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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Nonfiction for Young Readers, The Inbetween

I Went to School in the Glory Years of "New Math" — Venn Diagrams

So if we were to diagram nonfiction books for younger readers, what overlapping forces would we have to consider? Here’s the first rub: the most obvious first consideration is curriculum — will the the subject of this book fit with the scope and sequence for readers of that age? But for most trade publishers — those who print books in hardcover, who do not sell series, who rely on reviews and bookstore sales not reps who visit schools — the first consideration is retail visibility — will the chains take the book, is it a topic or highly visual treatment, a relative might buy as a gift for a student? An ideal case, of course, is the crossing point of these two — but that leads, as this year, to (so I have heard) some 7 Lincoln books all hoping for extra exposure in 2009 the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. 

If content stands between two somewhat opposing poles — school and bookstore — what of marketing? Again our books face contrary pressures. The standard mode of gaining visibility for trade book is through the library review journals — hoping for stars — and the award committees. Care, bookmaking, narrative voice are all often valued by these groups, though — speaking from personal experience here — there is a greater receptivity to experimentation in reviews of fiction then in nonfiction. But the other kind of marketing comes from radio, blogs, trailers — efforts to reach the public directly. And in the media world, new topics and treatments are much more likely to get attention then are the safer and more familiar approaches often favored in the library world. Again, our books face contradictory pressures.

Finally we come to use — the book is done, reviewed, promoted, and in the hands of readers, librarians, parents, teachers. Here again we are between two schools of thought. We hear constantly about 21st century learning skills — the need to emphasize process and thinking over pure information and voiceless content. And yet the majority of teachers, at least through middle school, have not been trained to think in the open ended ways that professional historians, economists, scientists, use every day. 

We are squeezed between curriculum and stores, between those who evaluate our books and those who promote them, between new styles of thought that we know are coming and those that still predominate in schools. That is our challenge — have I missed something? And, as Lenin said, What Is To Be Done?


  1. Mary Ann Cappiello says:

    I live this tension when I select the required nonfiction texts for teachers to read in my course Exploring Nonfiction in the Elementary and Middle School Classroom. Do I try to match the subjects with the Mass. curriculum frameworks for social studies, science, the arts? Can I present a “continuum” of text structure and organization, from the simple to the complex, so students can see the full range? What if a book is simply too expensive? Will it ever make it into the classroom as a required whole class read, book group selection, or independent read? For next semester, I’ve selected one of the Lincoln books as required reading (Candace Fleming’s) for my “Documents and Journals” book night. However fascinating the book is, will it prove too difficult and cumbersome for the middle school classroom, as well as too expensive? My purpose becomes twofold then: to evaluate the text with teachers and also talk about the process of reading it themselves and then how they would support students in reading that text. Finally, if they don’t have deep background about Lincoln and the Civil War, should I present the book alongside other books on the subject? Do they need that knowledge to understand and evaluate the text?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Mary Ann: You have described the problem well — and that is why we need a structure, some Think Tank, where teachers, authors, librarians, meet and work together to figure out how to make trade books useful — what guides do teachers need? Could the books be made available on-line as well as in print? We need to work and plan together.