Drawing Lines in Nonfiction: "Old" vs. "New"

The March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine is a special issue devoted to “Fact, Fiction, and In Between.” It’s a fantastic compendium of articles and notes from some of today’s top writers of nonfiction for kids, and it’s giving me a lot to think about. I’ll probably post more on these thoughts later, but for now, I wanted to explore the ideas in Marc Aronson‘s article called “New Knowledge.”
Marc says that today’s “new” nonfiction is different from “old” nonfiction in that it doesn’t just present the existing work of adult scholars in a format young readers can digest, but instead discovers new knowledge and speculates on its meanings for the first time. He concludes with:

“Just as we have both realistic fiction and speculative fiction, maybe we ought to split up our nonfiction section into books that aim to translate the known and books that venture out into areas where knowledge is just taking shape.”

While I definitely admire some of the works he cites as representative of the “new” nonfiction, including Susan Campbell Bartoletti‘s They Called Themselves the K.K.K. and Tanya Lee Stone‘s  Almost Astronauts, his assertions make me nervous on a couple of levels.
First, the line of “old” versus “new” implies “not-as-good” versus “better.” I don’t think this is necessarily true. Books that take existing knowledge and synthesize it in a way that make it palatable to kids are important, and they can be very, very good. I think this is part of what rankles Jim Murphy so in his rebuttal blog post on the topic, “The Line of Difference.”
Second, by association, is that he seems to imply that speculation in nonfiction is always a good thing. I agree that it can be a good thing, if done carefully and well. But if not, speculation in nonfiction can be a very dangerous thing indeed. Now, I really don’t think Marc is saying that speculation should be done without solid research to back it up or without calling attention to the fact that it is, in fact, speculation, but there’s a chance it could be taken that way by some readers. Many a wonderful nonfiction book would be ruined if the author felt compelled to speculate beyond the facts to fit their work into a more desirable category. As a nonfiction author, I am only going to speculate on something if the subject I am writing about calls for it; I have been completely convinced I am right; I am able to explain how I came to those conclusions so readers can judge for themselves; and I’m going to tell the reader they are MY conclusions, no one else’s. Is it valuable for kids to be exposed to that kind of speculation in nonfiction? You bet! Can nonfiction be valuable and current and relevant without it? You bet! Do we need a way to distinguish between the two in this way? I don’t really think so. Good nonfiction, whether it contains high-quality speculation or not, is good nonfiction.
For me, a more useful division is between what I’ll call “straight” nonfiction version creative nonfiction. Straight nonfiction is the nonfiction I remember being exposed to as a child of the early 70s in rural Wisconsin. I admit I was an information junkie, and I would pore over our encyclopedia sets (thank you Mom and Dad!) on cold winter days, undaunted by the dry, “just-the-facts-ma’am” presentation.
But when I first read creative nonfiction, it set my brain on fire. Using fictional techniques to turn facts into a story is what I view as a bigger shift and a more useful division than the one Aronsen proposed.
If I’m doing a research project, I’ll probably want to seek out straight nonfiction so I can find the information I need quickly. Are these types of books valuable and necessary? Of course.
But if I’m reading for pleasure, simply for the joy of learning something new, by all means wrap it up in an engaging story for me! Tracy Kidder is a master at this for adults (Squee! I got to attend his lecture last week, and he’s currently working on a book about writing creative nonfiction!); Steven Johnson‘s The Ghost Map is one of the most riveting books I’ve ever read, fiction or nonfiction; and I’d count BOTH Marc Aronson AND Jim Murphy among the best doing this kind of writing, for children or adults.
As a reader, I mostly want to know if the book I’m picking up is straight nonfiction or creative nonfiction, because they serve different purposes for me, both of which I need, but at different times. I don’t need to know, when I pick it up, if a nonfiction book will have speculation or not, or if the knowledge can be found in other books. I can encounter that along the way, either in the text or in the backmatter.
So, I understand the distinction Marc was making in his article, and I greatly admire him and the other authors who are breaking new ground in their research and thinking and sharing it with young readers. I just don’t know if “old” versus “new” is a necessary or helpful division, and I find his choice of terminology to be insulting to the many wonderful authors who dedicate their lives to researching, organizing, and presenting the facts to children in their non-speculative nonfiction works.

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3 thoughts on “Drawing Lines in Nonfiction: "Old" vs. "New"”

  1. Laurie:
    Thanks for engaging with my article — I’ve responded to you and Jim over in my SLJ blog. But I really don’t agree that the key difference is between “straight” and “creative.” That is a distinction. But the kinds of writing I am talking about gets its excitement not (or at leat not necessarily) from using “fictional techniques to turn facts into story” but rather from emulating real detectives or scientists in the quest for knowledge. In other words, the thrill comes from thinking, not (or, again, not only) from storytelling. Storytelling often aims for closure after taking a reader on a satisfying journey. Thinking is open ended, it leaves the reader to keep hunting for new answers. That is the kind of NF for younger readers I see taking shape.

    • Marc,
      Thanks so much for reading for my post and for expanding and clarifying your argument your responses here and here. As I posted over there, my concerns can be (and were) addressed simply by changing the terminology used. With this kind of label, I agree it is a useful distinction in the minds of both authors and readers. I’m all for “speculative nonfiction,” just as long as it is revealed as such (which I’m sure any responsible author would do). Looking at the books that have been receving attention in recent years, I would venture that the market is embracing this newer approach to children’s nonfiction as well. Thanks for starting, and continuing, the debate! I think it only helps make the industry we love stronger. 🙂

  2. Ah, interesting discussion that makes me think of our conversation last weekend about the chakra ms. Fiction? (Not for a Hindu, maybe.) Nonfiction? (Not for anyone of a traditional medical bent.) Speculative nonfiction? Potentially. I think it could be any of the above, depending on how it was treated.
    Anyway, this might be a good discussion topic for our nonfiction master class, huh?


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