Once upon a time, there were two sure signs that a nonfiction book was aimed at young readers: it had illustrations, and the facts, ideas, and insights were securely based on existing adult research. Authors saw themselves as translators whose job was to take the work of adult writers — who had the training and time to pore over primary sources or conduct field and lab experiments — and make this settled knowledge engaging and accessible to younger readers. This was a truly generous calling: the writer would trawl through the resources of the wide world and bring back the stories, images, and characters that could make history, science, nature come alive to a wide range of young people.
While nonfiction for young people is still illustrated — now often magnificently — many of us who write it have embarked on a totally different mission. We set out to discover new knowledge, even as it is taking shape — and thus often bring information to young readers that is not available in the adult world, and thus has not gone through the filters of general approval. We are not translators; we are explorers, out on the edge gathering new insights on our own, or alongside pioneering experts. Of course we still want to engage readers, but we do that by sharing new ideas—ideas adults don’t even know about yet. We believe young people will enjoy being with us where knowledge takes shape — however parlous and fraught with possible error that may be.
In a 2002 interview in the Horn Book with Roger Sutton, Russell Freedman — one of the field’s most skillful and generous translators — spoke of his reluctance to “speculate” in his books: “Digging up new information and speculating on it isn’t your primary purpose when you’re writing a biography intended for young readers . . . Your responsibility is to stick as closely as possible to the documented record.” He left the entire game of guesswork and conjecture to experts and adult books. That is the line of difference.
I have always loved the word speculate — it is cousin to spectacle (as in display) and spectacles (as in glasses) from a Latin root that means “to observe or view mentally.” Speculation is even better it once meant “intelligent or comprehending vision” and now can imply “the exercise of the faculty of sight.” To speculate is to see with your mind’s eye — so that what you take in is surrounded by a halo of ideas and suggestions. And yet the word has a number of negative tinges, whether in terms of stocks and real estate — where it carries the implication of risky, reckless bets that do nothing for average folks and fatten the wallets of the schemer — or children’s books. “Speculation” suggests floating off the ground, away from reliable sources and proven concepts that are “good for impressionable young minds,” into the rarefied air of suspect ideas, quack theories, and ideological hobbyhorses where young people are likely to be lost, confused, or warped.
Many of us no longer see ground and air this same way. Because of the subjects we write about, the experts we work with, and the freshness of the material we are exploring, many of us see speculation as part of the fun of nonfiction for younger readers. We invite our readers to think with us, to join in the game. Just as in any fantasy novel, where the hero has to leave the cozy, safe home and venture into dangerous regions in order to meet his fate, it is precisely into those airy lands that nonfiction for young people must go.
I first stumbled into this shift through luck and then unexpected tragedy. I happened to be in the South Street Seaport Museum one day when historian Gary McGowan was giving a talk about the relics that had been recovered from the African Burial Ground being excavated in New York City. I found the research fascinating and, in my role as editor, paired Gary McGowan with Joyce Hansen in writing Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence. Joyce worked with Gary and the other scientists and curators as they were gathering information and making sense of it. Because of internal academic squabbles, the publishing of their data was delayed. And then came the tragedy: the lab and all of the artifacts were housed beneath one of the World Trade Center buildings; and on September 11, 2001, almost all of the recovered remains were destroyed. It is therefore very likely that a book written for young readers will forever be the best source of knowledge about the Burial Ground. Jump ahead to last year’s National Book Award ceremony, where Phillip Hoose was honored for the book he wrote about Claudette Colvin. Here there is no intervening tragedy — Claudette was there at the ceremony. But if you want to know her story — the real backstory behind Rosa Parks, and young people, and the fight against segregation — you have to read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Adult books on the Montgomery Bus Boycott may mention her in passing. Phillip found Claudette and got the full story from her — and put it in a book for children and young adults.
I did something similar in going to Stonehenge and working with the archaeologists there for my 2010 book If Stones Could Speak — so much so that we had to take the book off press to add in ongoing discoveries. At the very last minute the archaeologists I was working with met with their most serious rivals and critics and together hammered out a new chronology for Stonehenge, which we managed to include in the book. So for the next year or so, the only place (and I mean only — no academic paper, no textbook, no adult book) where a person can find a printed, vetted source with up-to-date information on the sequence of building at Stonehenge is in a book written for young readers.
I’ve picked a few examples — and there are many others. Susan Campbell Bartoletti attending a Klan rally for They Called Themselves the K.K.K. is a prime example of getting the story herself — not waiting for a version to filter through other writers. In a sense Houghton’s entire Scientists in the Field series is an instance of precisely the same thing. The point of the books is not just, or even mainly, to give you well-stamped-out results. Rather it is to engage the reader in how those results are obtained — with the knowledge that new discoveries and ideas are sure to follow. The books have won so many fans because they make the process as important as the result.
Dr. Myra Zarnowski of Queens College calls this a “literature of inquiry.” Analyzing some of the books I’ve mentioned, along with Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving, she sees this new kind of nonfiction for young people as important precisely because it is a form of, well, speculation. The books show how authors see with their minds’ eyes and invite readers to do the same.
Why is this new form of nonfiction appearing just now? The most obvious answer is the internet. It used to be difficult to get good, reliable information — so the author who found things out and then brought back that knowledge in a way especially suited to young readers was performing a very valuable service. The author filled in the gaps between what was on library shelves and what young people might want to know. But now information is ubiquitous. There is a website for practically everything. This has two implications — it is much easier for both students and authors to find an extremely wide range of material, from primary sources, to academic studies, to questionable theories, to advocacy for insane causes. To top it off, last December Google announced the creation of a searchable database of some five million books whose aim is “to give [users] the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books.” And, thus, it is much easier for an author to either do original research or make contact with those who do.
Because information is so available, authors have a new role: showing readers how they swam through a sea of stuff and found a way to dry land. But then, too, authors are freed. Because it is so easy to both find research materials and contact experts, authors can fly. They can get hold of the best recent information, come up with a best guess at interpreting it, and have that vetted by a qualified scholar. In writing Sugar Changed the World, Marina Budhos and I figured out that in fact there never had been a Triangle Trade, despite received wisdom about eighteenth-century intercontinental commerce. We followed a lead in one book and checked it back through other books and academic papers on the internet. Our conclusion directly contradicts every middle- and high-school textbook, but we are sure it is correct.
Of course, scholars themselves disagree — all the time. So getting an outside opinion does not mean the resulting book is the new, settled knowledge. Rather it is the latest take, one view as reflected through that author and that expert. The book also then invites readers, teachers, and other authors to see the same information in other ways. David A. Aguilar wrote 11 Planets: A New View of the Solar System to reflect new thinking by astronomers and then 13 Planets: The Latest View of the Solar System as those opinions changed. Tanya Lee Stone’s story of the Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream and Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball are books deeply informed by their authors’ passion. In each, the author’s stake in the story is right out there to see.
Speaking of the personal and the public, I think one reason that an earlier generation of nonfiction authors was reluctant to “speculate” was because there was a sense that the private was the private, especially in matters of sexuality. While gossipy adult tell-all bios could include rumors about their subjects, we who write for younger readers felt we should be more circumspect — both because there is a real air of voyeurism and prurience in those adult books and because recycling unproven whispers had no educational or informational value.
Indeed, the exchange in the Horn Book referenced above was sparked by the September/October 1999 Horn Book review of Freedman’s biography Babe Didrikson Zaharias, which questioned Freedman’s reluctance to speculate on Didrikson’s much-discussed sexual orientation. If someone were motivated to write about her for teenagers today, I suspect that that very issue would be a central theme in the book, for the private has become public — in both good and bad ways. As ALA’s Stonewall Book Award suggests, sexual orientation is often an important part of identity, and it is certainly nothing to hide. And of course, the boundaries of exposure are constantly pressed by technologies that make it all too easy to share, well, anything. Thus to include questions of sexual identity in books for high school students seems not only reasonable but responsible. Doing so brings figures from the past forward into our world of public discussion.
For example, I’ve just finished writing a life and times of J. Edgar Hoover (Master of Deceit, Candlewick, 2012). Mention his name and many adults will bring up the (well-known but almost certainly false) rumors of Hoover’s cross-dressing. But what real dark forces shaped him? Hoover was a tyrannical, control-obsessed bully, but why? What was the secret fear driving him? Was it that he had an erotic life with men that he needed to hide? Or was it (as I and several recent historians suspect) that he needed to hide his own yearnings from himself? Indeed some of the most interesting academic writing about the McCarthy-Hoover period now focuses on the anti-homosexual subtext of the anti-communist crusade. Understanding Hoover rests on this novelistically fascinating psychological probing and gothic speculation. Like Richard III or Richard Nixon, the really twisted characters are the really interesting ones, but making sense of them is not for the timid.
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. See you on the borderline.