Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


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, 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.


  1. Is the word “speculate” used by academics, scholars, and others doing new research in this way? “Form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence” is the definition I just found at which happens to be the way I have been thinking about the word. Inquiry, because it is a word long used in my educational circles, feels more considered to me. I’m just curious if you are asking us to consider using the word in a new and different way. If so, that may be hard as I’m sure that there are others like me who think of it in the way. (FYI: I just searched the NYTimes article you cited for the word “speculate” and couldn’t find it used at all.)

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    In the HB article I gave a whole series of OED definitions of “speculate” which I am using to ground my use of the term. The Times piece did not use the word, but it was a classic case of “speculation” since the theories — while they can be grounded in evidence which can be tested, can ultimately only provide a framework of thought, they cannot be proven. They are new intellectual frameworks — new ways of seeing a key stage in human evolution. And I am saying that NF for young readers can make similar ventures.

    I have been thinking about this a lot, and the key to my argument is linked to your question. There is a reigning negative in kids books associated with “speculation” not just b/c of that dictionary definition but because of the larger idea that NF for kids should be what I called “settled knowledge” and that, as Russell argued in that HB interview, we ought not “speculate” about things such as the sexual orientation of past figures about whom there is not enough evidence to come to a firm and certain conclusion. I am saying there is a place for that kind of NF, a solid, important place. But it is not the only form of NF kids need or we can offer. We all know that the keynote of Web 2.0 is that kids are becoming creators of knowledge, of content, of art — not just consumers. That is both what web tools make easy and the challenge that our 21st Century society makes. Our young people must become comfortable in creating new ideas, new expressions new artforms, new means of connection and ways of thinking. That is what our economy and our society both make possible and demand of them. NF that places itself on the edge of the known models to young people how to venture forth. Note that Jim Murphy wrote that he had always done that, but had not highlighted it. His example is exactly my point — in a world that viewed the role of the kids NF author as passing on what adult experts had already figured out, an author might not want to draw attention to where he had gone beyond that settled wisdom. But in a world where we are teaching young people to explore themselves, Jim’s depth of original research needs to be featured.

    Note, Monica, that in your blog when you defined what you meant by being “wary” you described exactly the kind of reading that must be applied to all NF — scrutiny of sources, challenging claims, looking for rigor and precision. You would read any NF book that way. And yet you reserve a special wariness for “speculation” — I am asking you, and those who share your feeling, to read carefully, scrutinize sources and arguments, but to greet “speculation” with excitement, as fresh exercise of thought, rather than with preformed negative judgment. To leave with one final example, we will never know what Thomas Jefferson felt and thought about Sally Hemmings — what mix of mastery, desire, need, abuse, love he experienced. We can only speculate — and yet to do so is to invite teenagers into the most fascinating psychological tangle. I am saying that, carefully done, that is the proper place of one brand of NF for younger readers. And I am asking us to celebrate our ability to venture into such territory, not just view it with extra suspicion.

  3. The definitions you used in your article don’t answer my question. That is, they are definitions of the word YOU like, but what I want to know is what do most think the word means (e.g. are they working with the definition I cited above) and if it is the accepted term used among scholars (be it by someone with a PHD in history which you have or someone like me who has none), for the sort of thinking you are discussing. New ideas based on new research seems great to me (as in the example of the Slave Trade Triangle you gave), but new ideas with minimal underpinnings which is what speculating implies to me is not. I think that this discussion may get very confusing if we all have different ideas of what this word means when it comes to the research and writing of nonfiction.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Monica: I really do not believe the issue here is one of terminology. Had I said “historical conjecture” rather than “speculation” there would still be suspicion of the enterprise in kids books. And it is that suspicion I want to bring out into the open and weigh. Take the instance in Russell’s interview with Roger — the question of Babe Didrickson’s sexuality. No matter what word we used, we would still be talking about — what — a surmise, an interpretation, a hypothesis, a take, a view — ulimately the author would be venturing beyond what is known and provable into a best guess. And I am saying that that process — where you exhaust the known, you turn to the best expert advise, and then you stand behind what makes sense to you is an important facet of NF, and it is one we can and should bring to young readers. And, as in Russell’s interview, I am certain that many in kids books do not think that kind of, well, speculation belongs in our books. And I say that — not in all books, and as buttressed as possible with resources and references — it belongs in some. And I want those we disagree or doubt that view to explain why — so that we can come to some agreement on how to evaluate the variety of kinds of NF that kids deserve and authors are creating.

  5. So you are speculating that I’m the only one who is having this reaction? Other than silence (which I don’t assume means no interest) what is your evidence? (Frankly, I’d appreciate an effort to answer my questions and take my suggesti

  6. (Sorry, in cab with iPhone:) …ions more seriously.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Just the opposite — I am surmising that your concern, which is of a piece with a sentiment Laurie mentioned in her blog which linked to Jim’s, is widely shared. And I am taking you quite seriously — I believe that there is a view of NF in kids books which has a binary view of reliable information vs. venturing-too-far-off-of-the-known-into-better-left-to-adult-speculation. And I think in our discussion that is coming to light — how the negative attached to the word “speculation” is actually a larger, and not clearly examined, negative towards an approach to NF which I highlighted and spoke for in the article — NF for kids that aims to bring forth new knowledge, or new conjectures, that may or may not accord with what adult teachers, parents, librarians already know and that offer young readers provisional knowledge, knowledge in formation, best-estimates that are not yet proven and may not be provable. I believe that writing-on-the-edge-of-knowledge — what I called Speculative NF — has a great deal to offer. But only if we as a community raise, question, and examine the concerns it raises.

  8. No, my QUESTION is about the term. You are extrapolating it into a broader sentiment that I don’t necessarily share. I DO have problems with speculating “…without firm evidence.” And I wonder if others may too without necessarily having problems with you and others exploring new terrain and ideas.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    of course — as I wrote on your blog, we have to approach every aspect of NF with a critical eye, examining sources and questioning conclusions. We can agree on that. But I strongly sense that, however charged the term, it is the activity that causes concerns. Again, look at Russell’s interveiw — he is using the term to object to the activity, it is the trying-to-figure-out-Babe’s-sexuality he objects to, not the use of the word.

  10. Marc Aronson says:

    This blog reframes the “speculation” debate a bit in a nice way.

  11. I give up. You still haven’t answered my question.

  12. Marc Aronson says:

    Are you asking me whether scholars use the term “speculation” in a positive sense, or without the negative association of being based on too little evidence? Certainly many academic articles and books feature speculations by the expert in which s/he posits a theory that extends beyond what is firmly knowable — that is, for example, just about the entire field of psychohistory, or counter-factual history. A good part of what you learn in graduate school is historiography — seeing the frame of thought that gave rise to one interpretation or another, and thus attuning you to how much all history is speculation — seeing the past with one particular mind’s eye. I did not answer because I think you are missing the forest for the trees. As Myra pointed out, I am advocating for a difference in emphasis from what most kids NF has traditionally highlighted. And that would be as true no matter what we called it. The goal is to liberate us as creators and readers of NF, and to celebrate the activity of envisioning, postulating, conjecturing — speculating. I am indeed saying that to be content with the negative association of the term and not to make use of its postive power is a mistake.


  1. […] Monday post is, in part, my response to the controversy over Marc Aaronson’s debate over speculation in children’s nonfiction. This entry was posted in Books, Non Fiction Monday and […]