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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Turning Point

I’ve Been Reading the "Heavy Medal" Blog 

and Jonathan has a link that we all should follow. He takes readers to Peter Sieruta’s blog (which is called Collecting Children’s Books, but is really as much about reading and thinking about those books), where Peter says, "There was once a time when nonfiction and biographies for adult readers would beget junior editions for kids. But today many important and original topics are seeing first light in children’s books; adult versions of these stories will no doubt turn up eventually…but right now childrens’ books are where it’s at!" As it happens that is precisely the same point I make in my interview with Phil Hoose.
    Now, why? Why is there this shift in NF? And how does this freshness, this newness, relate to the other shifts we have been talking about here — the schools that buy databases intstead of books; the opportunities for digital connections between authors and readers? On the one hand I think it is a generational matter — Ellen Levine, Phil Hoose, Betsy Partridge — many of us were shaped in our childhoods by the civil rights movement. Our own past — is now the history kids read and study. So when we go back to interview people who marched, or refused to give up their seats, or — as Tanya Stone did in Almost Astros — women who could have been her aunts or teachers. In other words the history we are investigating, researching, bringing to light for the first time is not foreign and distant. We feel comfortable interviewing people whose fight we’ve had a sense of all our lives.
   But I also think that there is a certain gutsy courage in kids NF these days. We are so squeezed — off of the chain bookstore shelves, out of the library budgets — that we know we need to be exceptional. And so we take risks. And that risking taking, that willingness to be original, to blaze new paths, shows up on the pages of our books. I am so pleased that smart readers like Peter and Jonathan are recognizing this shift and giving it the credit it is due.
          I only saw the claims by "a teacher" that Almost Astros is agenda driven and inaccurate so late in the posting thread that my responses were surely lost. I can only say that if that poster, or anyone, would like to bring those objections here, I would be happy to respond to them. I find it strange that the passion we all praised in We Are the Ship is seen as some kind of slanting agenda in Almost Astronauts. Why?


  1. I don’t have any objections to raise, but mention this debate again back at Heavy Medal:

  2. Mmm, ok, I do have one tiny objection, or question.

    While reviewing this a second time, I found myself turning to the back hoping to find not just a source note…but an endnote delving in a little more deeply into how and why Stone makes an assertion or claim. Much as you did, Marc, in Sir Walter Ralegh.

    For example, bottom of page 20. “NASA was not convinced. They were not even interested. The organization announced that it ‘has never had a plan to put a woman into space, it doesn’t have one today, and it doesn’t expect to have any in the foreseeable future.'”

    Ok, that declarative quote is pretty straightforward, but it’s also clearly press-release-speak, mean to close down discussion and state a point of view for the record. I’d love to hear just a little more evidence that NASA was not “convinced…or even interested.” Was there any dissent, or difference of opinion in NASA?

    That one piece doesn’t matter too much in the long run–Stone backs it up repeatedly through the text–but there are plenty of nuggets like that where I can tell there’s a little more to the story, and I’d have appreciated any extra tidbits, or specific references on where to read more on a particular piece.

  3. Nina:

    I see that statement as a summary of what has been established in the narrative. Perhaps that is what gives it the press agentish tone you pick up — it is a quick nugget review of what we have seen in the unfolding text. That kind of statement is hard to footnote because in effect everything you wrote before, with its notes, is the citation. In crude form this is what I mean: It was rainy at 10 this morning (note to weather report). It was cloudy at noon (note to weather report). Nuggest sentence: we had a crummy wet morning. Perhaps a touch editorial, but really just summarizing the previous two annotated statements.

  4. Yes, ok. I do see that. And I did pick up on it as I read it. I think it’s this ‘editorilizing’ that causing the brouhaha. Do you think, for instance, if endnotes had contextualized the edtiorial (i.e., so-and-so offers a different interpretation in such-and-such, but his interpretation is faulty because), that it would have made the book stronger? (Certainly would have made it longer, which is always an issue I realize).

  5. Nina:

    I like to include notes of that sort — to lead readers to the various schools and debates. But I must admit that in this case I had not thought of suggesting that Tanya do so. Length is perhaps a point, but really it is more a question of which kind of argument raises to the level where you feel it important (you the author when you are doing the research) enough to share with your readers. As you point out, Tanya relied on and worked with Margaret Weitekamp — who did not press her to bow to those other views. One problem is that a person may assert a view that the author, and experts she admires, does not accept. Which of those must be mentioned? We don’t mention a holocaust denier, or MLK was a Commie view in books on those subjects. What raises an objection to the level that it must be considered? For example there is a heated debate in the TLS this issue on whether a pre-DNA RNA based soup could have produced the conditions for life (in other words, can life be explained entirely mechanically). Does every kids book on Darwin acknowledge that his debate exists among scholars not just Creationists?
    I am trying to separate your valid question on bowing to show other schools of thought and debate from something else I sense in the AA debates: there is something about a book that focuses on discrimination against women that seems to create a particular form of tension and resistance.

  6. Thanks Marc. It’s very helpful to hear your thoughts on this. Your points all well taken, and I’m satisfied. I DO think there is something else going on in the debate, and am having a hard time getting it to reveal itself over at Heavy Medal.

  7. PublicLibrarian says:

    Marc, I question this book not for an alleged agenda but for uncited, specific statements such as “The most drastic change occurs in college, where more technical majors, such as computer science and electrical engineering, are increasingly being ruled out by female students.” p. 115. I’d appreciate your comments, if I’m not too late to the discussion.

  8. I’ll ask Tanya for her source. But I will say that one of our goals was to make this a book that is not just about old prejudice and past courage but also about the areas where, to this day, there are far fewer women than there could or should be. of course that has to be a valid insight, not just a feeling or a hunch. But when I was in grad school I did some research on why women were under-represented in science. The best explanation was the “accumulation of disadvantage” — in effect the set of reasons why one girls turns away from science in middle school, a second in high school, a third in college, such that by grad school the few remaining women are vastly outnumbered — and also generally have male mentors who may not, for example, have had to choose between a marriage/child track and a tenure track. No one person blocks women, but the net effect is to limit the number of women who go into, say, physics — or flying jet planes.

  9. Here is Tanya’s response to the query above from the Publiclibrarian:

    This sentence stemmed from reading a body of work on the topic, but two specific sources were a Forbes article called “Sending Your Daughters Into Space,” which cited statistics regarding women in science and engineering, and noting that college students in this broader field tended to choose the social science aspects of that broader field (such as psychology), as well as an academic article by C.J. Weinberger from UCLA Santa Barbara in the journal Technology and Society entitled “Just ask! Why surveyed women did not pursue IT courses or careers.” This article focused on “persistent gender differences in the choice of college major in technical fields.”

  10. PublicLibrarian says:

    Marc, I appreciate that you took the time to reply, and this discussion may be moot since Monday’s awards. That being said, Stone may have two sources to support that specific point she wants to make, but just for fun, I researched undergrad enrollment at MIT and NYIT…and both are 55% male, 45% female. That hardly fits Stone’s descrption as “a drastic change in college”. In closing, I suppose I’ll just have to agree to disagree with the Siebert committee about this book. Thank you again for replying.

  11. while it is encouraging to see those numbers at two specific institutions, Tanya used a broader set of figures. More generally the question is whether accumulation of disadvantage still steers women away from the “hard” sciences (outside of biology) — and I do not think that is in dispute.