Thanks to Myra and Linda for starting off the discussion of adult and YA NF, and to Sandy and Katie for joining in. Linda’s comment gets at the real frustration for those of us who write (edit, illustrate) non-fiction for younger readers. On the one hand, the very first question a publisher asks when we propose a subject is “when do they teach that in school.” The focus on curriculum that Linda notes. And yet, as Myra has pointed out often, our books actually do not match that scope and sequence very well. Every 4th grader in New York City gets New York history (which, as I’ve said here, I think is totally wrong, but it is the reality), yet very few individual, top-rank authors (not work for hire series) write 4th grade level state history books. But here is the real kicker — while publishers are sort of asking for a match to the curriculum — even if they get it wrong and are pretty vague on what that should be — reviewers love books that “read like a novel” and “tell a story.” So while one part of the industry sort of thinks about the classroom, which Linda suggests is the operative definition of NF for younger readers, another focuses on story, which she suggests is the keynote of adult NF.
See the trap? Our own industry cannot decide what NF is or should be. Is it a classroom tool? Is it “information?” is it another form of narrative writing? is better if more personal or less so? There are contradictory expectations for what our NF is aiming to accomplish. In a way the adult world has it easier in that there are, as I wrote Wednesday, these two categories — the breakthrough book which is important for what it reveals, despite, or no matter how, it is written, and the narrative book in which the writing is key, and the knowledge while perhaps new to the reader, need not be a fresh discovery.
When I first began working in books for young readers, back in the late 1980s, the slant against the classroom was very strong. Allied with the library and the bookstore, we editors looks for author driven books that in no way bowed to the textbook needs of teachers. That gave our authors a great deal of freedom. But since than the classroom has snuck into the equation, especially for NF, on the acquisition and editing side, but not in reviewing — which is still, I would argue, dominated by English majors who are able to appreciate a NF book the more it resembles a complex and satisfying novel. Now this is still, on balance, good. It favors writing over pure content, and personal expression over faceless reference. But, back to Linda’s post, it is using what she is calling an adult standard to review books that are crafted with the classroom somewhere in the equation. Now maybe this is what Mary Ann’s blog is attempting to correct. But that leaves us, again, muddled about how to define our NF — except that, as many of you have noted, ours are (or can be) well and carefully illustrated.
On that front, this is a plea to designers — lets get away from the text printed over background image facing a sidebar grayed out on the page. I have seen terrific NF books register as instant textbook bores b/c they rely on this photoshop 101 design structure. If our glory is images, we have to take the design time to feature them in a way that serves the text, engages the reader, and makes clear to the glancing eye that this is a work of art, not a classroom tool crafted by a committee and executed through through the use of mechanical grid. We should have an award for NF book designers — who work magic — but then, too, we should ask them to weave their spells, and not grind out the march of the text boxes and the rectangular images.