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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Elephant in the Room: Databases

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.

Comments

  1. Karen Burns says:

    I use a lot of databases and Internet for research but my reading advisory pages include nonfiction for the sake of the range of reading opportunities for high school students. Here’s a link to my pageflakes for students http://www.pageflakes.com/burnsk — I appreciate the help I get on nonfiction from this column!

  2. ma says:

    Karen:

    I like that page of links and leads, it is just right — gives kids many, many ways to go out and seek information and ideas. What we can do in books is model what you do once you get a quote, an indisght, a historical story — how to build an argument with a beginning, middle, and end; how you deal with counter evidence; how you make sense of what you still do not know (and may never know). I love how you give kids a window, an entry, to information, then I hope our books are like a paiting — how you take in all you see and render it as something beautiful, powerful, compelling — useful.

  3. Linda Zajac says:

    Concerning your first paragraph, I find that thread very short-sighted. It seems to me the participants may be suffering from “go with the crowd” mentality. How refreshing it would be for one person to stand up against the masses and declare that they love nonfiction books and plan to order them. Glory will be the day when my daughter’s English teacher assigns a nonfiction book as required reading. Why not?

  4. marc says:

    Linda:
    Later in in the thread a few librarians do point out that nonfiction readers read nonfiction books. And I agree completely — why is it that little or no NF is assigned in English? Are we saying there is no great literature in the entire genre?

  5. Loree Griffin Burns says:

    Forgive me for being somewhat tangential here, but I was just reading about the communication of science through books* and my response to that discussion applies here, vis-a-vis nonfiction for young people and its “reason for being”. Our books (that is, nonfiction for young people) could fulfill an important role outside of school libraries and children’s rooms; they could bring important and relevant content to laypeople (read: adults) in an array of relevant genres (global climate change is just one example) … if only we could figure out how to exploit them (er, market them) that way.

    * See the Laelaps science blog entry for today if you are interested; I tried to include a link but the blog site disapproved.

  6. marc says:

    Loree

    I will look at it, thanks for the lead. I have always said adult readers of kids/YA nonfiction are like the people in the Frosted Flakes commercials — they secretely love the books but are afraid to let anyone know.

  7. Julie Larios says:

    Getting writers of kids books to consider writing non-fiction is also like pulling teeth – 99.9% of them want to write fiction. Yet when I ask them what their favorite books were as children, they often list non-fiction books in the mix. How strange!

  8. Sandy Parks says:

    I see the role of nonfiction books in research changing. I circulate a lot of nonfiction — but mainly in browsing tubs for classroom libraries. Each week we send out @ 15 tubs of 20-25 books, primarily nonfiction.

  9. marc says:

    Sandy: tell us more, what is the change you see? how do teachers use the browsing tubs?