Tuesday, October 5, 2010


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.


praxilla said...

So you're sending a copy of this article to your local NPR station, right? And asking them to do a follow-up piece on nonfiction for kids, starring you and a panel of other nonfiction writers. Right?

Melissa Stewart said...

Well said, Roz. Today's best nonfiction is, indeed, literature. Anonfiction authors dig deep into the body of original source material and pull out the gems. Then they craft them into engaging prose kids will love. We need to get that message out there to the folks who haven't read nonfiction for kids since the 1980s, or 70s, or 60s. Today's nonfiction has so much to offer.

Michelle Cusolito said...

I agree with Praxilla. Figure out exactly which show it was on and send them this post. You never know where it might lead. They might read it in their letters portion or, even better, you might be invited as a guest.

Non-fiction today is so much better than it used to be. The contributers to this blog sure demonstrate that! Thanks for the great books.


Vicki Cobb said...

Well said, Roz. Makes one wonder how far removed the informational, non-literature writers are from original sources. All they contribute are a rehash of a rehash. And we know that hash, a meal of leftovers, is never the special of the day.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

I second praxilla! We are living in the Golden Age of Picture Book Nonfiction. Even maybe ten years ago, it would be unthinkable to see picture books on day-glo colors, Jimi Hendrix's childhood, Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" fearcast, Coco Chanel, the origin of bubble gum, and so on. If people think nonfiction is boring, they live in fantasyland!

Jan Greenberg said...

Roz, Thanks for that blog on NPR. I'm shocked. Perhaps all of us should e mail that program with suggestions and comments...or do a group e mail from INK. What does averyone else think?

Karen Romano Young said...

Fantastic, Roz. I'm sending it to a public radio friend.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks everyone...I'll try to follow up and find the exact show. When I turned on the radio it was admittedly during the middle of the program, so to be fair, I should really listen to or read the whole thing. But the first comment I heard was a panelist who said that informational reading (which can be required in English and social studies classes) is not real literature and that you cannot compare real literature to pedestrian documents. That's what caught my ear. I did find a listing of children's books featured on NPR recently though, and they're all very cool but they're all about fiction: Thomas the Tank Engine, a piece on Roald Dahl, The Odious Ogre by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, a digital version of Choose your Own Adventure, Beautiful Yetta: A Yiddish Chicken with Chutzpah, Ramona Quimby, and a trilogy of YA mysteries featuring Chef Flambe. So maybe it's time for some nonfiction, yes?