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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Standing at the Crossroads

I Believe I’m Sinking Down

That is how the Robert Johnson song goes, and how it sometimes feels as a lover of nonfiction. I say crossroads because we stand at the meeting place of several contradictory forces, and it is up to us to fight back, define our space — make the outsiders change course. The latest sign of this came this week. The CCBC solicited those on its listserv to post favorite books of the year. Last year I wrote a blog about the fact that all of the suggested titles were novels or picture books, and this year was holding true to form. Then one librarian finally did venture outside of that canon. Here is what she said, "And a work of nonfiction (which may not be everyone’s cup of tea) that I really enjoyed– Our Farm: four seasons with five kids on one family’s farm by Michael
Rosen." She felt so cowed, so certain that others on the list would look down on her for mentioning nonfiction that she had to almost appologize! (Maybe she meant that book would not be "everyone’s cup of tea" but I read her post as saying the genre, nonfiction itself, is the problem.)

So vector one is, as I have said too often, the heedless, all-too-satisfied-with-itself world of the children’s book world that considers its taste for fiction (to put it politely) or aversion from nonfiction (as I see it) as both normal and good. 

Vector two is the fact that, as Deb of librarymusings points out, digital resources can provide information, and even dueling viewpoints, without the need for an author or a print book. Deb suggested that our nonfiction should aim to be more like the adult "narrative nonfiction."  

Which brings up vector three: right now a nonfiction books for upper middle grade or high school can count on being reviewed in only four places: SLJ, Booklist, Kirkus, Voya. The Horn Book and BCCB are extremely selective, and Publishers Weekly hardly ever reviews older nonfiction at all. I guarantee you — from recent personal experience — that at least one of those reviewers will still associate nonfiction with the very kind of bland, distant, "information" Deb correctly says libraries no longer need. 

In other words, we who write and edit nonfiction are aware of the changing needs of our readers and the parents, teachers, and librarians who serve them. But reviewers have not, as a whole, made that leap. Storytelling, personal point of view, passion — the very qualities we know we need to bring to our books — press against their rigid ideas of how to identify "accuracy." 

This is the problem, but I am hopeful that we can be strong, and change minds. Did you see the article on Math scores? Two states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, have made real progress — www.nytimes.com/2008/12/10/education/10math.html So we can show our worth, we can make nonfiction matter, we can press against the hegemony of fiction. Battling the winds can make us stronger, but battle we must.

Comments

  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Marc, I love your next to last paragraph about how the best nonfiction writers try for a lot more than getting the facts right. And, yes, that seems like an apology for mentioning nonfiction, but these days I think I hear a lot more apologies for neglecting nonfiction, thanks in great part, I expect, to your work. Thank you!

  2. Susan Thomsen says:

    Marc, a lot of blogs have made the leap. Just one example out of many: Tricia Stohr-Hunt’s Miss Rumphius Effect has been running FABULOUS reviews of kids’ NF in connection with the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards (the Cybils).

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Susan:

    That is good news indeed.

    Marc

  4. donna says:

    I took the comment about “Our Farm” differently. I thought she was referring to parts of the family’s lifestyle, like hunting and killing animals that might put off some people. This was really a strength of the book, the unapologetic first hand account of people’s lives. But maybe she really did mean the whole world of non-fiction.