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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

NF and Reviewing

More Fallout from the CCBC Discussion

Sorry to be late posting today, over the weekend I got caught up in the CCBC thread on reviewing where both my own views, and, more generally the issue of NF reviewing, came up in many posts. A few key themes emerged from the discussion that are worth our continuing to consider here. On the one hand the topic of reviewing quickly brought out the many embattled subcommunities within the worlds of books for young readers. The librarians who write and read the solid majority of journal reviews made clear that they face three daunting pressures: little time to consider a book, little space to comment, and the weight of knowing that they are advising cash strapped peers on collection development. In effect their review is saying: do you need  this book if you already have that one. Will you be disappointed with it? Will it stir up trouble for you? If so, do you need it anyway. But the authors, especially the NF contingent, feel that their depth of research and care in writing is slighted by short reviews that summarize content, flag — and thus give undue weight to — potential points of controversy, and in which a reviewer who knows less then the author about the topic, or has not carefully reviewed the author’s sources, opines that the author is wrong or off in a fact or interpretation.
      The authors yearn for lengthier, more engaged, reviews that reflect the care that went into making the book. The reviewers insist they do not have the time, space, or mandate to produce that kind of review-essay. But then, as Nick Glass pointed out, this conflict of needs, this bottleneck, is only in review journals where now the term "reviewing" is spreading all over the place to include blogs, even twitters. Although, as we have discussed here, blogs have their own hazards.
        Thinking over this entire landscape, I realize there is one basic difference in POV between especially the collection development oriented reviewer and serious NF authors: while our books may be about Selma or Sea Urchins, about a Civil War battle or the Taj Mahal, they are really about something else. Anyone who really investigates a subject realizes that knowledge is constantly changing. The deepest message in all our books is not this fact, that theory, that interpretation. Rather it is inviting young readers into the search for knowledge. If the phrase lifetime learners means anything, it is that our book excite young people about a process of knowing. Our books are our best take, now, given what we were able to learn, about that topic. Our books are a slice  of truth, to the best of our ability to render it, right now. Our books are not enscribed  in tablets on Sinai. They are not final knowledge, they are a moment of knowledge in the flow of formation. A reviewer who evaluates a book in terms of right-wrong, familiar-unfamiliar, current view-old view is missing the point. Our books are good if they engage young people in knowing, thinking, and learning about the world. And it is that passion which reviewers need to keep in mind in determining what belongs  in their collections.


  1. …yet the overwhelming number of children in the nonfiction section in my library have been sent there for “fact” by their teachers. Collection Development has to respond to users accepting the way they approach the collection…we can’t change the way they approach it.

    That doesn’t mean that I recognize only the “fact” seekers when building a nonfiction collection. But it IS just as valid a concern as the “knowledge” seekers.

    Thinking of this, and the pass/fail question in your previous post…I hope writers and publishers realize that selectors take passes and fails with a grain of salt. I pass on a huge number of passes because I don’t think they’ll speak to my community…OR because I suspect the reviewer has been sloppy and the book is not quite as good as they’ve cracked it up to be (I can tell this sometimes by what they’ve chosen to comment on, or on my previous experience with an author or publisher). And some failing reviews prompt me to purchase anyway. In fact, I buy plenty of books that I’VE given a failing review to myself! The failing review speaks to standards, but where need is great and supply is low, standards may also be low.

    Getting to this topic late, but enjoying it–

  2. Nina: their are authors and indeed entire publishing programs that have a clear sense of what teachers want and hew closely to that sense of the factual. However as individual authors many of us seek to do more than meet needs as currently defined by school systems. Indeed we want to show new ideas, new options, new modes of thinking that can nudge teachers, parents, and most of all young readers in new directions. Our books may not fit as neatly into existing programs — but neither do the best new novels. Those works of fiction don’t just match existing tastes, they create new reading experiences.

  3. Linda Zajac says:

    Nina, I’m glad to hear you form your own opinions about reviews, but your post made me wonder. Do you think children equate the nonfiction section of a library with work and browse through it less often because of that? It would be an interesting experiment to shelve the same book in two different spots. Would there be a big difference in how often the book was taken out? I’m thinking here of books that are crossbreeds – Magic School bus or nonfiction written as a story.