March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What Does “Excellence” in Nonfiction Mean to YALSA? | Consider the Source


Marc 2One of the questions I ask students shortly after I’ve been introduced to a school assembly as an author of nonfiction is, “What is nonfiction?” Usually someone will raise his or her hand and mention a book of “facts.” “Only facts?” I might ask. “What about ideas, theories, and stories?”  Now, there’s some stirring in the crowd. I flip the question—”What is the “non” in nonfiction? What else do we ever define by what it is not?” Now a couple of young people might raise their hands and say, a “real” book, a book about “reality.” Of course, historical and some science fiction is based in “reality.” We have fun with this for a while, and then I venture forth with my own view—which I’ll do in this column, in a moment.

I am prompted to bring up the question here because when I checked the criteria for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Excellence in Nonfiction Award recently, what I saw there concerns me. The YALSA site does not define the criteria used in judging nonfiction books, but they do state the award’s purpose:

  • Recognize the best in the field of nonfiction books (at this time, only books will be considered for the award) materials for young adults
  • Promote the growing number of nonfiction books published for young adults
  • Inspire wider readership in the genre
  • Give recognition to the importance of the genre
  • Position YALSA as an authority in the field of nonfiction for young adults

What does that first bullet point mean? I think the association is suggesting that they eventually hope to consider all nonfiction “materials” for young adults, thus apps, games, and perhaps, magazines, but for the moment they only evaluate books. The word materials appears to be a typo and should be removed, or the sentence needs to be rewritten.

The other bullet points focus entirely on what the award is meant to accomplish. Nowhere do we read the definition of the term nonfiction, which is the essential reason for the award. By contrast, the Association of Library Service to Children’s (ALSC) Robert F. Sibert Award criteria include detailed explanations of the terms used, beginning with: “Informational books are defined as those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material.”

Now, I’m not a great fan of the Sibert definitions, beginning with the term informational itself. There are several ways I would like to see those rules clarified or amended, but for this column, I want to stick to YALSA. If a division of ALA is giving an award, in part to position itself as “an authority” in the field, shouldn’t basic terminology be defined? Perhaps not—if the definitions were so commonly known that explanations would be unnecessary, or if there were reasons to keep terminology vague and open to interpretation. But, to my eyes, we have neither clarity on what “nonfiction” means, nor any purpose for leaving the term undefined.

Here’s my basic (though incomplete) definition of a nonfiction book for readers ages 12–18: a work that claims its content is supported by evidence that can be examined and evaluated, and makes it clear when an author is making an imaginative, intellectual, or emotional conjecture. Nonfiction does not claim to be absolutely true (new data can come along, a theory can be disproven)—but it does claim that whatever it says is based on evidence that readers should be privy to.

Contra the Sibert: I don’t think nonfiction is necessarily linked to “documentable, factual material.” For example, a work of philosophy, theology, or ethics (all, to my mind, ideal nonfiction young adult subjects), may rest its claims on logic or emotional power, not documents or facts. The role of evidence, I believe, is to be visible to readers, not necessarily to be the focus of the book. By contrast, novels set in historical periods—even if as in Deborah Wiles’s books Countdown and Revolution, they feature real documents and primary sources, and faux artifacts, even if they are entirely based on historical subjects, such as Barry Denenberg’s Lincoln Shot and Titanic Sinks!—are not nonfiction. I would argue that this reliance on evidence defines the essence of most YA nonfiction, but does not fully cover the kinds of books YALSA needs to consider.

—a memoir is a type of nonfiction, but classically its claims rest less on evidence than literary skill. The term memoir has links to “memory.” It is a literary distillation, a carefully crafted evocation of some aspect of a person’s life. Memory honed through artistry—not invented, but rather, refined. The critic Jonathan Hunt aptly calls memoir “autobiographical novels.” I would like to see YALSA list memoir as a distinct category of nonfiction to honor, and to define standards for it that are, appropriately, different from those for researched nonfiction.

Adapted adult book—one newly flourishing category of YA and middle grade nonfiction is the adapted adult book—most often a compellingly written work of narrative nonfiction. From Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichman (which became The Nazi Hunters in YA) and James L. Swanson’s Manhunt (which became Chasing Lincoln’s Killer) to the forthcoming Charles C. Mann’s 1493, we are seeing riveting adult books appear in new editions for younger readers. There is a great benefit to young readers in getting these compelling books on fascinating subjects in formats and lengths that appeal to them. The more of these adult adaptions that are available for middle grade and high school students, the more engaging nonfiction they are likely to read.

What kind of source information should librarians, teachers, and young readers expect in such a book? Often the author has well-established credentials and the adult books are replete with back matter, including citations and a comprehensive bibliography. Indeed, as Hillenbrand did for Unbroken, the author may have done an outstanding level of primary research and investigation. But is the fact that that information exists elsewhere, in another book that the library may not own, enough for readers?

Graphic Novel Nonfiction—I’m a great fan of the format. Many years ago I edited Judd Winick’s graphic novel memoir Pedro and Me, which was chosen as a Sibert honor book, and was one of the very first uses of the graphic novel to tell a nonfiction story to teenagers. Many graphic novels have information on where the text came from—the specific sources. But we have no established rules about art. It is one thing to say that the artist researched the clothing, environment, technology, even food of a given time period. But what about the cinematic side of the graphic novel: the facial expressions, the emotions, and the body language? How much room for interpretation does the artist have? What sources do we as an audience have a right to expect? When does an imagined scene become historical fiction? I am certain that this is an important question, but don’t have a definitive answer.

I’d love to see YALSA take a look at the proliferation of types and formats of YA nonfiction and to assume that position of “authority” it claims. What makes a book nonfiction? What are the standards for evaluating memoirs? What range and type of source notes should we expect in an adapted adult book? What makes the art in a graphic novel nonfiction? These are the type of questions and issues ALSC responded to about folktales and sourcing, which added real depth and weight to the published works.

What do you think, readers and YALSA members? We have an award, wouldn’t it be a good idea to define what it is meant to reward?


Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

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.

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m not sure that I’m as hung up about definitions as you are, Marc. The thing that annoys me about both the ENYA and Sibert Awards–and this is admittedly a personal preference–is that sometimes I feel the committees dislike research and prefer nonfiction formats that dilute or de-emphasize research.

    • marc aronson says:

      I am concerned that the ALSC award is getting younger and more picture book like in recent years — I have a concern with the requirement for “original” art in the Sibert — while the YALSA award seems to me to be heading towards reading experience and, as you say, away from research. So in effect both divisions favor what they already know and like and do not consider what nonfiction is, does, and should be commended for doing. My thought was that by parsing the meanings of nonfiction we could at least somewhat separate the meanings of “excellence” and thus, when appropriate, award research.

      • Jonathan Hunt says:

        I like good picture book nonfiction as much as anyone, but nowhere else in the ALSC family of awards do you see picture books dominate to the same degree. It’s a curious phenomenon, to be sure. What could possibly explain it?

        Memoir is an interesting genre of nonfiction, to be sure, and there were lots of good ones published last year. So I’m not necessarily surprised that a pair of them made the ENYA shortlist, but I would have guessed they would be BROWN GIRL DREAMING and one of the graphic novel memoirs (SISTERS, EL DEAFO, DUMBEST IDEA EVER).

  2. marc aronson says:

    I have just learned that YALSA lists the following criteria for “excellence in nonfiction”:
    Excellent narrative writing (plot is well developed, strong characterization and character development, rich sense of time and place)
    Excellent descriptive writing (strong images depicted through vivid sensory details)
    Excellent expository writing (clear, readable language that communicates ideas and concepts effectively)
    Excellent persuasive writing (sound logic and reasoning, clear progression of ideas)
    Excellent book design (distinctive interaction between text and illustrations)
    Excellent organization (logical sequence that promotes the material of the book)
    Excellent authority (using the conventions of research and scholarship, the author transparently documents the accuracy of their sources and provides a trail for readers to further explore content)
    A text need not have all of these features, but should contain excellence in those criteria which are pertinent to it.

    This proves my point — there are a variety of standards listed here, and judges are left to determine on their own which apply. That hardly seems like a pathway to establishing “authority.” After all, each year’s committee may come up with its own distinct answers.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m sorry to let this thread die, but since the kid broke my laptop, I’m reluctant to get online during the weekend. I worked on Task Force that created the definitions that you cite above (although there is additional writing that expands on these criteria, too; You used to be able to see a PDF copy of the whole thing somewhere online, but I cannot find it now). I feel like that document is not only a marked improvement on what ENYA had previously, but that they are also more useful than the infamously vague Printz criteria.

    Criteria do need to offer guidance to the committee, but also need to be flexible enough to be applied in unforeseen situations. People interpret criteria in vastly different ways (THIS ONE SUMMER, anyone?), and no amount of additional writing will necessarily guide the committee in the “right” direction. Look at the Supreme Court . . . Mountains of constitutional precedence, and yet each decision often yields several different interpretations.