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.