Ensuring that nonfiction aimed at young people is both age appropriate and enlightening can be a tall order, especially when it comes to heavier subjects. But many recent titles aimed at children have proven that it can be done, and librarians and kid lit experts are emphasizing that providing readers with the best, most accurate information is crucial.
“Gone are the days when our Founding Fathers were seen only as heroes,” says K.T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Authors are expected to take a more ‘warts-and-all’ type approach, and they are often criticized when they don’t.”
In a recent “Trybrary” blog post (http://ow.ly/TpiaQ), for instance, Elisa Gall, the lower school librarian at the Latin School of Chicago, critiqued Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall’s A Fine Dessert (Random, 2015), a work of fiction that shows four generations enjoying blackberry fool. Gall was troubled by its potentially problematic portrayal of a slave mother and daughter. She wondered, “Is illustrating a watered-down snapshot [of slavery] any better than leaving it out all together?”
But many writers are rising to the challenge. Horning praised Chris Barton’s The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans, 2015) for its sensitive yet forthright treatment of slavery and Reconstruction. “Barton deals with this in a very matter-of-fact way that holds whites accountable for their despicable actions. It’s the first picture book I can recall that does this, rather than laying the blame on just one bad white guy, like a slave owner or an evil overseer.”
Marc Aronson, author and Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information, discussed the care he takes when deciding how much information to share with readers. A potentially alarming issue arose when he and his wife, Marina Budhos, wrote Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science (Clarion, 2010), a rich and varied look at the crop. While researching, Aronson and Budhos uncovered a journal from an overseer in 18th-century Jamaica who described how he kept control on a sugar plantation through torture, going so far as to keep detailed notes on the women he raped. Aronson and Budhos found themselves at an impasse: Was it appropriate to discuss this piece of evidence? Would it be too disturbing for the intended audience?
For Aronson, it boiled down to putting the information out there but making sure they did so respectfully and appropriately. “Our judgment was [that we had to] mention that [the overseer] tortured people. [We didn’t] have to give the most gruesome details. But the fact was true. [This document] gives [readers] an understanding of what it was to live under the law.”
When it came to Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies (Candlewick, 2012), Aronson debated whether to discuss the “blackmail letter” sent by J. Edgar Hoover to Martin Luther King Jr., in which the FBI director threatened to make public details of King’s sexual life. “Do we talk about fact that King had affairs? My feeling was yes, it was absolutely known to be true. This isn’t some salacious rumor, and we do live in a world where we are bombarded with info.”
Moreover, not all books that tackle tough subjects have to do so in a frightening way. “It doesn’t have to be alarmist,” says Myra Zarnowski, longtime SLJ reviewer and professor in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Queens College, City University of New York, citing Stephen Leahy’s Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products (Firefly, 2014). Leahy employs eye-catching graphics to emphasize just how much water we use—and waste—every day. “We do have water problems around this country and around the world, and I thought the information in that book was so convincing and so accessible,” she says.
So how should librarians make sure their students have a rich and nuanced perspective? With his own students, Aronson encourages the use of multiple books on a given topic. “You go to a restaurant, and they pair food and wine. Here’s a book and [you can] suggest something that might go with it, whether that’s another [nonfiction] book or a novel or a website.”
Zarnowski stresses that offering titles that are forthright is important. “That’s what these different books do: they help us think. They give [us] background, they may provide alternate views, and [they] leave it up to you.”