November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

The World Builder’s Sandwich | Consider the Source

Marc 2I’ve been thinking a lot about a central challenge in writing (and reviewing) young adult nonfiction: context. In the obvious sense, we need to provide context so readers can follow the story we are telling: guideposts that make sure unfamiliar terms, names, ideas, and circumstances aren’t confusing. Viewed in this way, context is the bread that holds the peanut butter and jelly together. But looking at it from another perspective, context is the raison d’être for writing nonfiction. That is, we find compelling stories that will open readers’ eyes to other times, places, ideas, issues, and modes of experience. In this view, context is the nutrition the sandwich delivers.

Whether it is fantasy, dystopia, realistic fiction, biography, history, or science, authors most often attempt to hold the attention of YA readers by driving them forward from page to page. Pace is the god toward whom all bow. “I couldn’t put it down” is often seen as the highest form of praise. That, or, “I was so caught up in the story I didn’t realize I was learning so much.” Can you see the bind that the focus on pacing creates for context? Stopping the action to explain something works directly against the need to make sure readers never have a reason to put the book down. Trying desperately to shoehorn what absolutely must be said into a sidebar, while the narrative flows on, was everyone’s answer for a while. But that solution risks turning explanation into encyclopedia-style précis and chopping up text in a way that pages begin to look evermore like that dreaded beast: a textbook.

The Holy Grail is finding a way to make context itself narrative; when you are handed a menu with unfamiliar terms, your appetite drives you to learn more. You are no less hungry, salivating no less over a delicious-sounding dish, because you had to ask what it was. Similarly, nonfiction authors want readers hungry for information. They succeed when context is woven into the text itself.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” explained the British novelist L.P. Hartley. In principle, writing about a foreign country should inspire curiosity in readers, not a reluctance to learn about its different languages, customs, and lifestyles. And we have one sterling example that exemplifies how the idea of history as a foreign place can work. Fantasy lovers don’t mind, indeed many look forward to, the back matter that supplies glossaries, maps, genealogies for the world the author has created. Context does not take them out of the plot and imagined circumstance; it enriches the readers’ experience of being taken elsewhere.

How can history be like fantasy, where readers are eager to know more context than the plot offers? Fantasy itself suggests one part of the problem: 21st-century society does not value the past. Fantasy—with imagined epic narratives—has replaced the pageant of actual history. We value personal genealogy, ethnic roots, museums (when they have blockbuster exhibits), and reenactments as living theater. But almost no one wakes up feeling he or she really ought to know more about Oliver Cromwell, or would be a better person if he or she could explain the Paris Commune, or is compelled to understand whether the Tea Party can be seen as lineal descendants of the anti-Federalists.

No one, that is, except historians. Historians are no longer seen as elders explaining how we have become who we are. It’s a niche profession—a bit like poets or experimental musicians—that creates for an audience of peers. There is little or no social pressure on young readers to understand the past—outside of what school demands or their personal interests. Young adults have every reason to respond to an explanation of historical context with that frequent complaint: “Why should I care?”

So think of the poor writer crafting a nonfiction book for this audience: he or she must supply context readers aren’t interested in. And yet the author must have a sense of mission. Taking young adults out of their familiar environments, presenting to them another time, another place, with different values and different concerns is a gift. It allows them to make sense of how the present came to be, and to imagine how to build a different form of society. It breaks the seduction of the now—it invites readers to expand their worldviews—it awakens curiosity. Context is not an unpleasant additive we must smuggle into our books—like vitamins in a sugary cereal. It is a gift we give to young people. It allows them to grow into their fullest, most expanded, selves.

Of course, it’s wonderful for a nonfiction book to be so compelling and fast paced that it “reads like a novel.” But remember that history is not only story—it is also a window into a different world. And the only way that world can make sense is when an author gives you a rich, fulfilling, complex, sense of context.

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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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