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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Two Big Challenges

There are two big challenges in writing NF for readers who are not yet adults: context and engagement. Both of these hurdles have recently risen to new heights. On the one hand the ubiquity of the Now — spread by technology, reinforced by extremely well-funded popular culture, expertly crafted to play to the eternal self-preoccupation of the young. Young people know who did well on some reality TV show last night and not why Eleanor Roosevelt should matter to them. Monica will say it was ever thus, and perhaps to some degree that is so. But speaking broadly, in the past, whatever their limitations, schools had an idea that there was a Western European culture and an American History that mattered. Yes it was limited, white, Christian, etc. (which is no doubt why extremists keep trying to grab hold of education and return to what they recall of this older framework), but it was some check against the ubiquity of the now. We adults have lost that faith that a past, some past, some history and culture, really matters. So we half smile as kids descend into their devices. That leaves it to poor trade NF books to swim against the tide.

We cannot assume our readers already know much, hence the challenge of context. We cannot assume that they care, hence the challenge of engagement. The problem is that no book can do everything. If a book stops to make sure readers “get” every word and phrase, it becomes a textbook, no matter its other excellences. Sure it is possible that our distracted readers will give up rather than Google a word or use some form of online or print dictionary. But we cannot be daunted by that. We have to have some trust that what we write is so compelling that, should the absolutely right word be not entirely common, the reader will seek it out. In reverse, though, we cannot assume that our readers, feeling an inner need to learn about whatever corner of history, science, or math has caught our attention, will forgive us our tresspasses, lower the sound on their devices (off may be too much), and read on, even after a dry patch.

Context and Engagement are the challenges, but, friends, I believe we can let them loom too large. Nonfiction authors are the elders, we are the passers-on of wisdom — not only as story but also as thought, as example, as hard-won-truth. We are needed — we are memory, we are light, we are the truth of science and the clarity of math. We are the mental nutrition young people need even if they don’t know they need it. We cannot be everything to everyone. We can just tell a truth as well as we can, as directly, with as much flourish as our keyboards allow, with opinions made transparent through back matter citations, with passion, with voice, with the uncertainty that any quest for knowledge brings. That is the gift we bring to the young — they need us even if they don’t know it. So be of good courage fellow NF writers, don’t make our twin challenges into our twin curses. Face down the hurdles with trust in the truths you are passing on.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    The challenges you mention sound alot like teaching. We, too, provide backgound information about topics, generate interest in them, and teach essential vocabulary needed to understand them. If only we teachers were thought of as the passers-on of wisdom!

  2. To context and engagement I would add academic language – which can be part of engagement. A great deal of what most people read for recreation is fiction, and fiction has become more and more like speech over the past century. The complex language that best explains the connections at the heart of most nonfiction has become foreign to not only young people but even many young teachers.

    The good news (I hope it is good) is that the Common Core Standards ( and for NYC are slowly making their way into the classrooms. These standards demand a greater focus on nonfiction. They also emphasize the importance of exposing students to more complex language. In the next few years I expect to see more nonfiction used in the classrooms of my school.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree completely on the CC starndards — there have been a number of threads on it here and I will return to it again in the fal..