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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Yesterday Roger Sutton and Martha Paravanno — the key editors at the Horn Book magazine — came to our local bookstore by Skype to talk about their new book A Family of Readers ( This was a new-fangled author appearance where the author “appears” on screen but is not physically there. I asked them questions, as did customers, and the whole hour-long interview was taped and can now be viewed by any parent coming into the store and wanting to buy books for younger readers. One surprise guest was Jim Murphy — the fine non-fiction writer. As our conversation got to non-fiction, Jim said something which captured this moment perfectly: he is feeling the press of competition (Jim was a runner — sprints and middle distance — as a young man, and still has that fire). Every time Susan goes off to a Klan meeting, or Tanya takes on another icon of feminist history, or Betsy finds a new ways into the 60s, or Laban gets a big Times review we all notice, and it puts all of us one our games. We need to see what new ground every other non-fiction writer has broken, what new and interesting step s/he has taken. The bar for non-fiction keeps rising.

I feel the same way as Jim — non-fiction is no safe, cozy backwater where you give parents and librarians a nice, well-illustrated, approachable, standard book. Rather, the race is on — to tackle new subjects, to take new risks, to write in new formats, to think in fresh ways. I suppose the Sibert and the new YA NF award play a part in this (as well as the NBA going to Philip Hoose last year). But I don’t just think it is the brass ring of prizes. There is, as Martha said in the Skype session, a sense of liveliness, freshness, in the genre and we are all in the game. Jim mentioned that he did his book Truce even though he knew Russell had his own, sure to be terrific, book on World War I coming  I went the other route — knowing that Jim Giblin was working on McCarthy I decided to focus instead on J. Edgar Hoover.

Whether we decide to go mano a mano over the same topic, or divy up the past, we authors are aware of each other, of the competition, and of the buzz in the field. Life has sped up in non-fiction land — and while that can be daunting, it is also, fun.


  1. I agree, it’s definitely fun. It helps, too, that we’re in a period right now where publishers are willing to try fresh approaches in nonfiction. That wasn’t always the case, it seems…

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    yes they are — for one thing, unlike adult where photos are being confined to inserts, we can create beautiful books as well as engage in new ways with interesting subjects

  3. Marc, How interesting that I emailed interview questions to both you and Jim yesterday, and one of those questions was about competition!

    The press of competition, as Jim calls it, does serve us all, doesn’t it? As a former runner (for fun, not sport), I performed better when I ran with others who were faster and stronger. The same can be said for academics — and just about any area in which a person wishes to improve.

    That said, the question I posed to you and Jim yesterday was about the amazing generosity that True Researchers display. For example, in the midst of my research on the KKK, you and Jim sent me a list of several titles that you thought might inform the work.

    I like knowing that Jim Murphy trusted that there was room for two books on the subject of WWI. I also like knowing that you adjusted your game when you learned that Jim Giblin was working on the same subject. (Another kind of trust, yes? that there’s more than one Good Idea out there.)

    I like the race . . .