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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Hi Sally — and the General Store

Yesterday’s guest in my Non Fiction class at Rutgers was Sally Walker, who is not only a fine writer of books for younger readers, but a lively guest speaker. In fact I’m afraid our discussions, comparing notes, bits of disagreement proved all too entertaining for the class. Sally’s stories of working at the Smithsonian, then being invited to participate in digs, contributing insights into a Smithsonian exhibition, and then writing made a very significant larger point: many experts want to communicate with a wider public, perhaps especially young people. They know they are doing exciting work, they want to share that — and that genuinely does mean share knowledge, this is not about becoming famous — but they do not know how to communicate outside of their circle of expertise. That is why they are grateful to have Sally there, in the museum, on the dig — to see that she is serious, smart, able to understand their work and ask the right questions when she doesn’t, but then, also to reach kids

We authors, and our books, are the touch point, the contact point, between knowledge as it is taking shape — right now — and young people. When some say — who needs books, who needs libraries, let’s let kids go straight out to Infotrac — they miss the crucial need for translation — not to dumb down, but to connect. Speaking for myself, as a person with a doctorate in history, I don’t go straight to primary sources — I go to academic books by experts who know how to read and analyze those sources — so that when I get to the archives myself, I am oriented, I understand the traps, the debates, the old views and the new ones. So if that makes sense for a trained reader and researcher, why not for young people — why send them out into the wilds of the net — or the tamed net of a database — without a guide. It is so strange — we overprotect and overschedule kids, one adult run music class, sports class, enrichment class after another — no pick up games, no roaming about on their own in physical real life — but then to learn, to understand, we do the opposite — as if they needed no training to gain knowledge.

Sally told another wonderful story — about one young victim of the Halifax blast whose life she tracked down in writing Blizard of Glass. The story of her detective work was dramatic in and of itself. So if last week I was suggesting one of you create a database of author’s journey’s how about a website of — the story behind the story — where we authors tape, or videotape, or type up one or two stories behind the books we publish — like the old fashioned General Store that was half post office, half food store, half haberdashery, half swap meet for stories — where we each leave one or more research adventure stories. You can linger to look at a chapter or some photos, you can click around to check out different accounts, click through to set up an author visit — and, this is a post for another day — we could even post chapters we loved but decided not to print — outtakes as they have in the bonus CDs of moviews. All in the nonfiction General Store.