Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Information VS Nonfiction, or The Element of Surprise

As you all know, the Sibert is given for the best ALSC-age “Informational” book, such as the new CC standards deal with “information” literacy. So why that choice of term? In one way we might grant the ALSC committee that created the Sibert with an astute awareness of the problem with the world “nonfiction” — that singular example of defining a genre by what it is not. But why “information,” and what does that imply? I ask because I was in a wodnerful public school the other day browsing through its clean, well-stocked NF shelves, and feeling increasingly depressed. The sinking feeling came because I realized the shelves were packed with information, and thus not, as I see it, nonfiction. In a sense that section of the library was a print version of a database designed to answer “identify and define” questions.

What is addiction? Name five famous Hispanic Americans. Why are there hurricanes in August? Answers to questions like these were easily at hand in the hundreds of books on these shelves — all short, llustrated, and designed for wasy access to the answers you wanted. In a sense they were a report-help-machine, all lined up like soldiers ready to march into battle to help the student do the minimum of work to get a good grade. That is fine, we need resources like that — I rushed to use their equivalents when I was in middle school. But that is a very small subset of nonfiction. It would be as if equated the shop where you buy worms and select flies with fishing — and skipped the whole part of being in the water, matching wits with the fish, using skill, strength, patience to — as an author whom I no longer recall once said — “catch a surprise.”

To me nonfiction (whatever we call it) is about the hunt, it is about thinking, using your mind, your knowledge, your intuition, your skill to learn — you the author, you the reader. It is a detective story, it is therapy, it is forensics, it is science, it is, as Myra says, “inquiry.” Information may be your goal, just as you set out at 4 in the morning to catch a fish. But the experience, the process, is fishing. So our books are not “informational” — as if they presented settled knowledge that exists outside and we capture, dead on a plate. Rather our books are the hunt to learn, to find out, to discover.

So I suggest we call them Discovery books, and the CC should test Investigational Literacy — getting the tools, skills, patience, and hardihood to be a good scout. What do you think?


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I agree with the idea of highlighting the search and synthesis of information. That is, one or more people are trying to investigate and find out something and follow a process in order to do that. Of course, I also prefer my own title, THE LITERATURE OF INQUIRY, because it highlights the questioning and problem solving nature of the task, includes the false starts and regrouping sometimes needed, and allows for a new understanding of the world.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I like your title, I just think that a one word term is more likely to be used — though Inquiry Books would be find

  3. But often in my experience with 4th graders at least, it IS about the different sorts of flies (as the kid already knows well all the joy of water etc and is far more interested in looking at the details of flies and such) and he/she will go right to that section skipping everything else. (You can write it, but once in their hands it is THEIRS and they are going to read it anyway they want:) I actually find “information” to be an apt word for what my 4th graders are often doing when it comes to seeking out knowledge. He/she wants to know something about something and goes looking for it, just as you do as an author. (This is in line with your earlier arguments about kids wanting to collect facts:)

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Of course, as you say, I know young people like facts (flies) and are eager to get them. But that is only part of what they (or some of them) enjoy in nonfiction. While I only get to parachute into classrooms, I have often found 4th graders to be the best crowd. And that is because they are so lively and ready to think. Our libraries need to have great fields of facts for students to harvest, but they also need books that are more like fields of play, where ideas are explored, adventures in thinking shared, and new theories floated.

  5. Since I work with 4th I can say, yes they are eager and interested, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily want to read about that journey you and others took to get the facts; in my experience most of them want to take that journey for themselves, one that is about picking up books, looking for what they want to know, and hopefully finding it. They do sometimes enjoying hearing me tell about my personal journeys, but even then they aren’t eager to read about them. I can say that for sure as they love reading the ms for my forthcoming book on Sarah Margru Kinson (child on the Amistad), but don’t want to read anything else that I wrote about my journey(a very long one:) writing it.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Again you have the advantage of daily contact, but I just have to say my experience — and Myra’s working with 5th graders in a Queens public school — is different. Now 4th grade is not 5th grade, and kids and schools come in many flavors. But I would also urge you not to universalize your experience. I do find kids glad to meet the explorer, the detective, and find out how he (I) got the story, and thus to model what they can do.

  7. Mrarc, first of all, I noted that my students enjoy learning about the journey when I talk about it just as they enjoy meeting you and hearing about your journey. I’m certain they enjoy their time with Myra too. Knowing you both I’ve no doubt that your enthusiasm does a lot to excite kids just as I am able to do too.

    But I wish you would consider that kids get excited with special guests and doing something that is not their daily experience. The latter is what I’m thinking about. My students are fortunate in having a rich and engaging curriculum (sadly unlike many of their peers in this country) and my observation is that given free rein they are far more int

  8. …interested in making their own journeys than reading about others. And that is why I think the term “informational” is still a decent one for what they often want in books.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    I am sure that my experience zooming in and out of a classroom is different from that of a teacher who works with her students every day. It is wonderful that your students are in an environment which encourages them to undertake those journeys, and nice to read that NF books are helping them in their detective work. But the problem as I see it is that much of that database-ish providing of discrete bits of knowledge can and will be done by, well, databases. What books have to offer, or at least one significant part of what books have to offer is a personal voice, a personal POV and passion, and the personal journey of discovery of the author. Trade books, unlike databases, come from individuals and it is that personal stake which can and does speak to some students. Perhaps like any meal they need a mixture — informational books as carbs and proteins, personal discovery books as that flourish of color, spice, and individuality that takes lunch from mac and cheese to a special treat.

  10. The bottom line is that I disagree that ” nonfiction (whatever we call it) is about the hunt, it is about thinking, using your mind, your knowledge, your intuition, your skill to learn — you the author, you the reader.” While I personally love the hunt (am deep in a couple right now and it is probably my favorite thing to do) and I very much want my students to get that hunt too and experience it for themselves, I do not think that nonfiction is necessarily about the hunt and it isn’t necessarily database-ish either. I think there is a place and a strong interest on the part of children for wonderful works of nonfiction that are focused on particular information, not on the author and his or her journey. Right now one of my favorites of the year is Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost — it is not about Candy’s journey, but Amelia’s.

  11. Marc Aronson says:

    I am looking forward to reading Amelia Lost, about which I have heard great things; I agree that such books have a great deal to offer readers. However I believe we need both books with the hunt and books that are the result of the hunt and right now the stacks stike me as imbalanced. Especially as there is increasing classroom focus on developing critical thinking in the students, and modeling for them ways to write their own NF essays and research reports.

  12. Ginny Paisie says:

    I teach 6th grade Language Arts. I never took stock before, but my classroom library has 16 shelves of fiction and 2 of non-fiction (one of which is biographies) – yes I have a lot of books. Most of my students have developed a taste for a particular fictional genre, be it fantasy, suspense/adventure, or an occasional historical fiction. But given that the writing skills we teach are argumentative and persuasive, reading non-fiction “inquiry” or whatever you would like to call it is going to help them develop an awareness of bias by and reliability of an author. Additionally, at this age kids place an importance on “fairness” . Texts that expose how, for example, children in other countries experience famine or religious intolerance, are of great appeal to my students who themselves are privileged in a middle and upper middle SES background. I want to challenge my students to read to learn, and by learning a little I believe they will want to learn more. I believe that by the time they’re 11 and 12, they may still have a special interest in dinosaurs, or WWII planes, but they now enjoy reading – to learn – about more than just bytes of knowledge. Not every student, for sure, but perhaps the desire to inquire often comes with maturity.

  13. Marc Aronson says:

    thanks this is helpful — and I encourage you to add more to those NF shelves — reading to learn is a wonderful experience, as is reading to question, compare, contrast, and begin to critique the world around us