As you may have read, the number of Americans living in poverty is at its highest level in 52 years, and median household income is lower than it was a decade ago, the first time that has happened since the Great Depression: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/us/14census.html?pagewanted=all The numbers are even worse when you ask who is in poverty — a bit more than one quarter of all African Americans and Hispanics. So the question is what can we as authors, teachers, librarians offer to young people whose families are experiencing these wrenching conditions and ongoing blows. CCBC had a discussion of fiction on these themes recently, but what about NF — what can we offer?
Off hand I think not much — books on the Great Depression may offer context, but hardly much useful knowledge now. And even there, I don’t think we say enough about how the Depression played out by race and geography. Books about economics — what is a recession, what is a depression — are again of some curricular use, and may again give a certain kind of teenager an overview that helps make sense of at least the terms in use and the overall idea that there are cycles and thus what we are in now is not permanent. Or is it — the other kind of help, it seems to me, we need to offer is the global context. America is in a global economy where, right now, expansion is taking place in India, China, Brazil — not in New York, LA, or Atlanta. It is important for young people to know that the jobs they want may require them to travel, to speak other languages, and, at a minimum to work with and be comfortable with other cultures, religions, and points of view.
Nonfiction is an ideal way to broaden, to bring young people views outside of their peer group, high school, town. And they need that — not just for some Benneton, UNICEF, We Are the World ideal, but because we are in a time of change where our economy is dependent on working with the flourishing, growing, more dynamic economies elsewhere. And while that may be covered in some classes, it is books — well written, well illustrated, dynamic books that can open young people’s eyes to that wider world, and invite them to find their place in it.