True conversation overheard at dinner one night in suburban NYC.
Teen H.S. student: “I have to go finish my homework. I still have twenty pages to read in my history textbook. It’s the most boring piece of crap ever.”
Teen’s father, graduate of top academic high school in NYC: “Oh, you must be using the same textbooks we did.”
Teen’s younger brother: “Well, my history textbook still calls Russia the USSR.”
(names have been withheld to protect blogger from family's wrath)
What's with the boring, outdated nonfiction?
If we hope to successfully analyze how we can make nonfiction more appealing, our first step needs to be acknowledging what nonfiction kids are actually reading. Most school age children read nonfiction every night. It's true. They do their homework(usually) and they read their textbooks. The sad reality is this is often their only form of nonfiction reading and, it can be argued, a primary reason they don’t pursue nonfiction further.
As the above conversation references, we need to seriously consider textbooks as well as school and library editions-- forms of nonfiction that dominate the school environment --because this is how children are exposed to nonfiction. It starts early in kindergarten and first grade, where the classrooms offer less expensive, paperback library nonfiction. Then it’s on to textbooks which have been known to actually cause a child to loose interest in a subject. No matter how creative nonfiction writers get, the truth is that kids first and predominant exposure to nonfiction has not had any significant improvements in the last thirty years. Or is it longer?
I read an interesting article recently about a watchdog organization devoted to trying to help journalists approach their topics from a position of knowledge and understanding. Its goal is to find ways for journalist to become more educated on the subject matters they cover so that their articles have the depth and understanding of someone who is actually involved in education, the environment, politics or whatever subject they are writing about.
Perhaps children’s publishing could benefit from a similar approach. There is currently a lot of “we only do literary fiction” or “we publish solely for the library market” kind of isolating talk and behavior. Kids don’t break down their reading habits in this way; it doesn’t serve them well that the professionals do. If nonfiction is going to really push through the old barriers, we have to look at the bigger picture. If we understand what they read, required and otherwise, from an early age then perhaps we can understanding how to keep them interested as they grow older.
Kids today are still going to spend a lot of time texting and instant messaging. But it still might be possible to engage them with a new, improved old school kind of text.