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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I am reading a wonderful adult biography, Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity by Neal Gabler, It is thorough, smart, well-written — a foundational book. That is, if you want to know about America from the 20s through the 50s, you must read this book — it defines a piece of that historical puzzle. And yet I keep being struck by the fact that at least as it exists now, as a 700 page paperback, it is not a book.

Gabler’s magnificent creation has pages and a cover — but there is no book-making. Too long to be a real paperback, pages easily fall out, even on the new copy I recently purchased. There are no illustrations, even though he describes pictures in the text — and Winchell’s appearance is a key part of his story. And because it is so pathbreaking and thorough, it covers all of his life — whenever possible from original sources. That is great as a resource — and it studded with marvelous paragraphs in which Gabler draws conclusions from what he’s found. But it means there has been no effort at shaping the story — chronology rules — he has to cover everything, pausing at turning points to reflect.

It strikes me that the adult nonfiction world has split — you get foundational books like this — that are more resources than books — and then you get the many versions of the Short Book — the 256 page bio– which James Atlas pioneered, and has been echoed in similar forms by many others. So as a reader you have a choice between research and summary. What is missing is the mid-ground — book-making — where research, both textual and visual, is shaped into a book. And as self-serving as it may sound, I believe that is what we try to do in YA nonfiction — make real books that are fully designed, use art to advantage, are faithful to sources, thoroughly vetted, but make thematic decisions.  I hear tell that B and N may be moving YA even further away from children’s books, perhaps to the middle of the store — so “coming of age” becomes fully crossover — open to readers from teenagers up. If so, I hope they venture to try some nonfiction there -=- give bookmaking a chance to compete. We are like medieval artisans in the industrial age, we have preserved a craft — the skill of shaping history into a visual and narrative book. And just as the many cross-over YA novelists have done, we should invite adult readers in to sample our wares.