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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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In the latest installment in my miniseries of interviews celebrating 50 Years of YA, I talk with another literary mover and shaker, the award-winning nonfiction author and editor Marc Aronson.
CART: When did you first become involved with nonfiction, and what drew you to the field?
ARONSON: In 1987, Harper & Row advertised for someone to take over editing a series of middle-grade books about the countries of the world called the Land and People Books. I had grown up reading those books; they were some of my most treasured reading experiences. And so I applied for the job. I found it was a department steeped in a deep understanding of how to communicate with, write and edit, and design books for young people. It was like a great school. I was given an emergent education in the world of books for young people.
CART: What was YA nonfiction like then, and how did it evolve?
ARONSON: It was still a relatively robust period. From Sputnik on, there had been federal dollars for education and libraries, and there was this feeling that our kids needed to know science and history. And during this time, Russell Freedman had become an exemplar of how to write really well for children while engaging important aspects of history. The high point was when Russell won the Newbery in 1988 for Lincoln: A Photobiography; that was important simply because a nonfiction book had won the Newbery, and I think it also represented the value of nonfiction as an important part of children’s and YA reading.
This was also the beginning of the turn to the visual—it was the year of the first Eyewitness books, for example. If I had a magic wand, well, I’d have given that series 10 Caldecotts for how innovative it was. And these books were evidence of the moment when printing technology changed, making it much easier to use color. But, unfortunately, the combination of the emergence of the chain stores, which were completely uninterested in nonfiction for young people, along with the rise of the visual over the textual and the appearance of the new institutional publishers, brought about a downturn in traditional nonfiction. So the library market for the kind of nonfiction I’ve been talking about diminished, and the retail market diminished, too, as both shifted away from a more textual focus toward a more visual focus. This happened in the 1990s, and it led to a more difficult period for nonfiction.
CART: How has the field changed since then?
ARONSON: There have been a couple of crucial changes since that trough of the 1990s. As nonfiction found a new popularity in the adult publishing world, it gradually spread to the youth world. In both cases, I think the reason for that increase in interest is that nonfiction became shorter and more narrative in content. People read these books not because they wanted the latest study on a topic but, rather, because they wanted to read a true story about an interesting person or one told from a novel perspective. Ultimately, this reached into the young adult world through writers like Steve Sheinkin, who has been a paradigm of that phenomenon.
This is really important: it used to be that an editor, when pitched an idea by an author, would ask when is that studied? In other words, if we’re gonna try to sell a nonfiction book to kids, it has to match the curriculum so libraries will need to buy it. I never thought that was a good question, and I think what Steve showed was that if you made the book interesting enough as a reading experience, people would come to it for that reason rather than because it’s assigned somewhere in the curriculum. That’s one shift. Another is an area where I think I’ve taken some leadership as a writer and an editor: there used to be a feeling that when writing for middle grade and young adult, the author needed to stay out of it and shouldn’t impose his or her beliefs; you had to be fair and equitable. Well, you do need to be fair, but I think we’ve started to feel that it’s OK to express a point of view in nonfiction. And I do think there’s a degree of taking the gloves off, which is possible now. And I think that makes nonfiction more exciting. And so I think that’s where we are now: there’s more emphasis on narrative, and there’s more freedom for an author to take a more assertive position in a nonfiction book as long as the author is fair in saying where he or she got the information and gives the reader the chance to know there are opposing views.
CART: How has the online world changed nonfiction?
ARONSON: It’s interesting that Bookbird, the magazine of IBBY, only once in its history has done an issue on nonfiction, and when it did, say 10 years ago, it was all about how, with CD-ROM and other kinds of technology, traditional nonfiction would go away. Who’s going to need it? And I think all that has been proven wrong. To me, the Internet makes it very easy to get specific information but offers you 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 use and gather information, which then allows you to go out into the Internet with a degree of confidence and something to compare against.
CART: Any last words?
ARONSON: Yes. If you’re interested in nonfiction, take courage; it’s a time when exciting new kinds of things are possible. Finally, I do urge people to open their eyes to what pleasure reading in nonfiction can bring.
CART: Thanks, Marc. We’ll keep our eyes peeled.
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