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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Inspired By susan — One More Round on Interpretation

If You Make the Analogy to English, This Gets Easier

In schools throughout this country, kids read novels and then discuss them. The teacher, who has, one assumes, taken literature in college, is thus able to guide a discussion of plot, character, point of view, setting, detail, themes — all of those standbyes. When she asks for comments, she is able to guide a student to help the child discriminate between feeling — I liked it, I was bored — insight — the character is not telling the truth, the character is fooling himself — and observation — how come the boys are always the heroes? No one expects that every reaction a child has is "right" — but the teacher also has some flexibility to entertain new ideas and insights she had not previously considered. An immigrant whose family lived on a small farm in the Dominican Republic, for example, might read Charlotte’s Web differently from a city kid who has only seen dead animals in supermarket packages. 

Why is history any different? We train kids to be attentive and read carefully. But we encourage them to develop their own interpretations. And we authors take the lead by showing how it is done — we assemble information, develop ideas and theories, check them against experts to see if they make sense, then propose them for the world to discuss and debate. The difference, as this thought experiment should make clear, is that teachers comfortable with viewing fiction through many lenses, seeing the same passage or character in new ways, feel ill at ease with history. Where in one case they are eager to explore, in the other they fear getting it wrong. And they pass that fearful rigidity on to students. And that is where we have to be brave and model what it is like to think with history.

For most of the books we write, we are not experts at the start. We have to learn, catch up, get grounded in the period, the literature, the sources. But as we read we begin to see a picture, a pattern, a pathway we believe is important and true. Out of those insights come our books. Make sense?


  1. Susan Campbell Bartoletti says:

    I agree, Marc, that interpreting history means making use of good reading skills — those same skills that we bring to fiction. Readers use those skills every day. Teachers reinforce those skills in readers every day. So . . . why not transfer those skills to the reading of history?

    When teachers fear that they don’t have the training to interpret history — that they may get it wrong — I also think about writing and the skills it requires. DIdn’t most of us have to take freshman composition in college, a course in which we had to write comparison papers? research papers? As teachers, didn’t we learn Bloom’s taxonomy? Aren’t those also the same skills that we use to read and interpret history?

    And while we’re at it, why not transfer writing skills? (I am speaking here as a former teacher — 8th grade, nearly 20 years in the classroom.) I want students to read nonfiction books, as part of the curriculum and for pleasure. I also want them to write their own nonfiction and to write about nonfiction written by others. I want them to learn to write essays and to write narratively.

    Yes, kids are swamped with multiple choice tests and NCLB. But what better way to get kids to remember facts than to get them to wrap them in their own narrative nonfiction? What better way to get them to think through their ideas than to expand them into paragraphs and multi-paragraph essays and narrative nonfiction (that tells a story)?

    I left the classroom ten years ago. It was, thank goodness, before NCLB.

  2. Susan:

    You express perfectly exactly what I believe. Nonfiction is creative not because we need to make it read like fiction, or make up details, or even make sure we know the precise angle of the sunlight as Jefferson’s pen touched the page of the Declaration, but because engaging with the past can be done in as many ways as the mind/heart/intuition/creative talent can function. One person may find a century in a button, another may carry us along through thousands of years on a wave of interpretive brilliance, yet another may capture how faces looked different when there were few mirrors, and still another the heat billowing out from a burning cross. Deciding what we investigate it and how to render it is a creative process, a Language Arts challenge, and one teachers would, I would wish, embrace

  3. Rebecca Glaser says:

    I’m an editor, not a teacher. But I wonder if part of the problem is that curricula call for analyzing and interpreting literature, but not nonfiction. I think there is tremendous opportunity in reading the classics (say, The Great Gatsby), and using that as a bridge into the history of the 1920s. How did Fitzgerald interpret the times? Which parts of the book reflected what was happening in the world and which were part of his characters? And then going a step further–reading more than one nonfiction book about the time and asking the same questions one does about literature: what were the author’s motivations, why is this part included, why did one author spend more pages on one part of the topic. Perhaps as nonfiction writers, editors, publishers, we need to give teachers some tools for how to go about teaching nonfiction and incorporating it into already existing curricula.

  4. Rebecca

    Tools, yes. But really this is a frame of mind. The problem is a textbook attempts to have no, as well as every, point of view. Take any other source and you can question it, see the same information differently. If a piece of NF has an author, it has an “I” in there somewhere and the teacher can train the class to look for that point of view, that angle of vision. As William Blake put it “the eye altering, alters all.” Surely he also meant the “I”