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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Revelation

The HF Seminar Clarified Something For Me — And I Hope For You — About K-12 Nonfiction

As we discussed historical fiction, I suddenly came to understand the fundamental problem with nonfiction, especially for upper middle grade and high school aged readers. Lets divide up our audience and look at what each segment wants out of NF and thus what criteria they use to evaluate it.

Readers

Utility
Many young readers of NF want information — for reports, hobbies, job or college prospects, to help with some physical, psychological, biological, issue, etc. The more a book presents clear, useful, well organized information in a language and design that speaks effectively to the reader without either patronizing or overwhelming her, the better. 
Story
Some readers want to page-turning accounts of heroes, role models, extraordinary people or people who had extraordinary lives.

The anti-textbook.
 Readers whose nonfiction experience in class is defined by the voiceless, safe-playing, affectless authority of the textbook want NF that is completely different: it has voice, verve, life, point of view, passion, individual personality.

Adults (reviewers, librarians, teachers, bookstore staff, parents)
Utility
Same as kids
Story
Same as kids
The anti-textbook — this is precisely what makes adults nervous. The very individual quality that makes young people interested in NF aimed at them is what makes adults worry the NF is biased, incomplete, tendentious, ideological, un-objective — less worthy of stars and awards that a crackling good story with a safe POV. 

So authors face a terrible dilemma: the more they make their book into the anti-textbook in a bid to excite readers, the more they risk equivacation from adult gate keepers; the more they please adults by limiting invention to story and keeping their own views, commitments, and feelings out of the book, the less appeal to have to teenaged readers.

This contradiction is most evident in NF for teenagers. And since we now have a YALSA award for teenagers, we need to bring it out into the open and discuss it. How can we bring more affect, more passion into our YA NF, what should adult reviewers do when a POV makes them nervous? Where does the imperative for objectivity and care for the limited knowledge  and experience of young people fit with our readers exhaustion with textbooks. How can we get it right? What is right? What should YA NF look like?

Comments

  1. bmcdowell says:

    So true. My students, especially my guys, are crying out for engaging non-fiction stories, but it’s hard to find NF books that don’t read like 7th grade history texts. Kids want “real-world” stories in “real-world” voices.

    Thanks for an insightful summation of the problem! There really does seem to be an “old-school” notion of what YA NF should be. Maybe bringing it to light will help effect change. If a story is truly compelling, how can it be told without passion and warmth?

  2. Linda Zajac says:

    I don’t mean to be a trouble maker here, but I disagree with your opinion of adults as nervous around nonfiction and fearful that it may be biased, incomplete, tendentious, ideological, and un-objective. When my daughter was in elementary school I was delighted that she chose a nonfiction book at the book fair. She chose a really nice literary book about wolves called “The Eyes of Gray Wolf” by Jonathan London. The fact that it might be biased or inaccurate never crossed my mind. I don’t think I was even writing nonfiction then. Maybe adults prefer to read fiction so they choose what they like.

  3. marc says:

    Linda: of course scheme was, well, schematic. But if you look at the chain of adult gate keepers — authors, agents, editors, booksellers, reviewers, librarians, teachers, parents — you do see the pattern I described. There is an unspoken consensus in those adults, or, in reverse, an underlying anxiety, that feels uneasy when NF is expressed with passion and POV — outside of a few safe areas. For example, if the explict POV of We Are the Ship were expressed in a book from a feminst POV, or Native Am, or Conservative Christian, I think the book would be greeted with hesitation, not the — deserved — acclaim of Kadir’s book.

  4. Linda Zajac says:

    I thought about this further and agree that I was not the one who picked out the wolf book, it was my daughter. I read We Are the Ship and yes, it is a great story with great illustrations. Now I’m thinking back to nonfiction that I chose and purchased. Hm. You’re right I did not and probably would not choose a book with a point of view like those you listed.

  5. Peggy says:

    I hope someday people will realize that all nonfiction is biased and incomplete in someway. Even textbooks. Nonfiction writers are as biased as everyone else. We can’t help it. It is seen in the stories we choose to tell and the facts we choose to highlight. The phrase ‘true story’ is not equivalent to un-objective. But adults have nothing to fear. A children’s nonfiction writer’s bias is to present the facts through a hopeful lens. We will readily show our imperfect world, but with the hope that it soon will be better. Nonfiction writer Milton Meltzer once said, “Almost everything I write has to do with social change — how it comes about, the forces that advance it and the forces that resist it, the moral issues that beset men and women seeking to realize their humanity… I have not been neutral; I see nothing wrong in the historian who feels a commitment to humane concerns — to the ending of war, of poverty, of racism.” That is the kind of nonfiction I wish to write and I want my kids to read.

  6. Linda Zajac says:

    Would I have purchased the wolf book for my daughter if it was a literary story about how wolves chew through livestock? Doubtful. I came across this recently in my own writing about wolves. I certainly could have put more facts in there about problems with wolves, but that wasn’t the point. A writer wrote that I should “appreciate the perspective of the farmer” then I can “write my story with balance.” I wrote my story based on scientific research so I listed books and research papers in my reply. I must admit I was pleased with his reply “your persuasiveness is alarming.” The judge is still out on a bias in math books?

  7. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    Re: Peggy’s comment: “a children’s NF writer’s bias is to present the facts through a hopeful lens.” Well said. I wonder how many of us who write for children operate out of that bias without even realizing it? Also, as a writer of nonfiction with a distinct voice, I have found that gatekeepers are not only open but grateful for creative approaches to what might otherwise seem “dry” to young readers–as long as the research is rigorous and sound, of course.

  8. marc says:

    I wonder about that “hopeful lens.” In some ways I agree — there is some pact we have we readers when we say we are writing for pre-college kids, there is some attunement not merely to their reading interests but to their developmental stage that we vow to keep in mind. And yet…in YA fiction we have The Chocolate War, we had that whole phase of Bleak Books, we know that teenagers are drawn to dark intensity. And some subjects — genocide, war, cruelty do not necessarily invite the “hopeful lens.” There has been much discussion about Anne Frank — do we place to much focus on the “I still believe” part rather than grim realities. I’ve written here that I think we also need to introduce teenagers to the tragic — to the strand in life, in history, which we meet with sorrow, with the heavy weight of human weakness, with a chastened sense of the dark fires within us, rather than with hope. Or perhaps only the hope that comes with dawning self-knowledge. Teenage is about idealism and optimism, but it is also about seeing erotic, the destructive, the untamed parts of yourself. NF that is as stark and clear about history as teenagers are in their self examination may also offer a truth that is useful to them even if not self-evidently optimistic.

  9. Wendy says:

    I don’t think we need to introduce teenagers to the tragic; I think they seek it out on their own. We simply need to avoid trying to protect them from it.

  10. marc says:

    they read Romeo and Juliet; they know about slavery, the Holocaust,many have had deaths in their families or among their friends… why shouldn’t the tragic be one of our themes too?