I Wish I’d Had a Camera
Next month, Betty Carter and I are running a preconference session at TLA devoted to non-fiction. Our idea was to offer attendees some new N-F books for free in advance, and then come together to talk about the books — and, thus, more generally, how to select, evaluate, and use non-fiction. We had to trust that publishers would be willing to provide some books, and we were right: getting attention on non-fiction is not the easiest thing, and giving a few books to interested librarians is worh more to publishers than having those same books gather dust on warehouse shelves. The other day two boxes arrived on our porch — the haul so far — I wish you all had been there.
My younger son had a friend over — so two five year olds and a nine year old got a glimpse of treasure. The two younger boys selected any books that featured animals or, especially, dangerous, scary-looking animals. The older boy went straight for warriors, sports, inventions, and anything in a graphic novel format. In an instant, there was one boy on the floor, poring over a Leonardo book, with a wall of next books to read blocking out the rest of the room, and the two other sorting and piling their collections as fast as their hands could move. Sure the boys might have liked anything free and colorful that came in the mail. Sure they are boys, and two of them have grown up in a house where nonfiction is highly valued. You can discount the moment any way you like. But the thrill was real, and unmistakable — giving kids a big selection of new non-fiction books is a guaranteed way of inspiring them to at least look at, and very likely read, those books.
Looking more carefully at the books with my adult eyes over the next few days, I found some more concept than execution — a cool title, cover, or theme with more crammed or disappointing interiors. And that is a danger in our field — an author or publisher putting all of their focus on getting kids to pick up the books, rather than on crafting really exceptional non-fiction. But then again how different is that from any part of publishing, for adults or kids? And even if the books are uneven in execution, taken together they perfectly accomplished their aim — they gave those three boys a sense that a non-fiction is just about the most exciting thing in the world. It will be interested to hear what adults have to say at TLA.