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March 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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If there is one thing I’ve learned over the course of my longish life, it is that I’m not unique, despite my teenage conviction that I had to be somehow special, that perhaps I was, in reality, the uncrowned king of a small Ruritanian country. Alas, I wasn’t, but my point here is that my youthful love of nonfiction was not unique but was matched by many of my peers. I doubtless spoke for them, thus, when I adamantly told my somewhat-bewildered twelfth-grade English teacher that I preferred nonfiction over fiction. My personal penchant for the form—especially biography and history—offered evidence of the viability of Betty Carter and Richard F. Abrahamson’s findings in their now-classic Nonfiction for Young Adults: From Delight to Wisdom that “nonfiction makes up the bulk of our reading selections” and that “young adults who want to know about this world, or this planet, or this society don’t care to continually extrapolate their ideas from fiction; they want to examine more reliable sources. Only nonfiction responds to this need.” Although this was written in 1990, it remains true today, as nonfiction’s popularity continues to be epidemic. Note that of all publishing segments in 2017, Publishers Weekly reports that “the juvenile nonfiction category increased the most.” No doubt the burgeoning success of the category explains Scholastic’s recent decision to introduce a new imprint this fall; to be called Scholastic Focus, it will be dedicated to middle-grade and young adult narrative nonfiction.
But it’s not only narrative nonfiction that is riding the wave of popularity; series nonfiction is on an adjacent wave, one that shows no sign of cresting: note that there are now so many series titles that Booklist offers two issues each year that focus on the topic, not to mention its regular Series Nonfiction Showcase. It’s a literary tsunami of what kids call “true books” or what librarians call “information books.” (Me? I still call it “nonfiction,” but I’m old!) The content of series nonfiction offers a veritable encyclopedia of subjects. For example, recent showcases feature books on such disparate topics as abandoned places, the amazing human body, science history, dinosaurs, national parks, and more. And it’s noteworthy that the books were targeted at all age groups, not only middle- and high-school kids. Thus, ABDO Kids’ Dinosaur Series was aimed at readers in grades K–3, while Creative Company’s Seedlings: Wild Animals series targeted preschool through grade-1 kids.
Despite its rampant popularity, I seldom get to review nonfiction titles, but when I do, it’s often something that’s part of a series from an institutional—as opposed to trade—publisher. Recent books I’ve reviewed include Rosen’s Confronting LGBTQ+ Discrimination, a volume in its Speak Up! series; Rachel Maddow: Primetime Political Commentator, also from Rosen, part of its LGBTQ Lives series; and Enslow’s Gay and Lesbian Rights: A Struggle. I see these books often enough to be familiar with their customary format, which owes a great deal to DK’s classic Eyewitness Books. Heavily illustrated with black-and-white and color pictures, the books marry text and visual elements, not only pictures but charts, graphs, and more. Textual elements are often offered in large print, and electric colors, not unlike those used in comic books, are surrounded by generous white space. These books are rich in subheadings that guide readers through the pages, and they are replete with boxed ancillary information. The resulting pages are busy with content, while each is eye tantalizing, offering more visual than textual elements. The books are typically bite-size, seldom more than 100 pages. And they include such appended matter as glossaries, guides to sources of further information, bibliographies of books for related reading, a list of sources, and an index, all supporting the accuracy and validity of the information the reader has encountered.
The text is seldom literary but usually serviceable, focusing—like Sergeant Friday in the old TV show Dragnet—on “just the facts, ma’am.” Targeted at curriculum issues, the books are not always read for pleasure but, instead, for information related to school assignments, such considerations as story being left to narrative nonfiction, though there are some narrative series, like Capstone’s Encounter: Narrative Nonfiction Stories and Bearport’s Eco-Disasters series (ABDO also offers an ecological-disaster series). Still, there are inarguably kids who search out these books to satisfy their curiosity about specific high-interest subjects, like music, cars, sports, and the like.
Inevitably, when talking about nonfiction, one must confront the question of what impact the internet is having on the field. I asked nonfiction author and editor Marc Aronson about that in a recent interview. Here’s what he had to say: “To me, the internet makes it very easy to get specific information but offers no guidance in the slightest about how to sift through, compare and contrast, or organize the information—or even know whether the information you’ve got is fact. Books, on the other hand, stand because they’re by an author, because the author stands behind it as a model for how to gather and use information. This then allows you to go out onto the internet with a degree of confidence and something to compare against.” He continues, “If you’re interested in nonfiction, take courage; it’s a time when exciting new kinds of things are possible.” “Finally,” he concludes, “I do urge people to open their eyes to what pleasure reading in nonfiction can bring.”
Pleasure and purpose—nonfiction speaks to both in a voice that is eloquent and essential. Satisfying my own interests and needs as a teen, it continues to match those of young readers today and, surely, tomorrow as well.
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