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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Mismatch — The Review Problem

I see a theme lurking in Jim’s posts, and Tanya’s article, and Monica’s new post linking to this discussion: all of you are hinting that there were books that got stellar reviews which you believe had errors, or invented dialog, or in other ways did not deserve the warm reception they received. There is a larger issue here: how NF books are reviewed. The reality is that book reviewers (some of you may be reading this) are generalists — avid readers of the literature for younger readers who know kids and have a lot of experience evaluating books for style, character, engaging presentation, use of language, moral depth, etc. That is to say you are adept readers of fiction who balance your literary sensibility with a sense of how actual kids read books. You are not content experts in nonfiction. That means your ability to discern what an author has gotten right or wrong, where s/he is being innovative and where s/he crosses the line into fiction; when an author is using tired old secondary sources and when s/he is on the cutting edge of new thinking, is limited. And there is another side to this — if we want to be really honest about what is going to make a NF book circulate in the library as pleasure reading, as a cool new book that kids might be curious about in the same way that they may pick up a new novel — then we are talking about packaging — the cover.

Susan’s book on the KKK is a triumph of cover design. It can sit anywhere in the library — new books, topical books, center of the library between kids and adult, anywhere. It turns heads. If we are really evaluating NF as pleasure reading, reviews should begin by judging the cover as an advertisement, a poster — does it compel a reader who did not arrive in the library looking for information about a subject, but rather just curious to see what the latest and greatest is, to stop and pick up the book? The problem is reviews half evaluate NF as pleasure reading and half in some connection to a vaguely understood curriculum, in which the cover is less important than the theme and subjects.

Twice a year or so publishers have presentations — the kids book equivalent of Fashion Week — where, without the catwalk, they show the upcoming list of books to select reviewers and librarians. Well maybe we NF authors should do something similar — online or in person — have an unveiling of what is coming where we atune reviewers to what we have done differently: exceptional research, new insights, fresh interpretations — give reviewers an advance framework for thinking about our books. Sure we are selling, and reviewers need to make their own judgments. But at least we can tell them, in advance, how we see our books as different, as blazing trails. And indeed that could alert them to a need to, say, find an academic who can help them sort through views that may be unfamiliar, or to help them sort through facts that seem dodgy or authorial passion which the reader may fear is authorial slant. Our books do present a challenge to reviewers — so maybe we need to help them think about how to meet it.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    As someone who has served on both the Orbis Pictus Award Committee and the Notable Trade Books in Social Studies Committee, I share some of your concerns about how nonfiction is reviewed. However, I do not think it is fair to say that we evaluate books based on our experience reading fiction. Nor do we base our ideas on “vaguely understood curriculum.” Many, if not most of us, are experienced teachers and teacher educators with a great deal of school-based experience, both past and present. We know our curriculum needs, and we know the challenges children face reading nonfiction. The problem is that we are not experts in all fields of science and history. Because of that, it is often necessary to consult outside experts when reviewing a book or deciding on a winning title. In my experience, this happened several times when I served on an award committee and we consulted either a scientist or a historian. What this brings to my mind is the journal Appraisal, a journal that once provided two reviews of children’s science books–one by a librarian and one by a scientist. This is a model that we might follow when reviewing nonfiction–have a book reviewed by an educator/scholar of children’s literature and an expert in history or science or whatever field is relevant. That way, we deal with both the both the school-based view and the relevant academic field.

    As for the previews of new books, I can only tell you that publishers highlight fiction. You would be well served to highlight nonfiction. A few years ago, I attended one of these preview events and had to ask to see a few of the new nonfiction titles. When these titles were delivered to me, I kept wondering why everyone else didn’t get them too. In my opinion, some outreach would really help.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Myra: the Orbis Pictus award committee, or the NCSS-CBC committee is hardly the average journal reviewer — you all knew/know much more about the classroom than most people who evaluate books in the trade publications. I did not know tht NF books are slighted in those publisher presentations — obviously when I did them I featured NF, but it has been awhile since I’ve been to one.

  3. Marc, I have a couple thoughts on this post. Not all review sources use the same criteria. While I think a PW review may evaluate NF more as pleasure reading, but SLJ or Booklist are likely to focus more on curricular links, and those reviewers have more than a vague understanding of the curriculum.

    Your idea for nonfiction authors to do a special presentation of their books is very ambitious. I think it’s a good idea but likely difficult to actually pull off. If it doesn’t come to pass, nonfiction authors should at the very least play up the aspects you mention, “what we have done differently: exceptional research, new insights, fresh interpretations” in their promotion of their books and also make sure their publisher has this information. Authors can and should advocate for these things to be hilighted in cover copy, catalog copy, and in promotional materials. In my experience, if you want reviewers and readers to notice something, your best bet is to make sure you call attention to it. Otherwise, it may well be overlooked!

  4. As a nonfiction book author, I know that I always make a point to talk about the process of getting four experts in the field to “vett” my book before publication. It gets tricky when different academics have different opinions about findings, which could lead some reviewers to think there is a mistake when it is merely one scholarly interpretation.

    I had a former Egyptologist from a University museum–who had vetted a book I’m still trying to sell–tell me that she quit being a museum curator because of the vicious in-fighting among scholars. “The truth is,” she said, “no one knows anything FOR SURE. It’s mostly a matter of having the strongest argument for your interpretation.” This too adds to the complication when we’re writing for children.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree — experts disagree, and it often takes close knowledge of a field to recognize where what is commonly thought of as “right” or even “wrong” may still be a matter of debate. On the other hand, there are also schools of experts, and just because they disagree does not mean each side has equal weight or authority. This relates to my point — and fits with some of my problem with the concern about “errors” that some folks have been raising. The larger point is that it often takes knowledge — immersion in a field — to recognize what a NF author is doing. Generalist reviewers rarely have that knowledge. But it is also up to an author to alert reviewers to what s/he is doing that is fresh or new, and where that fits into the field as previously understood.

  6. As a teacher educator, not only do I depend on reviews to make decisions about which of the thousands of books published each year I’ll read, I try to model the use of reviews as a selection tool for the teachers I teach, so that they will do the same. Typically, I’ll read a review, locate the book, and then look for who the author thanks for vetting the manuscript or participating in the research process. Sometimes, I’ll try to find out who those folks are, for further confirmation. I encourage teachers to go back to the sources used by the author, and to consider that book in connection to other books on the topic and shared sources, to see how many use the same, and if a new book seeks out new knowledge and sources, and how that sheds light on the topic. However, if none of us have deep content knowledge of a topic, we’re still working within a system of trust – of the author, the editor, and the reviewer.

    Now that I’m reviewing books for our blog, I recognize that when I am reviewing nonfiction books, I’m choosing ones on topics that I already know a fair amount about, so that I have the confidence in the content to review the book and provide authentic teaching strategies. This may soon feel redundant to our readers. Recently, we reviewed two nonfiction books together on the same topic (Amelia Earhart), and that, too, felt more authentic, as each book shed light on the content and form of the other.

    Ultimately, this conversation reminds of Danielle Ford’s HB article on What Makes a Good…Dinosaur Book? It’s a great primer for reviewing children’s nonfiction based on representation of content.