So, today's critical response essay is in response to an article in The New York Times that talks about writing non fiction for children: To Lure Young Readers, Nonfiction Writers Sanitize and Simplify.
I read the title, cringed, read the article. While there are some good things in the article (notably quotes from librarians and authors and publishing folk I know and respect), there are some things that left me frustrated enough that I vented a bit on Twitter (thank you, friends, for indulging!) and wanted to round up here, the problems I have with the article.
In a nutshell, my response:
There is nothing wrong, and actually much right, with writing age-appropriate nonfiction books for children and teens. When and how subject matter is introduced and discussed is, well, the reason fifth graders aren't sent to university classes (unless they're Doogie Howser, of course.)
The long version:
1. What is right for an eight year old, a ten year old, a twelve year old, a fourteen year old, is different. It is not sanitizing, simplifying, nor dumbing down to recognize that a ten year old is not a thirty year old; and they learn and process things differently. It is actually respecting the audience to recognize that in writing and presenting information.
2. Common Core is driving the increased use and purchasing of nonfiction in schools and public libraries.
3. Schools are increasing their purchasing of nonfiction at a time when the resources to do so have been reduced. Funding for books is decreased; and professional librarians, who evaluate and find books, have reduced hours, increased responsibilities, or have been eliminated all together.
4. Like any author, an adult nonfiction author may or may not be someone who can also write for teens and children.
5. If an author has spent time -- meaning years and years -- researching, interviewing, and writing an adult nonfiction book, I think it's not a stretch to say that author now has knowledge and expertise in that area. Why not have them use that knowledge and research to write another book on that topic, only now for a different audience?
6. "Young readers" and "teens" are two different age groups. In the article, the new books mentioned are specifically for the age group "under thirteen." Of the five individual titles mentioned, the intended new audiences are given as ages 12 and up; ages 10 and up; 5th to 9th grade; ages 10 and up; and ages 8 to 12. While some of these do veer into the younger teen audience, for the most part, this is children: under 13.
7. If nonfiction is being purchased to support education, which means texts to use for class, well, let's just say that I wouldn't want to be the teacher assigning a roomful of students multiple books of the lengths given in the article: specifically 759, 750, 877 pages. And even though most of these books are talked about for the under 13s, because of the size and educational needs, I can easily the "younger" versions being used in teen classroom settings. Because time. Those readers who want more can always seek out the other books.
8. The quotes from Angela Frederick and Chris Shoemaker are spot on. Why teen librarians are being asked for quotes about self-selected teen reading in an article about materials for the under thirteen set, I'm not sure. I would have liked to hear from school librarians and children's librarians, given the target age and that the audience is beyond public libraries. (Again, respect to Angela and Chris and their quotes.)
9. Blanket statements or assumptions about the differences between the books an author writes for a teen audience, an under thirteen audience, and an adult audience serve no one. Talk about the individual books. For example, I've read both books that Michael Capuzzo wrote on the Jersey Shore shark attacks, one for adults, one for teens. The teen version (Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916) simply streamlined the book, removing some historical explanations and details not really needed to get to the heart of the story, and also included a wealth of photographs, illustrations, and maps not found in the original. (Seriously, I will always be Team Show Me The Photo of Anne Boleyn's Jewelry Don't Just Describe It).
10. And a yay to Steve Sheinkin, also quoted, who writes a lot of original work for children and teens. And yes, kids and teens love nonfiction, and yay to publishers for creating the books kids want and libraries buying them, because they can be hard to find in bookstores.
11. I refer again to point 5: what's wrong when an author with the research writes a second book on the same subject? Nothing, I say. Review the individual titles and let us know: is this book good on its own? Is it good compared to what else is out there for that age group? Don't just assume that the younger edition is not needed, dumbed down, and a quick way to squeeze out sales. I'd argue that it can be harder to get a point across in fewer words. That said, with the reduction of resources in schools, yes, it's easier for schools to purchase a "known brand" -- a book by a well reviewed author. But that is equally about budget cuts and the schools not having the professional staff to search out the breadth and depth of other titles.
12. Another point about cost. And time. If an author already has the research done, the book they will write will be published quicker than the new-to-the-subject author. And that means a quicker turnaround time for publishing a book that is needed by a school who wants books to support the Common Core. And they want the books now, not four years from now.
13. In case you're missing it: Common Core, Common Core, Common Core. Budgets, budgets, budgets. School librarians, school librarians, school librarians.
14. If loving photos, illustrations, maps, etc in a nonfiction book mean you don't respect me as a nonfiction reader, so be it. Perhaps the adult nonfiction should include more of those resources instead of sending us who like those visuals to the younger books that have them.
15. By the end of this article, I had tremendous, over the top respect for Laura Hillenbrand, who obviously respects her readers, her subject matter, and the new readers. Who sees a need for readers and wants to meet it.
16. Given the way books are challenged in schools, and given how school boards and states are trying to control book content, for authors and publishers to be aware of how to present materials for age groups is responsible, not sanitizing. Wanting to have children's books instead of adult nonfiction in an elementary school library is responsible.
So, what are your thoughts?
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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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