April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Defining Excellence in Nonfiction | YALSA Action Required


Marc 2In my April 23 column, “What Does Excellence in Nonfiction Mean to YALSA?,” I suggested that the Young Adult Library Services Association’s definition of nonfiction needed more clarityboth to make the criteria for its Excellence in Nonfiction prize clear and to better serve young adult librarians. I drafted a related proposal for the YALSA board’s consideration, which it will look at later this month at American Library Association (ALA) annual conference in San Francisco. I’d like to share with you what I suggested in that proposal, and why, and would love to know what you think.

First, some background: in several exchanges with Jonathan Hunt, County Schools Librarian, San Diego, CA, I learned that YALSA does offer greater clarification in defining the criteria for its award than what’s evident on its website (see my second comment). I later heard from Beth Yoke, Executive Director of YALSA, that the organization has requested the chairs of nonfiction award committees to formally record a set of resources for subsequent chairs, which would include information related to selection criteria. I thought that was great, and asked Yoke if those resources could be made public. She quickly agreed. My request gets to the heart of my concern.

Why is it so important that YALSA think carefully about how to evaluate and reward nonfiction? There are two clear answers to this question. First, all across the country—in states that have embraced the Common Core and those that have moved to develop their own standards—librarians working with readers aged 12-18 are being asked to select and share more nonfiction. This is true in both public and school libraries, and professionals would value guidance from their organization in thinking about this ever-more-important role.

How can YALSA offer this support and instruction? Once upon a time, the Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list included nonfiction, thus reading groups considered it and public discussions of BBYA nominees at ALA conventions featured fiction and nonfiction. That is no longer the case. The Best Fiction for Young Adults list is, by definition, fiction. Nonfiction is now covered by the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction—and an annotated list of books that were considered, but did not make the final five. In other words, the prize and list serve as the primary way that YALSA establishes and shares nonfiction standards with its membership. Thus the criteria matter, not just for those interested in awards, but for everyone in the field who needs to understand nonfiction for young adults.

The second reason for the need for clarification is because nonfiction for this audience is growing and changing. This change has been sparked, in part, by new educational standards, and by the boom in narrative nonfiction for adults, which in turn has made publishers much more receptive to nonfiction proposals for young readers. In addition, authors are trying new formats, approaches, and treatments— from memoirs in poetry to graphic novels to books with clear points of view. Just as librarians need clarification on the definition of nonfiction, nonfiction is mutating in ways that create new challenges for those who evaluate it.

My suggestion to the YALSA board is that the organization conducts a series of public discussions—perhaps at ALA’s annual and midwinter conferences, perhaps online, or as webinars, in which we debate, consider, weigh, and attempt to establish criteria for various modes of YA nonfiction. One session might focus on memoir, an area that has seen enormous growth. Memoirs may be nonfiction, but they are not beholden to the standards of footnote and citation used for expository writing. So what standards do apply? Do we look at memoirs primarily through a literary lens—for how well they evoke experiences? Should there then be a requirement that an author explain the process through which his/her experiences made it to the page? And what about adult nonfiction adapted for younger readers—expository text, replete with back matter in its original form, but often stripped of citations when published for teenagers. Is this acceptable? Another conversation might examine the marvelous area of graphic novel nonfiction—what standards of accuracy should apply to the text? To the art? My hope is that these public discussions would engage librarians, and give everyone a chance to air concerns. At minimum, it would give YALSA a sense of the questions members have, and possibly, offer criteria for YALSA to codify.

I realize that no set of criteria is perfect, or can guarantee that every question is answered, or every award winner is a perfect exemplar of any set of standards. But discussion is the first step. We need to examine this beast called nonfiction and work together to define what it is, what it does, and what makes a work exemplary.

Those are my suggestions to the YALSA board. What do you think of them? How would you like YALSA to respond?

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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