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December 19, 2014

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The New Nonfiction—and Why It Matters | Consider the Source

susan campbell bartoletti The New Nonfiction—and Why It Matters | Consider the Source

Susan Campbell Bartoletti at ALA Annual 2012

One of the presentations that I had a chance to participate in at the American Library Association’s annual conference, in Anaheim, in June, featured some unexpected drama. On Sunday afternoon, Dr. Joe Sutcliff Sanders, Nina Lindsey, Jonathan Hunt, and authors Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Marina Budhos, and I were considering whether there’s a “new nonfiction,” if that even matters, and what kinds of nonfiction best serve today’s young readers.

Just as Jonathan (whom many know from SLJ‘s “Heavy Medal” blog that he and Nina write, or from his Horn Book reviews) was swinging into his opening talk, a fire alarm sounded. We were told that this was indeed a real emergency—not a test, not a drill—and we needed to evacuate the building immediately. Thousands of librarians and other attendees filed out of the conference center and onto the plaza, which was soon abuzz with all sorts of rumors: a popcorn machine had gone awry, sending up smoke and flames, or a small earthquake had rumbled through nearby L.A. and set off the alarm. I never did find out the real story, but we soon got the all-clear signal—and when we had settled back into our seats, Jonathan offered an observation that all of us need to think about.

Although what he pointed out should be obvious to every grown-up who spends time with kids in libraries, I’d never heard it expressed so well: there are certain kinds of nonfiction that are very popular with young readers, said Jonathan, everything from books of records with weird and wacky facts to titles about the dead, the fierce, and the gross. And those of us who pay attention to starred book reviews and literary awards also know that we adults often praise nonfiction that fosters inquiry, critical thinking, and intellectual discovery. But, Jonathan asked, how do we bring young readers from stage one NF (records and such) to stage three (inquiry and critical thinking).

The solution: we need a nonfiction book that’s a “gateway drug” for kids-one that sets the nonfiction addiction in motion, that inspires the student who knew he loved books of records to take one more step into narrative nonfiction, so that by, say, late middle school or early high school, he’s seeking out more challenging texts.

Casting about for some examples of that, Jonathan praised last year’s big nonfiction book, Steve Sheinkin’s The Notorious Benedict Arnold (Flash Point, 2010). In his biography, Sheinkin tells a gripping story, reminiscent of the Landmark biographies that I loved reading as a child. He’s not questioning history or sources or conflicting interpretations-instead, Sheinkin just wants you to get caught up in Arnold’s dramatic life and keep turning those pages. (As one audience member pointed out, young readers who liked “biggest, highest, furthest” last year may well find heart-stopping true-life action a natural next step with Jennifer Armstrong’s Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World [Crown, 1998].) And yet, I think there’s a bigger issue lurking in the dilemma that Jonathan so perceptively brought to our attention.

Jonathan was talking about the “pull” of nonfiction books-which title, which kind of narrative, will pull readers in, will get them demanding one more book and signing up for holds on it. In another astute observation, Jonathan said that the popularity of nonfiction suffers because it doesn’t tend to be part of a series, like “Harry Potter” or another popular fantasy series that kids are crazy about. The lack of nonfiction series also limits the canvas for nonfiction authors. We have the odd case where fantasy writers—from J. R. R. Tolkien to Susan Cooper to Suzanne Collins—take real conflicts (such as World War II and Iraq) and “translate” them into novels that are hundreds of pages long and feature richly imagined worlds replete with their own languages and maps.

On the other hand, nonfiction writers, who are describing events that took place in the real world, are limited to a 64- to 96-page color-illustrated war book filled with sidebars. The very details of armament, strategy, and combat, which the record-book-obsessed reader might crave as his next step “up” into tackling longer nonfiction, just doesn’t fit into the formats available to today’s nonfiction writers. Although, if we’re really honest, this isn’t just a matter of format-East Coast trade book houses aren’t eager to give armament, strategy, and combat in the real world the kind of attention that many youngster’s crave—which is why many of the books on those topics come from a cluster of series publishers in Minnesota.

Yes, we need nonfiction series and page-turning action. But I think “pull” is only part of the problem. There’s a larger issue here. While many publishers ask authors whether a potential book fits the curriculum or pay for guides and other materials to interest teachers in using their nonfiction, this actually makes no sense. Since most nonfiction is only published in hardcover, teachers simply can’t afford to use it. And that gets to my concern: “push.” Teachers have always read entire novels with their classes, and in that way, they’ve taught students how to find out and appreciate more about the book’s characters, settings, plots, points of view, use of language, etc. While some kids may resent having fiction “picked apart,” I suspect that this process also shows them what a novel can do-what treasures it holds. The older nonfiction that encourages critical thinking is precisely the kind of book that teachers can share with their classes-opening students’ eyes to what nonfiction can do.

Indeed, professors Myra Zarnowski and Susan Turkel have shown how inspiring it is for fifth graders to discover this “literature of inquiry” when every student has a book and their teacher leads them through it (Journal of Children’s Literature 36 (1) pp 56-64; JCL 38 (1) pp. 28-34). If more teachers created this “push” into nonfiction, I suspect it would create a bridge-just as a page-turning nonfiction series would create more of a demand. The meeting place of push and pull is the gateway that Jonathan saw flickering in the distance.

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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