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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Two Pleasures of My Line of Work

Yesterday was one of those fine days when you are reminded of why you do what you do. First off came clean up — that moment when a semester of teaching is over, the books I’m working on are in production (that is, my writing, editing, photo selection are all finished, now the books are being designed, or printed — out of my hands, on their way), not quite time to begin the next projects. And so I began cleaning — which files to keep, which to store, which to toss. And in that mornings of sifting I cam across three books I had purchased at a convention somewhere — three short Oxford U. Press history books — for example, one was a precis of what we know of world history before 4,000 bc. As I held the books I felt such a sense of thrill — I love history: getting to know things, having access to our best, newest, knowledge of what happened when felt like opening a treasure chest, Or, to be even more precise, the knowledge in the books felt like jewels, treasures, that I now know I have because I own the chests — the books that contain those treasures. The first pleasure of my work life is that I have the privilege of studying history.

Yesterday Myra Zarnowski — who frequently posts here — sent me a draft of an article she has co-written about what she has been calling the “literature of inquiry.” The piece describes how she used my Stonehenge book If Stones Could Speak with 5th graders. Of course it was nice to read about a book of mine, how intelligent teachers used it, and to see that kids got something out of the book and the classes. But one moment actually moved me to tears. One reader said that after reading the book he felt like he could go to Stonehenge and I (the author) would be there as a friend to show him around. I realized that that feeling is really the entire aim of my books. I have the thrill of reading, learning, about the past (see paragraph one) and then I want to share it — I want readers to experience the same thrill, the same pleasure, the same sense of the world opening up and making sense that I’ve experienced.

And that, friends, is the crucial difference between the books we write as authors and textbooks. The goal of a textbook is to communicate information — whether about a subject or about how to read about, take notes on, and study that subject. Passing along the content is the entire purpose of the book. Our books aim for something else — we are sharing our personal pleasure, passion, curiosity, outrage, fascination, puzzlement about a subject. We are not conduits for content, we are individuals — friends telling stories around the campfire. But the stories are the collective experience of all humanity. We aren’t telling kids what they need to know (either b/c they will be tested on it, or even b/c society deems it important for them) but rather what we feel compelled to share. That is what is wrong about trying to match topics with ages and grades. The passion must come first, then we can consider what form it should take.

And so if you are working with a Language Arts teacher who does not know where to start with trade nf — begin with our passion — the individual motivation we each have for researching and writing the books we write. In a way the CC standards are as wrong as the Sibert — both talk about “Information” — “informational books” “information literacy” – as if we were passing along data. Rather they should begin with nonfiction passion — our desire, our need, to be that friend who stands next to a student and shows him or her the wonders of the world.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I think the idea of “author as a friend” is very powerful. This friend shows young readers what it means to passionately pursue a subject. But while the friend is more skillful than the reader, he or she is approachable. That is why, I think, all of my students referred to you as Marc while they were reading your book.
    Another important aspect here is that the friend lives for a while with the question he/she is trying to answer and shows the reader how to do this. The friend shows how to purse knowledge. That’s exciting. I strongly agree that sharing a passion for learning is essential. It’s what I found made my students want to be learners…just like you. So, as a teacher and teacher-educator, I encourage writers to share their passion for learning in an up-front, visible way.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Writer as friend, writer as learner, writer as one sharing a passion — if that is what comes across in a book, or in a class, than mission accomplished — the actual content is secondary. And that is the difference between our books and textbooks — the content is the opportunity to share a love of learning, inquiry, understanding, investigation, pursuit of knowledge; in a textbook the entire beast is created to pass along the content.