What I Learned On the Road
Spending a week meeting with teachers (5th through 11th grade) as well as students (4th-5th and 9th–11th) in a wide variety of West Coast settings was wonderful. And I think it helped me to define more clearly what we trade NF do, and perhaps to help those of you who are teachers, reviewers, librarians to see our books just a bit differently. I came to realize that b/c our books are nonfiction (contain information), and because our subjects often overlap with the curriculum, and because teachers are eager to find find ways to use our books as tools in class, and because reviewers know this and thus review our books with the classroom in mind, there is a basic sense in which our books our misunderstood.
I don’t mean that teachers dislike them or dismiss them. Not at all. This was one of the most energizing weeks I can recall — the eagerness teachers and students showed for new ideas, approaches, books, was thrilling. But here is the rub: a teacher is with her students for a whole year. While of course she seeks to light fires, turn on light bulbs, create lifetime readers — all of those wonderful goals that are central to teaching — she also is responsible for helping those kids through a set of markers — whether that is a curriculum, or steps in development, or even passing some state test. She needs to be a vehicle to transmit enough knowledge and skill to help a student from point A to point B.
Our goal is completely different. In our books we are giving the students a chance to spend some time with an inquiring mind, an artist at work, we are, for those few hours, inviting them to join us in being creative minds. Our books are moments of life, of vitality, of exploration, captured between covers. So it actually is not most important that our books are completely "right" or that they precisely match what it is "covered" in class. Rather they are sparks that should challenge kids, inspire them, anger them, puzzle them — but leave them feeling they have, for that brief period left the classroom and touched intellectual fire.
I know touching fire is dangerous, and that is precisely what some of you warn about — the harm to students of opinions expressed with too much passion; but, again, based on this week, there is nothing that worked better with students of every age, teachers of every background, than inviting them into inquiry, challenging them to think, and evoking a broad range of conflicting views. And the way to get there is also by being present ourselves as thinking, inquiring, minds.
Maybe that is the key difference from fiction, even historical fiction. Novels invite you to lose yourself in the world they create. We invite you to experiece our world illuminated by a flash of lightning. So when you look at our books — look for the spark, not just the information or the storytelling. Look for the passion — that is what will be most valuable to your kids.