I am writing this Sunday night, just a couple of hours after America learned which 68 teams would be invited to compete for the NCAA Division One Men’s Basketball championship. For weeks, millions of Americans have been thinking about this, listening to experts opine on who was In/Out or On the Bubble (possibly in or out, depending the next game that team was to play). Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars have been spent on getting the very best possible information on these possible contestants. Because now, billions more will be bet — from Las Vegas to office pools — on who will win each contest, who will be upset, who will make the Sweet 16; the Great 8; the Final 4 — and who will be crowned champion. In other words our nation has been involved in a vast game of educated guesswork so that it may speculate on the outcome of March Madness.
As a nation we love to get expert estimates and projections about what is about to happen — in American Idol, in Survivor, in guessing which team will pick which player in the NFL, or NBA, or NLB draft and — in fiction — in The Hunger games. The fun of a contest is handicapping the outcome as much as it is having your favorite person or team win. I am saying that that same thrill, that same mix of expertise, insight, intelligence can be applied to the past, to nature, to physics, to all of the fields of nonfiction. We can engage young people in thinking about what cannot be known — as, until tonight, it was impossible to know who would be selected (outside of the teams that had earned automatic bids), and until the end of the tournament, it will be impossible to be certain who will cut down the last nets — the honor which goes to the victorious team. Today was the day when the many possible futures collapsed into the concrete present. In nonfiction books we can approach the past in the same questing spririt — studying what is known as carefully as the ESPN experts study teams and brackets, but then venturing to speculate beyond that. I am saying there is a thrill in that kind of competitive questing for answers, and if we harness it, we can make nonfiction exciting.
The Boys Reading Group which I worked with in Florida really got excited it when they were studying the stats on teams competing in upcoming events, and thus trying to outdo each other as experts so they could predict who would win. Reading was a tool to gain expertise so you could make better educated guesses. I think some of the NF books we offer to young people should partake of that same spirit.
I must say I find it odd that some of my critics should caution that NF needs to be well sourced and documented — I led the way in providing full citations in my books, and some people criticized me then for offering too much back matter. So I am certainly not one who ignores the need to be grounded as solidly as possible in the known. But it is because I do read everything I can, and consult with experts, that I feel free to say what I think may be so beyond what the books and experts say. And I want to make the place for that deeply rigorous and well-grounded leap into the unknown.
If the entire nation can spend its days guessing who will play in the NCAAs, NF authors have something to learn: people love informed speculation. And I do, once again, think the children’s book community needs to examine its fear, hesitation, and resistence to this form of potentially thrilling intellectual exploration.