More thoughts on nonfiction

Mark,

Interesting questions.

1) My nonfiction books fall into both categories, in a way. My two history books, both part of Lucent’s World History Series (The Reformation, 1995 and The Age of Exploration, 1998) I wrote with the intention of telling the stories behind those interesting times. Nevertheless, because they were part of a series, there were certain constraints I had to meet, including the format (double-column, textbook-style; black and white illustrations; timeline, etc.). I also tried to be as neutral as possible, although I know that some of my biases came through, especially in the Reformation book.  I was always aware as I was writing them that I wanted them to be interesting to read, but also useful for students doing reports.

The other two books, Sports in America (Lucent, 1996) and Space Exploration: A Pro/Con Issue (Enslow, 2000) were definitely written with school reports in mind. In fact, I had some struggles with the editors on both of these books, because I wanted to emphasize my own opinions (of which I have many on these two topics), but they wanted them to be very factual in the “opposing viewpoints” style: “Some people say this, while others say that.” I could see the point, but it was actually hard for me to do.

2) The struggle about where to place teen nonfiction in the library is one I see everywhere. Is it in adult nonfiction, children’s nonfiction, or a separate teen nonfiction section? Some libraries actually make the distinction you’re making by shelving “curriculum support” materials in with children’s or adult nonfiction, and the more narrative-style nonfiction somewhere in the teen area–either in a YA NF section, or on some kind of display. Certainly displays are one good way of showcasing great nonfiction, whether it is  narrative or otherwise.

3) Regarding narrative nonfiction winning awards: I think there are several things going on. For one thing, I think a lot of librarians are essentially fiction readers, and when they do honor nonfiction, it tends to be nonfiction  that “reads like fiction.” For another, I think there are styles in nonfiction, and we’re all influenced by those. I picked up a 1962 biography written for young people about a person I’m interested in, and was shocked to find that although it was well-written, it was full of made-up conversations, and statements like, “There was a roaring in her ears and for the first time in her life she felt like fainting.” (Really? And the author knows this how?) There is not a single source note, or even a bibliography. No one could get away with that today! But my point is that the award committees are expecting a certain style of writing and presentation (whether consciously or unconsciously) and what falls into that is more likely to be the narrative nonfiction books.

The YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award‘s policies and procedures  do say two things of relevance here: first, that “The title must include excellent writing, research, presentation and readability for young adults” and second, that “Titles from a series may be considered on their individual merits.” So I think the question probably comes down to whether those curriculum support books (often parts of series) fulfill the “presentation” and “readability” qualifications.

I find it interesting that ALSC’s comparable award, the Sibert Medal, is for an “informational book.” It’s policies and procedures say, among other things, that “‘informational books’ are defined as those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material,” and that “‘Significant contribution’ is gauged by how well the work elucidates, clarifies and enlivens its subject.  The committee considers overall accuracy, documentation, organization, visual material and book design.” But somehow, to me, “informational book” sounds more like a category that could include curriculum support than “nonfiction” does. Is that my own bias?

–Mom

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