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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

NF and Banned Book Week

I’ve been asked to speak on a panel about Banned Books, and that made me think about where NF fits with the whole question of book challenges, censorship, etc. I bet that nearly all the Banned Book displays and discussions center on novels — the books parents object to, which get hauled off of shelves by scared administrators, and then heroically defended by vulnerable librarians are novels in which some aspect of sexuality, desire, gender-bending takes a form of center stage; or there are those where accusation of stereotyping or other form of insulting word choice raoses a row. In general, NF does not fit either of those problems — though there is an exception I’ll get to in a moment. And yet I think there are powerful constraints on NF that we should be discussing.

The big exception is, of course Robie Harris’s Its Perfectly Normal — in its various versions keyed to distinct age groups. But even there, I suspect that the real way the book is in effect “banned” is not by its being challenged or taken off of the shelves. Rather it is in where it is shelved. If the book is shelved in “parenting” — as many libraries do — that means no child will ever find it and read it on his or her own — it comes to them only if a parent wants to share it. Now I don’t mind that as a second place to put the book — certainly we weighed when it was right to share, a decision any parent needs to consider. But not having it shelved where kids go also keeps it away from the child who might want/need to read it alone.

The question of “banning” in silence comes up for other forms of nonfiction as well. One angry reader of Sugar Changed the World was furious that we made an analogy between the treatment of indentured sugar workers in the 19th century and undocumented “guest” workers in America today. How could teachers use our book, she demanded, if it said something so politically charged. Well whether it is an analogy of past and present, or, as with Tanya Stone’s Almost Astronauts and its strong critique of attitudes towards women, we authors are often motivated to write about the past because we have strong views about the present. That passion is actually a link to students and teachers — who, of course, have every right to disagree with us. But we should not bite our tongues, make our books more boring, less engaging, less relevent, in order to be allowed to occupy space in the library.

Trade books are not textbooks, there are the viewpoint of an individual author, who has the right to his or her soapbox. And I suspect it is there — in the views we decide not to express, the opinions we are afraid to venture, the anaologies of past and present we don’t make explicit, the critiques of the great causes of our time that we avoid — that, in effect, nonfiction allows itself to be banned. Our books have voice, that voice should be heard, we need to speak — and take the heat. Our books are not databases, not faceless results of committee debates on inclusion and state standards. They are the best exploration we can make of a subject, crafted by an individual who cares — and may well, then, care about related current issues.

In nonfiction it is voice we need to defend — while our sisters in fiction defend their stories.