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.
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.
Some readers want to page-turning accounts of heroes, role models, extraordinary people or people who had extraordinary lives.
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)
Same as kids
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?