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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Crawler Question

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?


  1. I am currently participating in a graduate class on Literature for Children and Youth while I work toward becoming a reading specialist. During my four years of experience as an Elementary teacher, I have watched students gravitate toward nonfiction. For many children, it is nonfiction literature that first whets the appetite to become readers. It may have been a theme of interest, a particular book, or a general curiosity about facts that first drew a child toward nonfiction. As both a reader myself and examiner of children’s literature, I agree with the importance of providing background information within nonfiction texts. This sets the historical scene, painting a true picture of the content being read. I found it interesting to hear the thought process that must take place in order to plan for the form of a book that is being written. Creative formats other than side bars draw one’

  2. Continuation-
    one’s attention and I think also help children, including struggling readers, identify important facts and navigate the text while becoming interested in the content matter. I can see why a format such as newsreels would be engaging for children if they can make the connection to their actual experience. Perhaps a different current form, other than the crawler, could be movie previews with which all children are familiar. This is similar to the newsreel idea, but maybe you could put a twist on this, making it look more like quick, revealing snapshots of what is to come in the book.

  3. Marc Aronson says:


    Hmm — that’s interesting. It is a bit like those 18th century novels: Chapter the First, in which our hero… a kind of preview of what is to come, a trailer for the forthcoming chapter.

  4. I still love side bars. I’ve been teaching students for years that there are many ways to read a book including more than one time. Some students read every single word memorizing as they go and don’t mind the sidebar interruptions to the “story.” Others want the author’s narrative alone and will ignore all sidebars and go back to re-read for information. I am reminded of Ann Jonas book which you read once then turn it upside down to “read” again. Are we standing on our heads to reach readers when they develop their own styles no matter what we do?

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    Another good point — we tend to make rules about how kids read, then kids go ahead and read however the want to.

  6. I completely agree with your analogy to the mother wearing her daughter’s clothes. Personally, I find it a bit distracting when books try to be too much of a website and not enough of a book.

    The first thing that came to my mind when you mentioned an updated version of the newsreel was a blog or “mini blog” (like what you see on twitter). Because it’s a combination blog and text message, i think of it as the modern day telegram. Come to think of it, it can also be considered an abbreviated version of a crawler. A crawler with a personal voice.

    “Nadine is giving her 2 cents…”

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    I am wavering between the retro value of the newsreel as newsreel and something like a blog, as Nadine suggests. I’ll know more as I keep writing — and keep you all informed.