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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Ages, Grades, Sensibilities, and Nonfiction

The discussion over at the CCBC listserv just now is about “Professional Responsibility” for librarians — in particular, the set of choices a children’s librarian faces when she has a personal distaste for a book but sees a logic for including it in her collection. One librarian spoke about subscribing to a well-done, thoughtful magazine on guns and hunting that 10-years loved and then being condemned by her peers. Another spoke about being on BBYA and feeling distrubed by many aspects of The Boy in Striped Pajamas and then seeing it garner great praise from others. And then a librarian told the story of a thoughtful mother who nonetheless felt that the Claudette Colvin book should be on the YA shelves, and convinced the librarian (who had purchased it, doubtless on the great reviews and awards, but had not read it) to move it out of the kids section. That has generated some heat — and got me thinking.

There is a real problem for those of us who write nonfiction — we don’t get to choose what happened. It is not our fault that, say, President Kennedy had endless affairs, that lynching often involved castration, that what would now be considered homosexual rape of young boys was culturally accepted in ancient Greece. Now of course we can choose whether or not to mention these things, or can roughly decide which parts of the story of JFK, or the history of the South, or life in the country that gave birth to Western Civilization suits the readers we have in mind for a particular book. A very young first book is likely to stick to easy, appealing, bits — just as a first book on the American Revolution needs to introduce kids to the actors, times, and general tone of the moment, and will generally not linger on slavery or women’s rights. But as you move into longer books, where you are thinking of upper elementary kids (which must blur into middle grade and even high school, since in those ages kids’ reading abilities and interests are all over the map) it is far less obvious what should or shouldn’t go into a book.

The mother, and the librarians, over at CCBC are talking about where to place books, or how to judge them. But we have to decide how to create books — at which time the balance point between our obligation to tell the truth about what happened and our picture of who will read the book and under what conditions is far from clear.  Life — our subject — is inconvenient — the past, nature, science is not structured to fit the sensibilities of children as defined by current tastes. We do have to keep our readers in mind — that is our “professional responsibility” — but we also need to be true to our subjects. And the results are books that will not necessarily neatly fit in Junior or YA categories.


  1. Reading abilities are indeed all over the map. This means that reading level can’t really be used to determine who will read your books. Looking from the perspective of a school librarian, I see students all the time who are able to read books that are (in my personal opinion) too sophisticated. Seven-year-olds who are able to read extensively are not that uncommon – just as some twelve-year-olds still need “easy” books. So what can we do? Put the library off limits because it has books that can make a person uncomfortable? Require students to get permission before they finalize a selection? Then this wouldn’t be a library, would it?
    Instead, let’s teach students to explore each book as a new entity. Not every book will be right for you in every way. Books can make us uncomfortable, can differ with our opinions, even shake our beliefs. I tell my students that if a book makes you uncomfortable you can talk to a grownup. If you feel comfortable talking to me, that is wonderful, but you can choose who you want to talk to! Library books that you don’t want to read can be returned! Any book can be closed and returned to later. These are decisions we all have to make as readers. What I don’t tolerate is a book being used to upset someone else. If a reader finds something “icky” or upsetting in a book they are not allowed to use the book (or picture) as a weapon to upset someone else. (This counts for large and lifelike images of bugs and snakes as well as more sensitive topics.)

    Thank you for your thoughtful blog.
    – Liz Dejean

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    I agree with you. Last year when I was working with 9th graders in Illinois, one girl was upset by a discussion in my book on Race in which I talked about the history of the idea of Satan. Clearly it disturbed her to see this treated as a historical development rather than an enduring truth. I suggested that she discuss the issue with her minister (she was, not surprisingly, quite devout) or another trusted adult. As it happened she turned out to be a terrific, engaged, student. But for her to read my book she needed to pause to deal with a part to disturbed her. There are plenty of minefields in books — as there are in life. Knowing that one way through them is to share/discuss them with adults is a good life lesson — whether that applies to books, bullying, cheating, dating, or anything else.

  3. I appreciate hearing how you handled that potentially explosive situation with the 9th grade student. It’s always good to be reminded that a kind suggestion to talk to a trusted adult can make all the difference in the world in those kinds of situations.