Listening to What Librarians Say
I received an email over the weekend that was in one sense alarming, but in another so clear I felt we all needed to talk and think about it. A friend who is on her state’s librarian’s discussion listserv forwarded to me a strand in their posts: What Are You Buying this Year? The first group of posts were all the same: my budget has been cut, kids love fiction, so I am buying just about only novels; the younger teachers and the kids much prefer to do their research reports based on the internet or on the databases we’ve purchased. Once one librarian said it, others joined the chorus. Basically they were buying NO nonfiction at all.
What does this mean to us — considering "us" as authors, editors, publishers, but also reviewers, other librarians, teachers, parents? The game is over. There is no need to write a book whose goal is to pass on information useful for reports to kids. That job is now out of our hands. The rising generation of teachers, and students, would rather use a search engine than crack open a book. So, for example, a review that says a book Is, or Is Not, "good for reports" might as well be talking about the thickness of the pages — that has nothing to do with how a nonfiction book is (or could be) read or used. Our sole goal in creating, or purchasing, nonfiction is to 1) engage readers 2) present a point of view 3) challenge, stimulate, entrance readers. We are in the writing business, not the information business.
As I read through the blog posts, I saw the tide begin to turn. A librarian protested that her kids love nonfiction — when it is about snakes, or poison, or fast cars, or, How to Draw Horses. Someone brought up boys and nonfiction. A subthread began about expository writing and where kids can find a model for the kind of writing they will have to do in college. And in that turn I saw the perfect confirmation of my middle paragraph just above: if NF means to you Where Can I Get the Basic Information for a Report — a database is increasingly the right ansewr. But if NF means to you Where Can I Read Something That Allows Me to See Something Fascinating In a New Way; Where Can I Gain a Skill I Want? Where Can I See Someone Write and Think About the World Effectively then nonfiction trade books is the correct answer. Which again means that the more risks we take, the more creative we are in our books, the more in tune with our readers, the more our work and our books can be models for students, the better job we have done of fulfilling those books’ reason for being.