April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Consider the Source: Getting History Right

Last year on SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog, there was a dust-up over the issue of citations, and Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb (Roaring Brook, 2012) was a big part of that debate. I have strong views on citations, but I’d like to re-frame the question, because I think it gets to what we’re aiming to do—or should be aiming at—when we write history for upper-middle-grade and young adult readers.

First, a tangent: anyone who has spent time grappling with the Common Core (CC) English Language Arts standards knows that they have significantly raised the stakes on text complexity. Books that, say, we once thought were a challenging choice for fifth graders are now considered appropriate for fourth graders.

Why has the bar been raised, even though, just a few years ago, No Child Left Behind focused on kids who read below the old, less demanding, grade-level standards?

A key reason is that the metrics for upper YA titles—the types of books that teens have been assigned as the ultimate high school challenge—are 200 Lexile points below what high school seniors will be facing the following year in college. If K–12 education is a fire truck ladder, then we’ve built it too short to reach the escape window. In order to make sure that students are prepared for college, we needed to add more rungs to the ladder.

CC increases the text complexity so much that by kids’ final year in high school there are, as far as I know, no YA nonfiction books that meet the new education guidelines. To remedy that situation, students must necessarily read adult books, primary sources, or academic books. Fine. So if that’s where we’re leading students, how do we get them there?

An adult history book assumes that the reader already knows—or can know, or should know—something about the topic. If, for instance, a writer talks about the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts in a biography of John Adams, he assumes that the reader has studied them in school or can quickly Google them. The author’s job is to give an engaging take on what the passage of those bills tell us about Adams, and how this fresh perspective helps us see Adam’s time, and perhaps our own, in a new light. Since the reader knows the basic information, the originality is in the author’s thinking and presentation, and a source note may simply list where he got the primary source.

YA and academic books, though, have different goals. Books for young readers don’t presume our audience already knows the story. Indeed, even as we’re presenting what we hope is an enticing view of either an unfamiliar event (such as the race to make the first atom bomb or the outbreak of an 18th-century Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia), or a familiar one (like the Great Depression or the 1963 March on Washington), we need to make sure that our readers understand both the basics and our new take. We have to treat the information itself as potentially new to them. This puts those of us who write for young adults in the same place as an academic historian, since he or she is presenting original research that’s aimed at shifting how we view the past.

Thus we, like the academic historian, need to let our readers into the process: Where does our information come from? Are there other perspectives? Are our sources reliable? We can’t presume that our readers have the necessary background, so we need to provide them with it; that’s why our citations need to be annotated. We need to show kids how our claims, our knowledge, are cooked.

Authors who merely cite sources without discussing them are seeing YA history as using a story to pass along settled information. This is appealing to fiction fans, who enjoy the narrative flow of a nonfiction book (and are thrilled that it doesn’t resemble a textbook), but for whom the information is the medicine which the spoonful of narrative sugar makes palatable. Not being familiar with either the content or the way that historians construct knowledge, they don’t miss what they don’t know. Those who question, discuss, and compare their sources see YA history as using a story to acquaint readers with the process of how knowledge is created. This is at the heart of historical writing, but may be totally unfamiliar to fiction readers, who often enjoy speculating about character and motivation in novels, but may have never learned that the same kind of thinking must be applied to our understanding of the real world.

I think annotated citations are great even for kids in the youngest grades, because we want them to be pestering us, demanding that we explain “How do you know that?” But by the upper-middle grades and certainly by high school this is no longer a choice. Our books are always as much about the construction of knowledge as about the information itself. To put it a different way, our highest goal isn’t merely that history should read like a novel, but that it should be as much of a puzzle as a math problem and as open to interpretation as a poem.

“Well-written” in nonfiction necessarily means “well-considered.” History is, ultimately, an invitation to the reader to participate in the process of thinking about, and thus re-imagining, who we are and how we got that way. That is what college offers. We can only make the link by sharing our process of discovery with our younger readers.

Coda: Right now, a related debate is going on among prominent historians and history educators. Stanford’s Sam Wineburg recently wrote a marvelous critique of Howard Zinn’s work—featuring his poor use of sources, which was then criticized by NYU’s Robert Cohen. For my take on the debate, with links to the Wineburg essay, see http://nonfictionandthecommoncore.blogspot.com/2013_01_01_archive.html; and for Cohen’s critique, visit http://hnn.us/articles/when-assessing-zinn-listen-voices-teachers-and-students.

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.



  1. Thank you, Marc, for a great piece. I am such a big fan of Sam Wineburg I once chased him down at a conference to sign a copy of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. In addition to recommending that book, I always suggest folks look to the Stanford History Education Group website, where there are lesson plans and classroom posters to download on historical thinking (sourcing, contextualization, corroboration and close reading). They can be found here: http://sheg.stanford.edu/node/21.

    I do think young readers are naturally attuned to the processes you describe here, especially when they are engaged with a subject. I guess I should have been prepared, but as soon as I started telling kids at school visits I was writing a book about the Titanic, I realized a third of them already knew more than I ever will about the topic. They can cite statistics (and sources); they’re totally prepared to challenge an interpretation, debate a fact, and argue exactly about what someone said or didn’t say. Quote someone wrong and you’ll hear about it. They definitely want to know, “How do you know that?” (And this seems to be true for girls as well as boys.) They are thinking like historians. And I would guess many are doing this quite on their own, outside of class, following their own interests.

    My son recently got instructions for a college paper which reminded students, “Wikipedia is not an academic source.” I think maybe young readers who have a passionate interest in something, whether it’s a disaster, baseball, airplanes, trains, dinosaurs, Civil War, WWII, or whatever) come to understand that instinctively, because they’ve gained practice weighing sources and thinking like historians. But they may not realize how to apply the same skills to other readings, just as Sam Wineburg demonstrates in his analysis of how a historian and an AP high school student approach a new text. That takes practice and encouragement — and the kind of books you describe here. But I think the rewards go beyond high school or college, and make learning and discovery a lifelong joy,