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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Why I Think We All Need to Consider This True-False Question More Carefully

Three articles that I read this weekend point out to me that we have framed this issue of errors in NF incorrectly. The Sunday Times ran a marvelous essay on the question of whether cell phone uses causes brain cancer: The highly readable and thoughtful article shows the many, many ways scientists have gone about trying to determine whether cell phones are in any way responsible for brain cancer. As soon becomes clear, then, the article is as much about the challenges in searching for definitive ways to answer that question as it is about cell phones. We see how difficult it is to trace cause and effect relationships — for one thing, our memory fails us. Women who developed cancer, we read, reported that they ate unusually large amounts of fatty foods — a clear cause and effect in their minds. But when their memories were compared with food logs, it turned out their diets had not been significantly different from women who did not get cancer. So we seek logical explanations, even in memory, even where there may not be any.

By contrast, the Times ran this article on Friday: the most fascinating study that strongly suggests we can determine where human language was invented, and how it spread across the planet. It seems that language began were modern humans did: in Southern Africa. The study is based on the idea that language became less complex in its use of phonemes — the basic sounds of language — as it spreads. The languages that have the most complex phonemes are the Khoisan click languages of southern Africa. One may speculate (though the author of the study explicity does not) that the earliest languages immitated the sounds of nature — not as words, such as “tiger” but more as direct identification of the sounds of one particular animal in one particular place — sound serving to emulate nature, then eventually shifting from mimicking to creating categories and thus communicating more general information. The larger point this article raised is how we may be able to trace information lost thousands of years ago at the beginning of human evolution.

The third article is the 60 Minutes expose which raises questions about the Three Cups of Tea story (including the kids book versions). The point here is that a story that may be compelling, heart-warming, inspiring, is not necessarily true.

I think these three instances are important because they get to the heart of the problem for a person reviewing a NF book for younger readers. The reviewer is not likely to know the field in the depth of the author of the Cancer-Cell Phone author (a professor at Columbia). So how can she tell whether a book has been as fair to the evidence as the Times piece? How can she know when a new and seemingly too good to be true theory (as the one on the origins of language) is seen as plausible? How can she know when a story we all want to believe, may have been tailored precisely to make us feel that way? The most important thing is for reviewers to recognize that the kind of NF we are writing is likely to extend past what they already know. So how can they judge — and judge for others — when they don’t know the content? I would love to see a reviewers panel at, say, ALA discuss this. We can agree that reviewers can judge language, expression, format, design. They can check for sources, citations, and indications that the book was read by experts (although of course the fact that an expert read a book is no indication of what s/he said about it, or whether the author made use of those comments, or where that expert stands in the galaxy of potential expert readers). But what about the facts, ideas, and interpretations presented in the book? What is the proper filter for those?  Myra mentioned Appraisal – but what can the other journals do? Ideas?


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Using the Appraisal model, books should have multiple reviewers, each with different areas of expertise. As an educator, I feel competent to evaluate books in terms of classroom use. That means understanding the features that might be challenging for young readers, but also being able to spot the opportunities a book provides for teaching, learning, or simply for enjoyment. I might also be aware of other books on the same topic as a book under review that might complement it and that a reader might enjoy. However, I am neither a scientist nor a historian. So I would find it very useful for an expert in the field to provide a context for a book or some insight into its topic.

    Of course, there already are multiple reviews of a title available in various journals, websites, or blogs, but I think parents, students, content experts, authors, and educators have different insights to offer.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I like that idea — the cluster review, with you, or Mary Ann in her blog, offering the classroom perspective, the journal reviewers considering library needs and uses — which include style, approach, design and graphics, cover, relationship to existing books, readership, and then field experts talking about the actual content as content

  3. Martin Warzala says:

    I believe the crux of this issue is the credibility and skill set of the reviewer, and editorial integrity of review media in which the review appears. I expect somebody that takes the responsibility to review nonfiction has enough of an understanding of the topical content of the books they review, to pass judgment on the fundamental accuracy of the content.

  4. Marc Aronson says:


    While I have no doubt about the integrity or good will of reviewers, the reality is that few have any advanced content knowledge in science or social science, instead they are trained at reading and sharing books with young readers. That gives them imporant insight into what makes a book work well with its readers, and a good general sense of “fundamental accuracy.” But as several people who have posted here point out, the issues in NF go beyond truth and error to new insights, new shades of opinion, new interpretations, and it often takes a knowledge of the field to appreciate and evaluate that brand of innovation.

  5. Appraisal is defunct, yes? I generally found their system of having a review by a subject specialist as well as a librarian more appealing theoretically than practically helpful–the subject specialist was usually so happy and agog that his or her discipline was actually represented in a children’s book that the review was gushy and unhelpful.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Roger: When Myra posted about Appraisal I remembered your rather less than enthusiastic response to their reviews. To me the point is less that publication than, as you suggest, the plan, the concept — the idea of having someone with content knowledge join the the party.

  7. Maybe . . . but I have a cynical feeling that most authors don’t really want “knowledgeable” reviewers so much as they want reviewers who will see the book exactly the same way the author does. Not happening, baby 😉

  8. Are we talking about the wrong verb/noun? What if we got rid of the words review/reviewer for the purpose of evaluating and considering nonfiction for its use in the classroom? What if we created another term for a process/conversation in which a team of content specialists, librarians, and teachers consider content analysis, format, style, and the multiple roles a nonfiction book can plan in various kinds of classrooms for various purposes, in light of the new Common Core Standards for ELA and Content Literacy?

  9. I have a lot more faith in the accuracy of a book if it has been reviewed not by multiple reviewers, but by multiple experts in the field and those experts are independent of each other. By independent, I mean they are working for different universities or different organizations…..I think this post has helped me realize why my editor wants me to write about several scientists instead of only one.

  10. Marc Aronson says:

    I am going to post today on that matter of being reviewed by experts

  11. Marc Aronson says:

    just saw this — while of course we wish for that, I am really talking about something else — knowledge, not fandom. more anona.