers a variety of ways of seeing, studying, and writing about any given subject. Students should be encouraged to compare and contrast — to see different ways to treating a subject — rather than just being told where to look for a single book to answer their questions.
This comes to mind because I am playing with form as I work on the book. Jim Giblin mentioned to me the challenge of filling students in on background information — which I discussed here. The old solution is the sidebar — not bad, but, well, a bit too reminiscent of the textbook. Well one solution came to me from a set of books I read as a teenager. Rereading John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy now, I am certain that I "got" very little of it as a teenager. But I clearly recall being thrilled by its energy, its pace, and the wondeful use of Newsreels — chapter openers that were actual headlines and factoids from the period in which Dos Passos set his invented characters.
I was thinking of using similar "newsreels" in my book — but I realized that kids don’t actually know what a newsreel is — and that Dos Passos placed them at the beginning of a chapter because that is how it worked — the newsreel came on before the feature — he structured his chapters the same way his readers experienced a trip to a movie theater. Our equivalent is, of course, the crawler — the headlines and factoids (and sports scores) rush along the bottom of the screen during a regular broadcast. The problem is, I have generally found the effort to mimic the computer screen on the book page to be a mistake — it is trying too hard to be hip, like a mother insisting she wear the same clothes as her teenaged daughter. So I am weighing this out — newsreel, crawler, sidebar — how to give kids a quick sense of the issues and conflicts and voices of a time, while using the main text to feature depth, and individuals, and key events? I was so excited to discover Dos Passos as a teenager I am inclined to honor him in imitation — so long as it works for my readers.
What do you think?