Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Line of Difference

The Horn Book's current issue is focused on nonfiction and contains many interesting and thought-provoking articles, including a great one by I.N.K.'s very own Tanya Lee Stone. If you have a chance, you might want to visit the HB site (www.hbook.com/) and check out what is being discussed (and even if you don't have a subscription -- and I don't -- you can still access a number of the pieces).
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An article that caught my attention was Marc Aronson's "New Knowledge." In it he draws a razor sharp line between the old nonfiction, where, according to Marc, writers simply take the work of the expert adult scholars and make it "engaging and accessible to young readers," while the new nonfiction is where writers "set out to discover new knowledge" and then bravely interpret and speculate about it "however parlous and fraught with possible error that may be." *
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Now don't get me wrong; I find the kinds of books he describes as exciting as Marc does, and the authors he cites as fine practitioners (including Stone, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Phillip Hoose, Kadir Nelson, and himself) are all people and writers I applaud for their bravery and tenacity in hunting out the truth and their skill at presenting it to young readers. Still I bristled at some of Marc's reasoning and in particular over the way he so soundly deposited Russell Freedman in the old (and by implication inferior) nonfiction category. I would never presume to speak for Russell, but I will say that in my many chats with him over the years about research and, yes, how he interprets the gathered information, I think Marc's representation is both limited and unfair. Russell is a long-time friend and colleague, a writer and researcher I admire a great deal, so maybe I'm over-reacting a bit; and maybe it's that most of my own books would probably be classified as old nonfiction and pushed aside as well. So I thought I'd address a few of these issues here. [By the way, I would have responded directly on The Horn Book site, but didn't see a way to do this.]
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Marc's article rambles a bit and some of it seems dropped in, possibly because it was an after-thought or a last minute editorial suggestion. Even so, I think I can summarize a few of the reasons why Marc feels the new nonfiction is completely different from the old and therefore unique: the new nonfiction 1, requires original research, often side-by-side with "pioneering experts," 2, this research often reveals information not available in adult books, and 3, these writers (he refers to them as "explorers") venture to interpret and speculate about the historical record. I realize there is more to Marc's definition of the new nonfiction, but I thought I'd start with these three for today.
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My books always begin with a careful study of the scholarly thought on a topic, what Marc refers to as the "settled knowledge." I do this to establish a solid understanding of the subject, to see how opinions and conclusions have changed over the years, and to provide the route to further research, a path that has hundreds of branching leads to follow.
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In fact, I have never done a book that did not entail significant detective work that required exploring beyond the edge of the known -- to root out primary sources, interview and question experts (established and pioneering) on their ongoing research and their conclusions, and sometimes to work alongside these experts. In short, doing whatever it takes to unearth a new detail or voice, all of which can lead to a slightly different interpretation of events from what has usually been accepted. Take what happened with The Boys' War.
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Way back in the Dark Ages of 1985 I was reading a book about the Civil War and came across mention of a fifteen or sixteen year old soldier. That got my attention, so I set out on the journey of discovery. I found out immediately that there were absolutely no books available about underage soldiers in the Civil War, just scattered hints in other histories that they had existed and had left behind a rich personal record. The quest that followed lasted five years and required extensive field work and the painstaking "translation" of hundreds of these boys' never before read (by anyone but family) letters, diaries and journals. And while digging through dusty boxes in the basement of a museum or historical society isn't quite as glamorus or dramatic as, say, a fossil dig (yes, I've done that), it does require care, patience, skill, and imagination. When my book was published in 1990, it was the only book available on the subject and I'm proud to say it has been cited in a number of serious books about the Civil War for adults, including at least one by James McPhearson.
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That's all very nice, but have I ever ventured beyond the "established knowledge" and the accepted opinion to offer my own interpretation of an event or individual? I'd say yes, many times, going all the way back to my first book in 1978 and continuing right up to the most recent. *
I'll limit myself to one old nonfiction example. While researching The Great Fire (this was in the early 90's), I studied Chicago real estate values from 1830 to 1933 and found a reference to changes in building codes after the 1871 fire. More detective work revealed that these code changes pushed the cost of rebuilding a house in the heart of the city beyond the financial means of many people, forcing these families to relocate on its edges. Over the years, some of these pockets went from lower-middle class to the poorest of the poor and the racial make-up changed as well and I surmissed (and then found research validation) that the resulting tensions led to urban unrest in early 20th century Chicago. I don't recall any other books at the time making the connection between the Chicago fire-building codes-and race riots (but I have to confess I never bothered to verify this officially; this sort of notch in the gun is much more important for an academic career than for mine. Or at least it was.).
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My point isn't that the old nonfiction Marc describes didn't exist. There were plenty of them out there. But the difference between old and new nonfiction, what Marc calls "the line of difference," isn't quite as stark or real as made out to be. That a good part of what is being called new has been around for many years and practiced by many other writers besides me, though clearly not trumpeted loudly enough in an obvious way. In many ways what nonfiction is experiencing now is not so much a revolution but an evolution long in the making.
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Naturally, Marc has a great deal more to say about the new nonfiction, and I have more to say about his definition of it. But that will have to wait until my next I.N.K. blog. Til we meet again...
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10 comments:

Vicki Cobb said...

Jim, I can understand your distress at such an arbitrary distinction between types of nonfiction books, especially when one category is designated as "old hat." I've been traveling in educational circles lately and have found many academics trying to make distinctions about what's happening now, looking for patterns and generalizations, and Marc is doing just that. He is trying to give others a way of looking at his perceived trend, which may or may not be true.

Our job as nonfiction writers is to process information and create something for our readers with added value. There are many ways to do this. We make it more accessible, more entertaining, more inspiring, and whenever possible we add amazing stuff we've unearthed that other books don't have.

In my opinion Marc's distinction between old and new nonfiction is not a solid thesis. It doesn't shed any new light on what makes a great book for kids, which Russell (and you) know how to create.

njlbryant said...

Thanks, Jim for this post, which I read with great interest. I haven’t read Marc's article yet, but of course am now eager to do so. Based on your thoughts here, though, I'm inclined to agree with you on the overstated difference betw. the "old" and the "new" non-fiction. I've written both, and let me tell you, there are immense challenges in either process. On the one hand, discovering and researching a topic that hasn't yet been treated in book form, while immensely exciting, is daunting and time-consuming. BUT . . . precisely because no one has written about it before, one has the great advantage of multiple angles from which to approach the topic. On the other hand, writing a book for kids on a topic that has published precedents can be just as exciting/ daunting/ time-consuming because while the author has those works to consult and to reference if he/she
sees fit, the author must also find a new/ unique angle from which to approach the topic—and this, in turn, almost always leads to the “new” kind of research (If I’m interpreting Marc’s definition of this term correctly.) Maybe I'm naive, but I fail to understand why there has to be a hierarchy assigned to these "types" of NF at all. For me, when done well, they stand side by side just as The King's Speech and Toy Story 3 stand side by side in another art form. [Jen’s P.S. Although I’m a veteran author, I’m new to this blog, so this was a great introduction. Thanks again for writing such a thought-provoking piece!]

Jim Murphy said...

Thank you Vicki and Jen for your thoughtful responses. Vicki: explaining how nonfiction is evolving is a fine task, but I'm not at all sure that dismissing a vast number of books out of hand is either thoughtful or helpful to our readers. Jen: Welcome to INK! And I agree with you whole-heartedly. Each topic requires a different approach to research and every topic can be written about in a variety of ways, each as valid as the next.

Steve Sheinkin said...

Seems to me there's another point to be made: to most textbook-tortured kids, it's ALL new. What does a student care if a story has or hasn't been covered elsewhere? Sure it's important for us to dig deep into the sources, and give a story our own twist. But the real key is to write non-fiction that kids actually WANT to read. To me, the division I see in terms of types of non-fiction is that some books present information, and some turn information into compelling stories. Jim - your obviously on the right side of that divide!

Jim Murphy said...

Thanks Steve -- Obviously, I agree with you. And I'm not saying the books described by Marc aren't compelling or involving, because they are. I'm just trying to point out that what he labels as new and different, isn't all that new or different, that a lot of writers have engaged in serious, original research and discovery and even dared to interpret what they've uncovered in a way that departs from established opinion. Trying to create a catchy name(s) for the new representives of this evolution in nonfiction isn't accurate or helpful.

Barbara Kerley said...

Hi Jim -- Great post! Have you thought of putting a link to today's INK on Roger's blog? Or emailing him to let him know about this discussion going on over here at INK?

It would be great to get some cross-over (folk who read Roger's blog commenting over here on INK)...

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I agree with Barbara - besides being a compelling topic, it's great to cross-pollinate and Roger and his authors and readers have strong opinions of their own. (And the more attention we can focus on outstanding nonfiction the better...)

Deborah Heiligman said...

I agree with you, Jim. I think those of us who are writing nonfiction owe so much to those who came before us. And I have heard Russell speak and know how much work he puts into each book. In fact I know a lot of nonfiction writers, writers who write for kids and adults, and we are all working hard and thinking a lot about what new things we can bring to the genre. If anyone in the Boston area wants to come and continue the discussion in person, a few of us will be talking about this stuff at Boston College on Tuesday night:


Conversations with... Author/Illustrator Series


Tell Me a Story and Make It True: A Panel Discussion on Narrative Non-Fiction Tuesday, March 15, 2011 -
Tuesday, March 15--7:30 p.m. - Vanderslice Hall, Boston College

Deborah Heiligman said...

Oops, meant to include the link:
It's being put on by the Foundation for Children's Books:
http://www.thefcb.org/events/

Dorothy Patent said...

Great post, Jim! And like you and others, I can point to books I wrote even years ago that involve my own interpretation of the information. And just our descriptions of our own experiences that we include in our books give the kids a unique, personalized vision of our subject matter.