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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Squeeze

Last night Marina and I went to a sad/happy party. Old friends of ours, their youngest daughter almost precisely the same age as our eldest son, we’d gone to endless parks together, vacations together, bar mitzvahs (their older boys are older than ours), etc. together, had finally decided that living in NYC was too much — too costly, too hard, too little for too much, and are moving to Evanston, Ill. This was clearly the right move for them — the step they needed to take; but their story, echoed by many friends in the crowd, was the tale of the squeeze. Middle class families, talented well trained experienced professionals, with bright kids in the best public schools, are being squeezed dry. The cost — on every level: housing, food, vacation or even staycation, the treadmill to stay afloat, much less get ahead, is too high. it was like being in a movie — amidst the crowd were friends, with kids just about to head off to great colleges on down to casing out new middle schools in new towns — whom we could recall in a series of flash memories of happier times, all struggling, all having faced foreclosures, job losses, the need to readjust and rethink their lives.

In the 60s the blows were political and violent — the assassinations of the Kennedys, King, Malcolm. America was not supposed to be like that. Now it is the grind of a slowly changing economy — life paths that seemed settled, now without foundation. The other night I heard CNN’s chief economic correspondent talking about just this moment. He said the only way ahead is retraining — people taking a year or more out of their lives to gain new skills. Maybe. But in our world, on our watch, it is education. Are we helping the next generation face the world that is proving so daunting to their parents? Preparing both in terms of skills and in mindset? Are we giving them examples of coping? Finding a way out of no way? Of not so much heroism as resilience? The other day I met a music professor who teaches a college course on music and the holocaust. He said that a few of the musicians who played in an orchestra at Auchwitz are still alive — especially one 107 year old pianist who is a dynamo, a force of nature. We need her story — not about what she did in the camps, but how she embraced life after.

Can you all think of books that give kids examples like that of resilience — not Rosa or Claudette (someone who takes a risk to change the world) but someone who, facing a changing world, finds a way to survive, ride the tides, and make the best of the challenge?

After writing this post I came across this article:
What are your books doing to help engage precollege kids and prepare them for the world?


  1. Hmmm, what interesting questions. For the first one, I immediately thought of a fiction title (oops)–Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. The problem is that books that speak to resilience, I think, are often called “quiet” books and may be harder to sell.

    On the second question, I think it’s important for books to ask open-ended questions and not necessarily give all the answers–to acknowledge the complexity of whatever issue is being covered and invite the reader to make up his or her own mind…

  2. Shirley Budhos says:

    News of states’ recent moves to eliminate teachers’ collective bargaining rights and Hugh Carey’s’s death recalled the 1970s when New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy and Carey came into office and worked to bring together business and labor to reduce the fiscal crisis. By that time, thousands of public school teachers, as well a CUNY faculty lost their jobs, and many seeking work relocated to states as far as Oregon.

    In NYC class size increased and arts programs declined. A generation of teachers realized they were expendable when city government and business colluded under Nelson Rockefeller’s administration.

    In 1978, when NYC licensed teachers were recalled, like longshoremen waiting for work, they converged at the famous 110 Livingston St. Board of Education Headquarters, crowding the halls, sitting on staircases, floors to await assignments; a refusal to serve in a designated school meant losing their license. Waiting all day to be interviewed, they exchanged stories of relocation, working in supermarkets, factories, retail stores, babysitting to support their families.

    In those days the blows were political and financial and left indelible markings on a generation whose parents and grandparents survived the Great Depression. And, today, again, the unemployed, the professionals, the manual workers reinvent their lives, if possible, by relocating in search of work. There will be many books written about this sad adventure, perhaps by another John Steinbeck.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    hey fiction is welcome here when it fits. Yes, of course, open ended is right. Resilience can seem quiet, confined to wise old grandmothers in many books, or whittling grandads in books from another era.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I wonder if this crunch will indeed create a new generation of social realistic fiction — for adults or teenagers. Contempory poverty does appear in some YA novels, but so far more often as a background to stories of emotional or physical abuse more than in the pure toll it takes.