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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Myths, Popular Culture, School

Cecillia’s comment about Disney mths and kids happened to come just as my Rutgers class was reading the two book on the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak — Laurie Anderson’s novel Fever, 1793 and Jim Murphy’s nonfiction book An American Plague. One of the debates in class was how to think of those elementary/young middle school series, such as American Girl or Dear America which girls like, which introduce them to places and times and attitudes and experiences they might otherwise not explore, but which place essentially the same modern girl anachronistically in a historical setting. Is the hook worth the inaccuracy? Is the inaccuracy so bad that the apparent gain is outweighed. In a sense that is the same question as the Disney films — what is the value of broadly sharing a kids version of a costume drama, designed to appeal to them, if it fundamentally blurs the past?

I don’t have a slam dunk answer. But one thing we’ve been noticing with our boys, now 6 and 10, is that the steady diet of nonfiction I’ve made available to them (along with whatever else they want to read) has paid off. Sasha has a lot of bits of information about colonial America, about WWII, about the Cold War — which he trying to piece together, and which serve as a filter when he reads novels set in those periods. Rafi has been avidly collecting information about the planets, the body, geography, which serve a similar function. And so in a way I’d say the answer about popular culture is like our view of Nutella. The boys love Nutella — they each get it once a day (a useful carrot and stick when there are fights). Bu they get it because they also have fruit and vegetables, cheese and meat. So  maybe the question is not, do we give kids pop culture versions of semi history, but, rather, lets be sure we are also giving them a diet of nonfiction — not necessarily one to one — here is Jim’s The Alamo to go with your Girl of the West book — but, rather, as part of their ongoing reading.

Nonfiction information is like putting stamps in an album — slowly the pages start to fill; slowly you have a picture of some time in the past; here you have one piece of information; there, another. This reading is not a course, not a lesson plan. It is just adding mental furniture — filling in mental maps — giving 7ou some grounding in truth, in reality, in what is known of the past the the world. Then, as you read fiction, you can begin to compare and contrast, to evaluate, to question. So the problem may not be the Girl Books, but rather if we feed them to eager readers without ever challenging them to read nonfiction. Then we are giving kids a diet of Nutella instead of a Nutella treat.


  1. Nancy Feresten says:

    I agree with Marc that reading broadly provides the best education, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the Nutella analogy. Marc, are you suggesting that literature (fiction or nonfiction) that provides a more accurate view of the world is somehow inherently less entertaining than anachronistic historical fiction? I don’t think that’s true, at least not for every kid or for every book or group of books. One kid’s cauliflower may be another kid’s candy.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    fair enough — what I am saying (based on discussions with my not-so-elderly grad students) is that some loved hist fict when they were 8-11, books that were not all that accurate about, say, likely roles for girls, but which gave them a sense of time and place. I am treating those books as Nutella — easy, fun, light, but not a full meal. I am not saying that more accurate books are necessarily less appealing (we all loved An American Plague, for example, and were less taken with Fever, 1793). But I am defining a place for those Nutella books.

  3. Nancy Feresten says:

    Okay, with that I agree. There is completely a place for brain-candy books. I just passed the first volume in a series of brain-candy historical novels I’ve been enjoying to my mother, who knows far more history than I do. She pointed out several inaccuracies, which bothered her but of which I had been blissfully unaware. Did I still learn some history from these books (in addition to enjoying the entertaining but highly unlikely plot)? Absolutely. Do I now believe some things that aren’t true? Probably. Does it matter? Probably not. Either my misconceptions will be corrected by a later book or they never will. Either way, I likely have more knowledge (even from what are clearly not particularly accurate books) than I would have acquired otherwise.

    I do think there’s a limit, however. When I was in the 3rd grade, I read the entire series Childhoods of Famous Americans and loved it. My mother was shocked, however, the day I brought home the biography of Virginia Dare. The series as a whole is historical fiction masquerading as biography. That one even more so as there’s no evidence at all on which to base it. As long as readers know they’re reading fiction, fine. If they don’t, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    the problem isn’t so much the sugar rush appeal of historical fiction as it is the lack of knowledge of history. And this is especially true in elementary school where teachers are not specialists and may have only a very vague knowledge of history. That’s the bigger problem.