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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Fantasy Life and Magical Thinking

I was talking with my older the son the other day about magical thinking — the fantasy that if you doing something good, like clean up your room, or find something that is missing, it will help the team you are rooting for to win, to find the key base hit; or, in reverse, that if you are “bad” — if you don’t do your chores, your team will suffer. I think that way, he thinks that way. I can see in my younger son that he is the same. But for all of us, the magical connection is between some task we do and some triumph in the outsiide world. The boys’ fantasy life, like mine, is about accomplishment, success, triumph, wins, heroes who hit the home run, destroy enemies, beat the odds. Surely there will come a time when the boys become fixated on some person, they will fantasize about that person, and gaze endlessly into mirrors to make sure they look just right. But I am struck by how much the boys’ world of imagined accomplishment has to do with the adult world of external achievement, not a social world of peers. Back to my last post about the girls who triumphed in the Google Science Fair — it seems to me we only cater to that hunger for mastery in fantasy novels, where the quest is long ago, far away, and filled with spells and imaginary creatures. Our literature does not model to young people how they might change the world, how they might make a difference, how they might become an inventor, discoverer, path-breaker, fearless investigative reporter.
Am I wrong? Are there some books I am missing? Let me know. I’d love to have a list of middle grade or HS books, fiction or nonfiction, in which the reader is led to see how someone (outside of the extremely familiar heroes of the textbooks — Rosa, MLK, Harriet Tubman, Clemente, Chavez, George Washington…) changes the real world. What is there beyond Shakleford? the Almost Astros gals? Where are the books that harness the fantasy life of boys (as, as the Google event shows, more and more girls) — and build a path towards real accomplishment?


  1. The first one that comes to mind — that I just this week shared with my Picturebooks for Older Readers class — is Molly Bang’s NOBODY PARTICULAR: ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT TO SAVE THE BAYS (Holt, 2000). This picturebook format is ideal for relatively unknown heroes like Diane Wilson. There are not many readers who would want to know the unrelated details of Diane’s childhood, etc. that we typically find in a book on the various more-famous heroes you mention. And so you get an article-length story in an entertaining picturebook format (Which, here, is a melding of graphic novel-style and collage with the traditional picturebook format.), rather than a hundred or more pages.

    There are many of these picturebooks that provide an introduction to lesser-known heroes. The award-winning SEEDS OF CHANGE by Jen Cullerton Johnson and Sonia Lynn Sadler (Lee & Low, 2010), is one of several picturebooks about Wangari Maathai. Another essential one from last year is the Andrea Davis Pinkney/Brian Pinkney gem SIT-IN: HOW FOUR FRIENDS STOOD UP BY SITTING DOWN. These are four ordinary guys — David, Joseph, Franklin, and Ezell — who decided that enough was enough. They heard Martin and acted in a firm but peaceful manner to help change the world.

    These are the sort of unsung heroes to whom we need to be introduced.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Thanks for the specific references but also the reminder of the value of the NF picturebook as a genre — what is gained in the tight focus.