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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What We “Cover” and What We Miss in NF: the Case of the Soviet Union

I got a nice email yesterday from a mom who lurks on this blog and faced a problem. Her 14 year old loved Animal Farm and got interested in Soviet history — what could he read? There are plenty of excellent adult books that cover everything from the runup to 1917 through the collapse in 1989, but what is there for a 14 year old who is curious, likes to read, but does not want or need to be overwhelmed? I gave her some suggestions — which I will list below, and invite your additions — but her question gets to a larger point. In the days of Scope and Sequence — that is, until the Common Core, which just began to be implemented nationally this fall — publishers radically overpublished topics they were certain would appear in every state plan. I myself am guilty of creating Gold Rush and Oregon Trail books — which were prime examples of these overcrowded nodes. And while the shelf space in libraries for these topics got so overcrowded not a single new book could fit, others were totally neglected; case in point, the Cold War.

I am sure there are plenty of The Cold War illustrated nonfiction books — in which a spread-per-topic march got you through it. But when an individual author came up with an idea for writing about something in that period, he on his own, or via a publisher, was likely to get discouraged. Word on the street was that teachers limped from the Holocaust to Pearl Harbor and as the balmy days of June beckoned, they might leap ahead to Vietnam — with maybe a stop for one period on McCarthy or a longer unit on Civil Rights. It was as if the defining struggle of the 20th century had never taken place. Students didn’t care, teachers were pressed for time, in some teachers there might have been a lingering uncertainty about quite how to frame Communism and anti-Communism, and so best to rush on. The Cold War was in that shadow zone of a subject that did not fit what schools needed to teach, even if it was full of subjects students might want to and indeed need to know. Think, for example, of the passion of the Spanish Civil War, the history of the Papacy, the Crusades, the Bantu migrations, the Gupta Dynasty, indeed just about any aspect of the history of Islam (by the way, the newly re-designed Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC is not only a must-see, it is so crowded you can’t move — when you give people a way to learn about a history they do not know, they suddenly realize they want to learn.) There are a million great subjects in world and US history that cannot meaningfully be shoe-horned into a scope and sequence, but which reward, reward, reward the curiosity of a young readers.

We failed students by overpublishing what they did not need and skipping what they could find interesting if they had the chance to explore. In terms of the Cold War, the ice began to crack last year — in fiction. A cluster of novels came out that, for the first time that I can recall, began to deal with Soviet and Stalinist crimes with some of the candor and depth that we devote to the Holocaust. If you all do not know it, there is a rich, powerful, and sobering debate in the adult world about Hitler and Stalin, see Timothy Synder’s short essay on this, “Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Killed More?” in the New York Review of Books, March 10. 2011. Yet you would never know this in our world — until last year. Am I missing something between Esther Hauzig’s 1968, The Endless Steppe and last year’s wonderful crop that included Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray; Eugene Yelchin, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Randi Barrow, Saving Zasha, and even, if you read it carefully, Joseph Bruchac, Dragon Castle?

I am not sure I have the answer for the 14 year old boy — we don’t have the nonfiction to go with this fiction. I had to suggest adult classics, from 10 Days that Shook the World and the movie Reds (on one side) to Darkness at Noon on the other. And please send in suggestions. But see the problem — we need to follow our interests as authors, to match, and open up, and engage the interests of young readers. Otherwise, great swaths of the past are beyond their knowledge — which is the opposite of our mission as author, editors, publishers, librarians, and teachers.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    My only suggestion as a former teacher and parent, and now grandmother is to encourage the 14 year old to explore on his own in a library and book store. At 14, he might sample for himself “adult” books; Judging for himself by reading parts of books already available is the way to go. Our teen years are often the time we develop intense interests based on curiosity, and the quest or research is part of the excitement.

    Actually, when teaching Animal Farm, one must discuss (whether in SS or English classes)
    the history Orwell commented on. Otherwise, the impact of the book is limited.

  2. Shirley Budhos says:

    Sorry for the interruption (a glitch or something).

    Since we want to promote communication among teachers and departments, how about the young man speaking to members of the SS department about locating a book on the Cold War? There may a teacher who was most interested in that subject in graduate school. Also, teachers do read beyond planning lesson plans and would enjoy discussing such interests. It’s what our teacher lunches were about in the school cafeteria.

  3. Laura Leib says:

    I think that A Fiery Peace in a Cold War by Neil Sheehan, though long, is an accessible book about Bernard Schriever and the development of the ICBM. I learned a great deal about the end of WW2 and how the cold war started. It is a fascinating read, and the audiobook is also wonderful.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    thanks, good suggestion — we were just talking about the book today.