Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Bit of Controversy

There’s been a bit of a brouhaha for a couple of weeks now, right after the Newbery award winner apparently gave nonfiction a little dig during her acceptance speech. Opinions have been flying all over the internet and Colleen Mondor of Chasing Ray suggested that, if we so desired, we should post our thoughts this week. I couldn't resist.

Nonfiction is clearly not given the attention it deserves. That's why I created this blog. In terms of public promotion, it's given the nosebleed seats in libraries and the big chain bookstores. On the publishing side, it can be frustratingly difficult to find an agent or editor who is both interested and knowledgeable about nonfiction.

But truly, these are side issues. As writers for children, the most important question ought to be, “Do kids like nonfiction?” The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” How do I know? As an ace nonfiction writer, I’ve done my research. And as any of us can tell you, the best thing source for information is head straight to a primary source. My information comes from the best source available—kids themselves. I spent part of this year as a substitute teacher in public elementary schools. I asked kids a lot of questions about what they read, observed as much as I could and, of course, took lots of notes. I'm confident my information is reliable and, oftentimes, amusingly quotable.

Here’s a bit of what I learned:

Yes, kids are reading nonfiction. I’ve seen them. They choose to read it in their classrooms and they choose to take it out of their school libraries. I've heard them talking about what they like to read and while everyone loves Harry, a majority also enjoy nonfiction.

When I asked one third grade class how many of them liked nonfiction one girl said, “Wait, is biography nonfiction?” I reassured her it was and many more hands shot up. This speaks to the awkwardness of the word "nonfiction", something we've discussed here before, an additional unnecessary negative on our side.

There are still many painfully boring nonfiction books in schools. This, as they say in the trade, is a fact. I was asked to read a book on dirt to a group of first graders which had all the creativity of a technical manual. I had to threaten to read more of a incredibly boring book on weather to the fourth grade class if they couldn’t keep quiet during our fun activity. Now, I know from personal experience there are many interesting books on nature, weather, and the environment that could captivate children and give them a solid understanding. But this is not the kind of book the teacher left to read to their class. And, as I snooped around a bit, these were not the kind of books that were easy to find an average class library. The over abundance of somewhat standard(ie boring)book club educational market type books in the classroom is yet another topic.

Kids think they are supposed to like everything, no matter the quality. When I was asked to read a biography on Thomas Alva Edison that started, “Thomas was born on (date) to his mother (first name) and father (first name). I mentioned I thought that was a really boring way to start. They were quite taken aback by my statement but then readily agreed. For the rest of the day, two girls kept coming over to me with creative ideas on how Edison’s story could have been told with more pizzazz.

The opportunity for kids to read nonfiction in the classroom is more limited than fiction. Kids were generally allowed to select from certain bins divided into reading levels for their scheduled reading time. There were far more fiction than nonfiction books in said bins.

Kids love to learn about things that really happened. They are constantly asking “Is that real? Is that true? Did that really happen?” When you are reading nonfiction to them and you can answer with an unequivocal “yes” they are truly delighted. In the same vein, they can sniff out a phony. When a teacher left a book about dinosaurs for me to read as part of their nonfiction unit, it didn’t take the kids long to realize that the talking mouse pretty much killed the authenticity factor. Disney has not successfully confused any of them on this issue.

Sometimes I would offer to read fictional books that I felt offered important information. I would always ask them why this story couldn’t be true. By the way, the answer to this question for THE SCRAMBLED STATES OF AMERICA by Laurie Keller is never that states can’t move but always that states don’t have eyeballs.

Many of the nonfiction books kids would choose on their own are not well suited to quiet independent reading time. When I broke the rules (shhhh) and let the kids pick any book in the classroom for reading time, that’s when the nonfiction really broke out. Kids like to huddle together over the nonfiction books, pointing out photographs to each other and reading interesting facts out loud. Several times some one who had not uttered a word all day came over to me to share something they read they thought was interesting (aka "cool" or "awesome").

My overall conclusion? Kids love well-written, creative, thoughtful nonfiction. Now what do we do about the adults?


Jeannine said...

Linda, I found your research fascinating, especially the idea that some nonfiction books are better suited to browsing as a group than individual silent reading, an idea I've never heard expressed and I think says a lot about why there's a bias to the genre. Many of of us who've come to this field were shy and quiet and comforted in that place by books, but of course there are many who aren't like us.

I think you have the seed for a great article here.

jama said...

Great post, Linda! Love all your classroom examples.

Loreen Leedy said...

That's funny, I was just looking through The Scrambled States of America yesterday. I‘ve also been looking for nonfiction picture books on Amazon on a certain subject (top secret for now), and found mostly the B-O-R-I-N-G type that are so lacking in creativity.

My theory... a truly creative approach to writing and/or illustrating takes time, talent, research, and more time. If the publisher of a given nonfiction book is paying a flat (and most likely miniscule) fee, they get what they pay for. In trade publishing it's a different story, of course. However, it takes time and effort for a librarian or teacher to wade through all the books available to find the good ones. I imagine it‘s easy to hope that the nonfiction “sets” of books from textbook companies will fill the bill. Plus, they're undoubtedly cheaper per page, to touch on another unfortunate reality. Hope I haven’t misstated anything too drastically, but that’s the impression I have.

There’s no question that reality has its own special impact vs. fictional creation... just recall the huge flap over recent “memoirs” that turned out to be largely invented. Readers felt cheated.

Vicki Cobb said...

I hate that nonfiction is also called "informational books." I like to think that we write about ideas--concepts, and that facts are simply decoration to bring ideas to life. Comprehension is based on a conceptual framework, which fiction gives in a story illustrated by characters and a plot. But good nonfiction also has a narrative thrust. Perhaps Rachel Carson said it best: "It is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused--a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration, or love -- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate."

Gretchen Woelfle said...

A few words on Laura Schlitz's Newbery speech, which I heard at ALA. Fabulous talk, unfortunate comment on nonfiction, which was

"Facts are necesssary, facts are useful, facts are fascinating. But stories enlarge our lives."

Hey, folks, FACTS ARE STORIES -- when we write them.

Monica Edinger said...

Seems to me it takes human beings to turn facts into stories. Take a page of population statistics, a map from 1600, and a list of provisions needed for a journey across the ocean. By themselves they are facts. But when we use our imaginations and any other related knowledge we have, they can be turned into stories. I might mull over those population statistics wondering why this country had a higher mortality rate than another, drafting stories in my mind to answer my own question (and realize that I need more information to flesh out those stories). Or you might create a story for me about that map --- explaining that the place names were all because an egotistical king wanted everything on it named after him. Now we've got a story! And that provision list --- we can study it and create stories galore about what those strange stuffs were used for. Or better yet, you will help explain them to us readers --- in stories.

Alexis said...

Linda - Your post struck a nerve. I write both fiction and nonfiction. While I'm usually invited to schools because of my fiction, it's the nonfiction that keeps the kids buzzing all day! Vicki - Thanks for the Rachel Carson quote & Gretchen & Monica for the reminder that facts alone are just a list. But through narrative nonfiction, writers find meaning in those facts to help us connect emotionally.