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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Meeting the NYC Librarians — Next Act in the Common Core

My meeting with the NYC school librarians took place in an immense hall — apparently the second largest in New York after Radio City Music Hall — and while the upper, and upper upper tiers were not filled (I could just picture some event with a famous guest and the kid who just managed to find enough money to sit in that way last row nearly touching the ceiling, but still in the house) there was a large crowd — I’d estimate as in the 400s+. The event began with a talk by a VP from the Board of Education who emphasized the city’s commitment to the CC, along with specific tasks every student is expected to be able to perform this year, as well as the timeline, the sense that this is not going to happen at once. The audience responded well to my talk — I liked the big stage, gave me a chance to be a ham, a talk show host — to perform. But in a way the interesting part came after, as I spoke with the school librarians.

The responses I heard split into a few groups: some were excited, the secret history and NF lovers who perhaps had wanted to study history in college but got discouraged, or liked sharing NF with kids, but had always seem more emphasis on fiction, or saw the need for collaboration with teachers but had gotten their toes stubbed; some were daunted — if I have to compare and contrast treatments of a subject, do I need to buy two different books on every topic; if teachers won’t come to me, what should I do; and some were cynical — same old, same old — this is one more mandate, flavor of the day, soon enough another will come down the pike, I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done.

This split was perfectly normal and perfectly predictable, but the momentum, at least from those who sought me out, was towards excitment. It had a hint of a 1960s consciousness raising event, people realizing that they had always had a secret affinity for NF, for history, for engaging kids in thinking about texts, and now that road lay open. Clearly the VP was concerned about the librarians cyncism, hence both the specific mandate and the extended roll out. But I left impressed with their enthusiasm. I hope to get a chance to go to some schools and see what is happening in practice.


  1. I’m delighted with the new CC standards. But I have a question: if contrasting different treatments of a subject is a major part of the curricula, does that mean it’s now a disadvantage to write about a topic nobody else has covered?

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    that is an interesting question, and yesterday the first question from the audience was whether a librarian now needs two books on every topic. I said no — in part because, as you say, sometimes there is only one. But surely there are websites, magazine articles — other sources of differing views. And in your book, right in cognizence of differing interpretations and approaches. In my notes, I always talk about books or articles that take a view different from mine — giving the teacher, librarian, or student a trail to follow. Or add an author’s note about differing views and interpretations and direct readers to where they can find those sources. In other words, one book can present — or give the reader access to — more than one POV.

  3. Esther Keller says:

    Best quote from your speech: The 3rd C in Common Core is collaboration.
    The common core is exciting for librarians because it speaks to what we’ve been doing for a long time.
    But for those of us who never enjoyed nonfiction… where should we start to immerse ourselves?
    And finally, why did you discount memoirs/biographies when asking about a nonfiction book that spoke to you?

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    where — an easy starting point is the Sibert in ALSC ages (there are now 11 years of winners and honorees) and the new YA NF award list in the YALSA ages — that is at least a start, and I hear Bank St. is going to have an Info Book Best list of its own.

    I left out those genres b/c they are similar to fiction, and I wanted the audience to notice in their own responses that they lean towards fiction, or NF-similar-to-fiction in their own reading tastes. My point is that if you don’t like NF, how are you going to “sell” it to kids? You as an adult have to begin to see/observe/learn the pleasures of NF.

  5. I very much enjoyed your keynote yesterday: energetic, captivating and downright fun. Imagine that! Non-fiction fun… One particular point that you made touched me directly: that those of us who enjoyed reading NF materials were (in the past) often considered ‘non-readers.’ Absolutely how I felt for years! Thanks for giving voice to that…

    In terms of POV in NF materials… I have found that even if there are 2 or more books on a specific topic, they do not always have a significantly different POV, slant or feel about them. In lower and middle schools in particular, NF books seem to tend towards the simple statement of fact; rarely do they take opposing viewpoints to the extreme (IMO). Therefore, I feel it is essential to bring other sources, such as those you mentioned -in addition to newspapers, A/V, etc. – into the mix. These are often where POV, even bias, are evident. TG for databases that allow us to introduce a variety of sources and adhere more closely to the CCSS.

  6. I found great enthusiasm in my conference session yesterday when I talked about how I put my nonfiction books together, especially in how I find and choose photos and illustrations. Perhaps nonfiction would seem more inviting and less off-putting if kids and librarians got more exposure to how nonfiction authors work. Your blog and others (such as I.N.K.: ink, to which I contribute), as well as author visits via Skype and in person, invite kids, teachers, and librarians into the process and I encourage them to take advantage of such opportunities.

  7. Joey Khoury says:

    During your presentation I kept thinking to myself, “I would love to have that Power Point so I can show it to my school’s staff.” I am a fiction lover through and through, and though I do read nonfiction (or “reality”) periodically (I just finished OUTLIERS and loved it), there is something about reading a “story” that puts me in touch with my humanity. Reading fiction as a young girl taught me to empathize, to put myself in someone’s shoes, to imagine the unimaginable, to see things from other perspectives and points of view, and to wonder about the world and life in general.

    That said, I absolutely agree that we need to include an equal amount of nonfiction in the curriculum. I remember reading a book called INFO-KIDS in one of my library courses at Queens College–a book that explored the needs of young people (mostly boys) drawn to nonfiction, and I thought then how wonderful it would be to turn these kids on to reading and learning by providing them with the books they love. Wouldn’t it be ideal if we could make readers of anything out of everyone? Thank you so much for an eye-opening presentation.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Joey: the ppt. is being made available through the conference Wiki, I should be there now.

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    you are right, many elementary and middle grade books aim for a kind of friendly encyclopedia or documentary voice — not a person but rather an information-giver; of course that itself is a voice, a choice, and juxtaposing such books with other kinds of materials is a great idea.

  10. Marc Aronson says:

    Sue — great seeing you there, and I agree: sharing our process is a great deal of what we have to offer to teachers, students, and librarians. Photos are the secret delight of NF, and we need to show where and how we find them and place them.

  11. Lucia Greenberg says:

    Mr. Aronson- your talk and extended session were great. I can’t wait to get your books! I am a lover of fiction and nonfiction, particularly well written narrative nonfiction. I think the whole issue is “well written”. Noone wants to read anything that doesn’t hold his or her interest. There are a number of titles I encourage my middleschoolers to read, among them are the Donner Party, The Great Fire, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, Who Killed My Daughter, and Typhoid Mary. Each of these, though nonfiction, tells the story in such a way as to grip your interest and keep you on your toes. I think our job as Librarians is to seek such books to offer our teachers and students. They teach as well as entertain and encourage real thinking and questioning.

  12. Marc Aronson says:

    thank you — yes, we all want to read books that hold our interest, though the “hook” comes in different ways for different readers; the key is, as you say, in the writing. NF should be as well written as fiction — with the added benefit of being true.


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