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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Artisansal Bookmaking, or the Laying on of Hands

Jim Murphy was gracious enough to come down to Rutgers with me yesterday and to visit with two of my classes: Nonfiction, and YA Materials. In both classes we looked closely at his classic An American Plague and he shared some of the inside stories of how he went about researching all aspects of it. It turned out a librarian he met in Philadelphia was an expert on the history of the African American community in Philadelphia, and showed him many magnificent primary sources. Jim got the idea for those documents which face the opening of each chapter — newspaper pages from 1793, city directories where you just happen to notice George Washington, President of the United States, and his local address — as he explored another cache of documents he found in Philadelphia. He then had to convince his editor to use the documents by actually mocking up the page. As he spoke, I realized that what he does, and many of us do, is really not writing, rather it is an art form. We are shaping a story in every sense — visually, textually, narratively — as we research it. How did we learn to do that? Where did that concept of nonfiction bookmaking come from?

Jim started out working for another well-known author of nonfiction for younger readers, James Cross Giblin. Both Jims worked with a great editor of nonfiction, Dorothy Briley. As it happens, my first job in children’s publishing was editing the Land and People series at Harper — a series Dorothy had once edited, and, indeed, she was my first editor. Authors I worked with, such as Polly Brooks, distinctly recalled creating their nonfiction books by laying out their archival images on tables and designing the books with their editors. In other words, we have been trained in an artisanal tradition — master craftspeople of one generation have literally shown us how it can be done (not how to do it, since that changes with each book). I suspect that Leonard Marcus covers this somewhere in Minders of the Makebelieve and if he doesn’t, he should. Because I started out in the late 80s and heard stories that link this chain at least back to the 60s, with traces hinting back to the 40s. That is a lineage of editing, bookmaking, and devotion to the art of nonfiction that really shaped what is possible today, in another century.

I feel like I am trying to piece together the lineage of a fading tradition of Living Masters who preserve and practice a unique style of pottery; I want to capture it and value it before the memory is lost.


  1. Sue Bartle says:

    NF = An Art form that goes unappreciated by many.

    Coincidentally, I just read for my online Sibert class – two articles by Giblin.
    1. More Than Just the Facts: A Hundred Years of Children’s Nonfiction
    Horn Book July/August 2000
    2. The Rise & Fall & Rise of Juvenile Nonfiction, 1961-1988
    School Library Journal October 1988

    Great articles but they don’t go into the construction of a piece of NF in the detail that you mention here. They do add to the discussion of what NF has been and where it might be going as well as the history up until 2000.

    Sadly, in the articles several publishing cycles hinged on Federal funding and pushes at the Federal level for school reform. I REALLY hope that CC will do the same for NF right now!

    There is so much that has happended in NF since 2000. I see room for more articles and information and collecting the anecodotal as well recording in a visual experience how a NF author puts it all together.

    Teaching Books has started to do this but what we need is a film crew or someone with a good video camera to follow the progress of a NF author as they go through all of the stages of developing their book.

    A documentary that show a NF Author going through all of these stages of development. This would be the way to not lose the lineage of a tradition.

    I do wonder if it is fading or just taking on different life forms with the advent of technology and the development of the e-book. I am not sure but it will be interesting to watch.