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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Truth VS Reality

In response to the last blog, Pamela Turner suggested that calling our books “True” poses a problem since some are more “truthi” than “true.” I also prefer “reality” to “truth” but almost for the opposite reason. I don’t think the calling card of our books is, or indeed should be, that we present gilt-edged, certified, set-in-stone information. Rather, our claim is that we respect the process of questioning, exploring, searching for answers, proposing ideas, presenting evidence, and debating the results. In time, all of our conclusions may prove to be wrong, our methods limited, our thinking blinkered by our assumptions and biases. No problem. Because in our books we will have modeled and employed an approach that remains valid even if our particular venture is out of date.

The great expression of this argument was Betty Carter’s Horn Book review of the Magic School Bus’s 25th anniversary issue. (the book published in 2006, not sure the date of the review). The book was written at a particular crossroads in astronomy: it confidently listed 9 planets in our Solar System, ending with Pluto. But by the time it reached the public, Pluto had fallen from grace. Yet Betty argued that the book was as right as rain –because the entire focus was on scientific method. A child reading the book would be prepared for the (still-ongoing) debate of 9? 11? 13? planets — or who knows how many, the latest I have read is that we may go back to 9. The book was an homage to a way of thinking, a process of trying to make sense of “reality,” it was not an expression of Now and Forever Truth.

Now we all know that some children, especially younger ones, want and need Truth: the names and key facts about dinosaurs, weather, sharks, electricity, or in my younger son’s case, colossal squid; not to speak of the spelling and definition of words (the fun part of Fancy Nancy), or the names of each of the “illion” numbers as the zeros multiply. “Knowledge is power” — and this is nowhere more evident than in elementary school kids who are building up their arsenals of information, the data points that define them as emerging from the fog of being too-young-to-know. Certainly, then, we need to provide these readers with books that are clear, accurate, and to the best of our knowledge “true.” And yet at the very same time we can let them in on the game.

Next week I am visiting a Washington DC area school that begins students on the process of doing original research in 4th grade. That is just thrilling. The sooner young people start their own experiments in gathering, testing, thinking, and sharing the better. They will experience truth as a quest, and like squires training to become knights, begin to earn their spurs.


  1. I always preferred to use the terms Factual and Fiction. When I first started teaching in 1980 the students used to call the books TRUE and NOT True. Not True was supposed to be fiction. I had a student turn ugly on me when I labeled “Where the Red Fern Grow” as “not true.” He called me a liar and, although he was civil to me, he never again respected me. To him, the book was as true as his life. He connected to the emotional content of the book and its truth. Both truth and reality can be subjective terms, facts can also be misrepresented but they can be checked, verified and agreed upon.

  2. One of our 7th grade classes proposed calling NF “Knowledge” books. I like this term b/c it covers poetry and folk tales and all the factual topics as well. Knowledge is not always TRUE — it’s just what we know as of now. Knowledge is power — it gives us the background we need to ask our own questions and begin our own investigations to prove Truth.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I like Knowledge Books, though I would prefer to split off poetry and folk tales and drama and give them their own designation(s).

  4. I like “Knowledge Books” too, and agree that poetry, folk tales and drama should have their own section. Now that we have that nicely settled, can everyone else in America please follow through?

    Seriously, though, how would something like this be discussed and potentially acted upon? The Library of Congress or ALA or both?

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    lobby, speak out, spread the word, get others talking — we can change the world, why not?

  6. Occupy ALA!