Of course poetry is not generally seen as NF — by patrons (and unless it is poetry about nature or an event — Joyce Sidman for example) — but in Dewey-land it is. Last night in my Materials for YA class we reached poetry, and that lead to an interesting discussion of Out of the Dust. For many of my students, all in the masters program so somewhere from their mid-20s up in age, this was a book they had known about since being a child. A number could remember when it won the Newbery in 1998 and was featured in posters and displays in their schools. But, strangely, few of them — active readers all — had read it. Because it was assigned in my class they finally did open it, and many loved it. It was clearly the favorite book pick of the week.
My first impulse — and one a few repeated — was to suggest the obvious pairings: book and Dorothea Lange photos, book and Woody Guthrie songs, book and link to poverty today. One woman who already works in a school library suggested it to a 10th grade teacher who is teaching the Dust Bowl and wanted something shorter than Grapes of Wrath for his kids to read. But another students objected — she was moved by it as poetry, and did not want the book to be weighted down by what you could learn from it. Indeed she thought she had avoided it precisely because from the cover on, she expected it to be a history lesson disguised as a reading experience.
Different strokes — for me, getting a history lesson in a book is a plus not a minus, but still I see her point. And it is an interesting question why so many of my good readers, who have been reading books like this all their lives, as kids and adults, never cracked this particular cover. Has Out of the Dust so sold itself as the answer to a Social Studies teacher’s needs that people don’t recognize it as a pure poetic reading experience? I suggested a library contest to invent a different cover for the book — one that “sold” the voice not just the setting. But if there is a danger in our obvious impulse to pair poetry, fiction, image, song with teaching content is that the art becomes tool rather than aesthetic. Now maybe that is because we use art as the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of history go down — if we loved history as history art would be its own experience. But that is a discussion for another day.