OMG. I turned on my car radio the other day and wafting in through the ether was an NPR panel discussing the importance of reading first-rate literature in school classrooms. So that’s a good thing, right? But as usual, every single book the group mentioned was fiction. C’mon, radio people. And it gets worse; the panelists all agreed that nonfiction was totally boring! To add insult to injury, one guy said there was no such thing as Nonfiction that’s also Literature. Then he defined nonfiction as Original Source Material that kids hate because it all consists of formal documents and speeches written in an arcane style nobody can understand. (Think Gettysburg Address or the Bill of Rights, said he).
Gimme a break, sports fans. You and I could blog all day long about great literature that just so happens to be nonfiction. There’s a reason that the majority of books sold to American adults are nonfiction; the subject matter is fascinating and the quality of the writing can be absolutely superb. And guess what? The exact same standards hold true for the best children's nonfiction books these days too….and they’re related to the kids’ curriculum to boot. Besides, original source material (all those diaries, journals, private letters, songs, articles, speeches, sketches, and artifacts that were created by people who were on the scene at a given time and place) is fabulous stuff.
So let’s meld some very cool original source material with nonfiction stories kids might like to read. Here are a few surprising examples I’ve tied into the stories in my own books—you could never make this stuff up and every good nonfiction author has plenty more.
EXAMPLE 1) Quotes from people who went to the California Gold Rush:
MAN TRAVELING TO THE GOLDFIELDS BY SHIP: “The water is becoming bad. I don’t mind it much. I have a way of killing the bugs before drinking them.”
MAN TRAVELING BY LAND: “Hail exceeded anything I ever saw, being as large as pigeon’s eggs. Found our cookstove full of water. There may be fun in camping, but we haven’t discovered any.”
IN NEWSPAPER ARTICLE ABOUT THE GOLDFIELDS: “Chickens were persistent gatherers of small nuggets of gold, and their gizzards were regularly searched by the cooks who prepared them for the oven. At Diamond Springs one was killed for Sunday dinner whose gizzard panned out at $12.80.”
EXAMPLE 2) Comments from the journals of Lewis and Clark as they crossed the West:
“The mercury this morning stood at 40 degrees below 0. An Indian man came in who had stayed out all night without fire, and very thinly clothed. This man was not the least injured. Those people bear more cold than I thought possible.” “This evening Sacagawea was delivered of a fine boy. This was her first child and Mr. Jessaume informed me that a small portion of the rattle of a rattlesnake had never failed to hasten the birth of a child. Having such a rattle, I gave it to him. He administered two rings broken in small pieces and added to water. Whether this was the cause or not, she had not taken it ten minutes before the baby was born.”
EXAMPLE 3) Two quotes that help uncover both sides’ points of view during the American Revolution.
PATRICK HENRY, furious that England’s naval blockade of Boston Harbor enslaves Americans by denying their right to govern themselves, famously says:
“Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston…I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
SAMUEL JOHNSON, the greatest English writer of his day, retorts:
“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”
EXAMPLE 4) From young Charles Darwin’s diary the day he set out on his voyage round the world:
“With every sail filled by a light breeze we scudded away. Soon became seasick. Raisins the only food the stomach would bear.”
Folks, I got a million of ‘em. A great nonfiction book for kids can work magic with the very Original Source Material that the radio panel hated so much. Were they kidding about how boring it is? Original Source Material is the juiciest stuff out there and it can make the people who wrote it or said it spring vividly to life. Sometimes I write entire books that fill every page with this stuff and relate an exciting and cohesive story at the same time. Bah, humbug, panel people. Let's put great nonfiction Literature and great original source material in school classrooms today! So there.