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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Last night my men’s nonfiction reading group got together, and though we focused on the book we had all read, Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia (which has several layers of fascination for history buffs), conversation wandered, as it does, and several dad’s with young children talked about violence in the fairy and folk tales they are reading at night. As it happens that was the exact subject of my online Materials for Children class at Rutgers this week: how to think about the boiled wolves, gulped down grandmas, and other bloody events in Grimm and other folktales. The dads were rather more sanguine about the violence than the women taking my class — which is interesting in itself. But it got me thinking about danger and peril in books and concern about readers.

I have heard many variations of concern about how either images of princesses pining for their hero, or scary witches, might be bad for kids. But those same parents who quail at folk tales, or prefer modern varients in which the characters in the stories in effect sit cross cross applesauce and play nicely, happily flood their kids’ rooms with books and toys about dinosaurs, sharks, volcanos, black holes, and spiders. Why is it that we are worried about showing our kids violence in tales that are clearly tales — in which the very real behavior of hungry wolves around defenseless piglets is rendered unreal by their conversation and the pigs ability to construct homes — and not worried about showing kids ever larger images of the top predators in the food chains of the world, past and present, ripping, clawing, and capturing their prey?

The most obvious answer is that the parents who have these concerns find fictional story more powerful than nonfiction narrative. Why is that? Do they themselves feel moved by fiction in a way that they are not stirred by nonfiction? Or is it that the nonfiction books rarely depict the actual act of killing and consumption (though plenty of Youtubes do), while in the story we the reader/listener are in the house when the wolf eats up grandma and we see the glistening teeth as it prepares for a second meal of Little Red. Or is there a gender issue here — as hinted at by the split between my reading group dads and master’s student women: if your child is a boy, and if you are a dad, you may anticipate a ladder of contacts with danger in books that may start with snakes and dinos and go through pirates, vikings, through great warriors and battles via video games and sports to — what — strategies for success in business? while as a mom if you may not anticipate the same sequence of interests and exposures, so the blood and gore in early stories may stand out and seem more threatening to your child. Perhaps at one time mothers who told or read those tales generally did not hold jobs outside of the home, and so were preparing their daughters for the challenges of domestic life, but, as witness their being enrolled in a professional degree program, my students already hold jobs, or plan to. So why is real world danger less real to them? Your thoughts?


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    When I taught elementary school, parents–admittedly, mostly the moms–often asked me why their children were reading history books about difficult or violent times. They asked me why childhood couldn’t just be carefree and happy. In essence, the question was, Why not read about princes, princesses, fairyland, and happy-ever-after times while you are young, because you won’t be able to do it later. I don’t know if my answer was right, but I usually offered something like this: Nonfiction that deals with tough issues and even violence prepares you to deal with these same tough and violent issues today. That is, it prepares you for this world. Not thinking about difficult issues simply doesn’t.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I’ve never heard that, but I’d have two different responses. On the psychological level, kids experience darkness within themselves, that is part of being human. So in stories where “bad” traits are enacted kids can also wrestle with their interior dramas. If you don’t give them literature to frame and explore themselves, then there is a split between what art, books, adults offer and the world they experience — which causes them to mistrust us. But on the level of pure pleasure, many kids — perhaps more boys than girls, but I am not sure of that — like reading about predators, enjoy the battle bits in fairy tales, want to be exposed to mahem and gore, that is an eactive interest. If we offer those kids only sweetness and light they may begin to think of themselves as nonreaders, and rush to digital games, which are eager to offer as much death and destruction as they desire.

  3. There are sound evolutionary reasons why humans are more attentive to dangerous things (large carnivores, poisonous creatures, violent weather) than to non-dangerous things. And as social primates we are more gripped by violations of social codes than by those who play by the rules. I don’t think it’s too surprising that children (and adults) have a fascination for those topics…maybe it’s more a question of how to channel that interest into a deeper understanding of the natural world or human behavior.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    well speaking totally subjectively here, my 6 year old’s fascination with giant squids has gotten him interested in many aspects of the deep, and more generally I think that kids interested in danger-causing animals, natural disasters, etc. often are then drawn to learn more about the ecology and natural history of those threats. To put it a different way, hunters are often very interested in and protective of nature.