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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Instinct

I’ll be in the archives tomorrow so I am posting this a day early. Thanks to everyone for your comments on YA NF science — we could add math to that. As far as I know, The Number Devil is the only book that might be considered YA math in a trade book, not a text book. And yet why? Math can be fascinating. And the fact that so often in YA novels characters talk about hating Calc, Trig, Geometry, etc. is all the more reason to have books for those who don’t.

    As I’ve mentioned here, I have long been working on a YA biography of J. Edgar Hoover. As you can imagine, there is a great deal of rumor and uncertainty in figuring out not only the obvious questions of his sexual orientation but in tracing out exactly what the FBI did or didn’t do during his reign. This morning I was emailing with a key scholar about some of these matters and I as pleased to find that many of the conclusions I’ve reached matched his. But I don’t think it is quite right to say I had “conclusions” — these were more like instincts — senses of what was likely to be true, or plausibly true, or unlikely to be true. And that made me think about the whole matter of historical instinct. — which is related to opinion (which I discuss at some length in the Horn Book issue on Nonfiiction). I love this quotation, from a review by John Psaropoulos in the February 18 issue of the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) “If we don’t have an opinion about past events, knowing them is pointless; but we cannot come to know them until we put our opinions aside.”

That, right there, is the entire challenge of writing historical nonfiction for any age, and especially for young readers. There is no point in doing it unless we show our cards, venture our opinions, speculate, judge, link past and present, trust our instincts. And yet, at the very same time, we are modeling to young readers a process of research, thought, and judgment in which at every turn you may discover that your opinions are biased, your speculations are wrong, your judgments are anachronsitic, your parallelism of past and present is flowed, your instincts say more about you than about the past. We need to show that when you do immerse yourself in a subject it does begin to take a shape in your mind. You must constantly test that narrative and be open to having it crumble before you. But you can also begin to see just beyond the mere evidence to an arc, a set of connections, an explanation, that makes sense to you and which you venture to pass along as truth to others. Those who review NF for kids tend to fall off at either end — objecting to opinion on the one hand as being unhealthy for young minds, and to evidence on the other as being dry for young readers. I truly don’t think those who make those objections recognize the terribly difficult balance of that high wire act — trusting yourself enough to risk following instinct beyond pure evidence, but respecting your limitations enough to give the reader every chance to prove you wrong. That is the thin, thrilling, line where NF thrives.

Comments

  1. Getting a bit off topic, but since you mentioned THE NUMBER DEVIL I would also recommend Benedict Carey’s THE UNKNOWNS as being a terrific mystery filled with substantive math.

  2. Marc, Congrats to you & Marina! Just saw this in a PW blurb:

    Also, five finalists have been named for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. They are: Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, for Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science; Stephanie Hemphill, for Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials; Jonathan Stroud for The Ring of Solomon; Megan Whalen Turner for A Conspiracy of Kings; and Rick Yancey, for The Curse of the Wendigo.

  3. Sharon Kane says:

    I love to use math-related books with my students. I use novels, including Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, as well as Secrets, Lies and Algebra and The Writing on the Wall by Wendy Lichtman. The Housekeeper and the Professor, while an adult book, is accessible to young adults. In terms of nonfiction, there are many picture books that are sophisticated enough to use with teens. (At least 3 picture books about Fibonacci and his number sequence came out in 2010.) I also use adult nonfiction books that I consider crossover books. Some of my favorites are The Friendship of Calculus; The Math Instinct; Curve Ball: Baseball, Statistics, and the Role of Chance in the Game; Prime Obsession: Bernard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics; Why Do Buses Come in Threes?: The Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life; Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea; Knots: Mathematics with a Twist; Letters to a Young Mathematician; and Prime Numbers: The Most Mysterious Figures in Math.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    thank you for telling us about all of these good ideas and suggestions. But to me they just show the need for YA math — you show interest and reading ability ranging from middle grade to adult which an alert teacher can satisfy; but not every teacher is that “up” on the literature. In much the same way, back in the 90s when the phrase was “YA” is dead, many claimed older teenagers should/could read adult books. But now YA is flourishing and expanded to include graphic novels, poetry, much more fantasy, NF etc. If we created a YA math space your email suggests we would meet the nedds of many readers.