Over at Educating Alice, Monica Edinger cited Jim’s piece and directed people here to see our discussion. She then added that she is “wary of speculation.” It is that very attitude that prompted me to write the piece in the HB. As I say there — speculation has a bad name in kids books, and I think that is misguided. Monica responded that she has seen books in which inquiry, which she strongly favors, shifts into polemic — and that is what she opposes. Great — but lets not confuse terms. Too often someone will say, as a criticism, “that’s speculation” — as if it were a given that such thinking and exploring did not belong in books for young readers. But that is a false assumption. It is like the frequent conversation where two kids book people will say, “I hate math” — not as an expression of personal limitation but as a form of social bonding. We need to question the assumptions in our expressions just as we teach young people to question their beliefs and ideas.
Take a look at this article in the Friday New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/science/11kin.html?_r=1&ref=science This article is 100% speculation — a new set of theories about key steps that allowed human beings to evolve away from their near relatives, chimpanzees. This is a field which must, of necessity, be wholly speculative. We can never go back, and it is extremely unlikely that we can gather enough evidence to fully prove any one theory. But this is fascinating work, potentially of real interest and relevence to teenagers — if cooperation and social learning were so important to our development into human beings, might they also be more important than we realize in the future of our species? Might we need to begin learning more about group identities, group functioning, not just individual goals and abilities — that is certainly important for high school students who are both racing like mad to jump through the hoops of personal college testing and defined by peer group pods.
Or take Going Bovine — much of the fun of that high spirited novel is the way it ventures into string theory — an area of imaginative math that is, as the boy’s physicist father correctly says — totally unprovable. The book is suffused with speculation about the rolled up 11 dimensions and other fun ideas that Dr. Brian Greene and others have made popular. Why should interesting speculations about human origins, or the nature of the universe, be confined either to adult writing or fiction? That makes no sense — it is cutting off the hot, exciting, edge from nonfiction, only to complain that nonfiction is dull, dutiful, boring. Nonfiction is not just another form of story, it is a canvas for fresh thinking — thinking is part of what makes nonfiction exciting. And thinking means speculating — going beyond what is known into what may be so and is subject to test.
After I wrote this post I thought about how someone might object or disagree. I imagined someone might say — sure academics can speculate about fascinating but unknowable things, but they are trained experts. Kids writers don’t have that background — they should only report on what the experts say. In effect that is what Russell said in that interview with Roger which I discussed in the HB. But that is precisely where I disagree. My contention is that, given the resources of the net — the information we can access, the experts we can show our work to, the people we can interview — we can venture into new territory — with the proviso that we may be challenged and proven wrong. And, I argue, that venturing, positing, researching, arguing, and being challenged is exactly what kids are learning in school. Because we are not experts, we model what they can and should do in their work. Now perhaps that changes where NF is in the library — it is not just the Reference that Stays the Same — or at least some of it is and some isn’t. Some, what I called Speculative NF, is more like a novel — it is the latest venture, the lastest experiment, the latest take in which the author models a process of thinking — that is the lasting value of the book, not necessarily the specific conclusion s/he comes to.
For those who say I am wrong to call this new, I say that even Jim in his response said that in the future he will add a note in his books about his research process. In other words, even though he did original research, he did not highlight that fact. I am saying that original research and thinking can and should be the calling card, the centerpiece, of one brand (not, of course, the only, or main, or better brand) of NF. And, to return to where this post began, I do think there is a lingering suspicion of — well — speculation that deserves to be questioned and examined so that this new(er) form of NF can flourish.