Over at CCBC they have been talking about nonfiction this month, and there is a depressing tenor to many of the comments. The thrust of those comments is that kids run to Google for their research and no longer need/want books to find information. Worse, teachers don’t seem to see a difference between bit gleaned from those net searches and research in book. Having b een in many classrooms and libraries I can attest that if you give kids from elementary school up a research assignment 100% of them will head off to the nearest computer to search. However seeing this as some big change or threat to books strikes me as both short-sighted and based on a misunderstanding of what nonfiction books are and can do.
In the old days kids rushed off to encyclopedias to complete their assignments, so much so that teachers always instructed them to use “not just the encyclopedia” or, “a book of at least 100 pages” — or some other rule designed to ensure that they had to take at least one step passed skimming the encyclopedia summary and slightly rephrasing it. So the fact that kids are rushing, skimming, and slightly rephrasing what they find via an internet search, or, now, Wikipeidia plus one other source, only means that they are doing what their parents (people like, say, us) did. If teachers today are not setting a rule that requires kids to look at the net plus a book that is a mistake teachers are making, not some difference in who young people are.
But why aren’t teachers making that rule? Because they are misunderstanding what nonfiction does. Books are not databases. Databases are databases. Books are the expression of a point of view, an argument, a narrative, a theory, a concept. Books are information thought through, organized,and presented. It is that thinking teachers need to point out to their students. To take a parallel — any teacher who wants to share a folktale, a fairy tale, a tall tale, a myth with her students can find all of the above and more, from all of the cultures of the world, on the net. Yet if that teacher takes a Paul Zelinsky Rapunzel, or a John Sciezska Three Little Pigs she is getting something more than just the story — she is getting the story as transmuted through the art and imagination of an artist, an author. Any teacher can download the Langston Hughes poem My People — but that is not the same as sharing the Charles Smith book which matches the text with beautiful photos. It is not different with nonfiction — the glory of the book is not the facts, it is the approach, the bookmaking, and that is what we need to keep stressing to teachers, to parents, to students, to reviewers. We are not trying to “cover” subjects — we are crafting information into narratives, in points of view — and that is the skill our books can model for young readers.