Jim Murphy added some new thoughts to the Speculative NF discussion this week in his I.N.K. blog http://inkrethink.blogspot.com/2011/04/battle-cry-freedom.html. He suggests that one reason I’ve been advocating for this “new knowledge” is that I “wanted his books and those of other New Knowledge practicioners to be seen as equal to and as worthy of serious discussion and respect as any adult nonfiction book. That he wants to break the chains that enslave us as “children’s book” writers.* I can see why he might think that — and there is an adult reader side to what is going in NF now that I’ll talk about below — but I just don’t agree. In fact after reading what Jim wrote I asked myself — is all this a bid to so blur the lines between kids and adults that my/our books get adult attention? And the answer is no. Rather, I am speaking to us — to the community of people who create, share, evaluate, NF with and for younger readers. I do want to bring into our consideration some of the views and insights that have gained currency in the adult world — but that is to open up our thinking, not to smuggle our works into theirs.
Jim’s concern — expressed through the telling example of a Nat Geo (the magazine) cover story on a “discovery” that turned out to be a hoax. He is worried that if even that prestigious magazine backed by all sorts of experts can slip, how likely are we as authors-out-on-our-own to either inadvertently get something wrong or — here he uses the example of the Virginia 4th grade classroom series that misstated black enlistment in Confederate armies — in service to some agenda present information to kids as “fact” when it is the most poorly researched and ideologically-convenient mythology. I must admit I see the world differently. On the one hand I do believe we have the highest responsibility to be fair — read as widely as possible, check out the sources of our sources, consult experts when possible to have our views tested in the cut and thrust of academic debate — we are on our honor as authors writing for young readers to stand behind what we write. But I also am not terribly disturbed if something we write turns out to be shaded by a new discovery, overturned by a new interpretation, or even exposed as a mistake or myth by a later reader. We live in time of information glut, not information scarcity. Young people do in fact have easy access to views different from the ones expressed in our books. The great example is Pluto — as Betty Carter wrote in her HB review of the Magic School Bus 25th anniversary book — which proudly talked about the 9 planets — the book was great because of how it emphasized scientific method. The particular results of using that method can, will, and do change. So I am not concerned that, in seeking out new knowledge, we may make mistakes. So long as we are also introducing readers to how we got our information, and encouraging them to keep reading and searching.
On the matter of adult readers. I spoke to YA librarians in Long Island last week, and learned a lot from them. One mentioned that she takes a selection of new NF that she thinks is particularly engaging as a reading experience and puts it in the front of the library along with the new fiction — not by theme or Lets Read About X This Month content, but as a pure reading. Then another librarian says she does the same, but in the center of the library, mixed in with adult books. There certainly is an adult readership for the best YA NF (as we know there is for YA fiction). I would encourage librarians, bookstore owners, publishers to be aware of this “cross-up” readership. But I do not think the aim of reaching that readership changes in any way our primary obligation, which is to speak to younger readers.
So, yes, Jim I know there are adult readers out there who might like New Knowledge books. But that is not what is driving me. Rather it is the sense that we offer a great deal to young people (middle grade up through high school) by seeking new truth and thus modeling how to go about that, even if that means they may later learn that what we wrote was in some way limited or incorrect. So long as we have been responsible, the danger is not that we will be proven wrong, but that we will not have helped guide readers in how to swim in the seas of infomration glut.