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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

“The End of Nonfiction”?: A Weaver’s Response

I’m sure many of you have read Chris Harris’s thought-provoking essay, on The End of Nonfiction:
I’ve admired Chris from a distance over the years for his full-on plunge into technology, librarianship, and education — he seems to be totally familiar with every digital development I’m just reading about. And there are several strands in his essay that match exactly what I’ve been writing about here and talking about with teachers, librarians, and students all over the country: the need to get rid of the confusing name “nonfiction” — a relic of the 19th century — the difference between authors whose strength is passing on what they Know, and authors whose strength is sharing their journey as Learners (Betty Carter’s helpful terms), the need that Myra and Mary Ann have articulated here to recognize the different “stances” taken by authors, and to match patrons needs not just with content (“I need a book on the Civil War”) but with approach (“where are the fact books, where are the history detective books, where are the big picture scene setting, in the action books?”) As his essay shows, he is seeing the same universe of challenge and opportunity we’ve discussed here. But.

Chris says the CC requires primary sources and short texts. Sort of. The CC is asking young people to become familiar, as early as possible, with Point of View as a necessary aspect of knowledge, and thus to become early historiographers — comparing and contrasting how one author handled evidence and argument with another. That is not a skill you can get from looking at a primary sources — they are hard to read, as they necessarily use the language of their time, and reflect the culture of their moment. To begin to evaluate and make use of evidence you need a guide — sure that is the teacher’s job in class — but it is also the author’s job in a book. That is not the same as telling a story, and it is not the same as providing discrete data points of information. Indeed the author’s role as finder, evaluator, crafter, and sharer of evidence is crucial not merely to the learning a book can offer, but to the reading experience. That is what we need to remember about our books, they are not just another form of story, and they are not just databases of approved facts. Rather they are a set of contentions, arguments: tapestries of ideas, insights, and evidence we individuals have woven.

So I agree with Chris that we need to rethink our libraries — but not by turning reference over to the net, lumping NF story with other story, and featuring CC-approved bits of primary sources with short narratives. The heartbeat of real “knowledge books” (as one term we might use) is the individual fabric we authors weave — which serve as models for our students, as they glean bits of data and begin to feel the warp and weft of knowledge-creation. Real books have authors, whether we call those books novels, poems, plays, biographies, or theories. and it is those authors who have most to offer young people as they enter the Common Core universe.


  1. Sue Bartle says:

    The Common Core Universe is enormous. It offers many great opportunities that Marc has discussed in previous blog entries from collaboration to exploration. (2/24/12 – exploration) (12/14/11 – collaboration)

    The part that I am weaving to add to our patchwork quilt is creating a level of understanding for librarians and teachers to use nonfiction in the CC universe.

    Thanks to Marc’s workshops and the work of Mary Ann and Myra we have been able to begin the long journey to create an understanding of nonfiction and dig deeper into the resources to develop opportunities for true CC teaching and learning.

    Our journey has just begun but I am excited about the possibilities as we provide professional development under the watchful eyes of these experts.

    My analogy is the book Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson and beautifully illustrated by Hudson Talbott

    Soonie’s Great-Grandma has some fabric and needles, which she used to piece together bright patches with special meaning for slaves to follow to freedom. When her Great-Grandma grows up she passes on this knowledge.

    We have the CC fabric and needles to piece together bright NF patches to follow and pass on our knowledge. We must continue to guide the knowledge of NF and CC and nurture its growth. There are many more patches of CC yet to be developed.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    nice link to Jackie’s book

  3. Sue Bartle says:

    I love this book – Barbara Stripling and Pam Berger did a wonderful workshop about four years ago at the SLMS Retreat in Cornell using this book as the backdrop.

    I unfortunately had two autographed copies that I lost when our family room was flooded four years ago. Sometime I hope to get them replaced.

  4. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I just returned from Baltimore, where I gave a workshop to Baltimore City social studies teachers. They, like the rest of us, are searching for ways to build that “tapestry” Sue mentioned with excellent materials and teaching. I would NOT like to build this tapestry out of short bits and pieces of things. Instead, I want our students to see that authors thoughtfully engage in thinking about issues. That can only be done with indepth reading and thinking across a variety of sources over a span of time. (In depth learning, anyone?) Since our students need background information as well as ways to think about this information, we need to be doing two things at once. We need to give them content and provide them with models of interpreting it. Many people talk about the experience of “building the plane and flying it at the same time.” This is sort of what we are doing in elementary school and beyond when teaching history. To comprehend and critique nonfiction, students need background. But simply providing unquestioned “stuff” isn’t enough either. This “stuff” needs to be critiqued. So…we jump in and do it all. Sometimes our students make mistakes, but we can refocus them. That’s what makes teaching nonfiction so interesting. Other times, they make astounding discoveries. You never know. There are simply no shortcuts to building reading comprehension and historical understanding.