Tuesday, September 30, 2008


On this Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s hard not to think about Tradition. Queue Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof. Traditions and nonfiction go hand in hand. Sharing stories of our ancestors, learning more about our culture, our rules of law and how they differ are all part of nonfiction at its best: the sharing of knowledge and the exchange of ideas.

At my kids summer camp there is a fabulous storyteller named Chuck Stead who for years has kept all of the kids and adults alike riveted with his true stories of his childhood. Chuck’s stories are engaging and funny but they are also based in fact.

This summer of 2008 he told a story about his summer of 1964 in the Ramapo Mountains of New York. He was about 11 or 12 and the Beatles were on American radio for the first time. His sister had her first dance party and a girl whispered in his ear that she liked him. Heads from the very young to the very old were nodding and smiling in recognition. It was a great story we could all relate to and enjoy on some level. The first thing my son said when it was finished was, “Do you think that was really true?” He wanted it to be true; knowing it was, at least at its core, made it that much better.

“For real?” is a common kid/teenager question because they really want to know. They like to know what the rules are and, if possible, why, so they can analyze them for themselves. One of my manuscripts focuses on this idea from the perspective of the American legal system. It’s a funny kid friendly explanation of contract law (believe it or not), how people can make deals and what the rules are to make them legal (still available to any interested editor, by the way). My son is absolutely fascinated by this. It is important to him to understand the rules. He memorized many of the overall points and then used his newfound knowledge to begin brokering solid deals over the school lunch table. Scholar of legal theory or part time hustler? Both have a strong tradition.

Being well read has definitely served my kids when it comes to dealing with their diverse group of friends. They've wanted to understand more about the headdress of their Sikh friends, the strict school their Japanese friends attend all day on Saturday, and just how much curry their Sri Lankan friend thinks is a "not too spicy" amount. Questions and curiosities about other people’s traditions are often more easily answered by turning to nonfiction books. Sometimes questions have seemed too personal to ask, but they felt comfortable reading the books I brought home about religions around the world and the cultures of kids in different countries. At least it's a good start. We've still been known to guess wrong about who will eat the pork dumplings.

So tonight, grab a crispy slice of apple and dip it in some honey. Share a family story—yours, mine, and ours.

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