The Amorphous Genre

The Common Core State Standards mandate that, by fourth grade, students will read a balanced ratio of fifty percent fiction and fifty percent nonfiction for school reading assignments. As students age, this ratio gradually begins to favor nonfiction until, by twelfth grade, they will be expected to read seventy percent nonfiction and thirty percent fiction. This shift portends dramatic changes in the way that nonfiction is written, published, marketed, and taught. While I applaud this emphasis on nonfiction, I look forward to the day when students read it not because they have to but because they want to.

Make no mistake: the students in my schools do read nonfiction. But many of them choose it because they don’t have the skills to read any extended piece of fiction that doesn’t contain numerous cartoony spot illustrations (Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and Dork Diaries — I’m looking at you). My students gravitate not only to much narrower trim sizes of nonfiction but also to page layouts that break the text up with a stimulating visual design. Even then, I’m not convinced they read their nonfiction books in a linear fashion, from beginning to end. There’s nothing wrong with skimming or browsing—Dorling Kindersley built a whole publishing model around the idea. There’s nothing wrong, of course, unless you skim and browse because you do not have the stamina and focus to actually read the book.

A second reason my students gravitate toward nonfiction is the topic of any given book. Students have insatiable appetites to learn about particular topics as well as the uncanny ability to absorb that information like sponges, but that can be a curse as well as a blessing. Are the students who are fixated on books about muscle cars, drawing, and One Direction really fans of nonfiction? Or are they simply fans of muscle cars, drawing, and One Direction? Their loyalty is to topic rather than genre or author, so it makes it challenging to play matchmaker, but it also means that there are no seminal touchstone works of nonfiction. There are no books that all young nonfiction readers have read, no books that bond them together the way that, say, Tolkien, Lewis, Pullman, and Rowling do for young fantasy readers.

If we subtract both the nonfiction dilettantes and the information seekers from the ranks of nonfiction readers, we are left with substantially fewer readers who are interested in choosing a longer work of nonfiction on a topic that they may only be marginally interested in — and reading it straight through, becoming increasingly engaged in the same manner that they would be by an excellent novel. Indeed, my most successful experiences of recommending nonfiction often involve avid fiction readers who have crossed over into nonfiction.

Where are those students who read  extended prose nonfiction purely and solely for pleasure? There aren’t many of them. That’s partially our fault, because we haven’t produced or marketed books in such a fashion as to grow the audience for nonfiction as a genre, making it harder to attract both hardcore nonfiction readers and crossover fiction readers. We have a bit of an identity crisis, a branding problem, and we need a very specific type of book that will hook readers, bringing them into the nonfiction fold where they can then gradually sample the myriad approaches the genre offers. In a manner of speaking, we need a gateway drug for nonfiction, something to rival what Bone, Goosebumps, and Harry Potter did for the popularity of graphic novels, horror, and fantasy, respectively; something that makes the bestseller lists consistently; something that becomes a pop-culture phenomenon.

Those books are all series, and we all know how important series are in the development of young readers, so why are there no nonfiction series? No series written by a single author on a single topic, that is. If J. K. Rowling can write the story of Harry Potter in seven volumes, and Jeff Smith can write the story of the Bone cousins in nine volumes, and Lemony Snicket can write the story of the Baudelaire orphans in thirteen — and that is to say nothing of the uncountable number of trilogies — then why can’t nonfiction authors use equally large canvases for their stories? Why not tell the story of jazz music, the Vietnam War, the history of science and medicine, or any number of worthy subjects with the multivolume work that a topic deserves?

Better yet, don’t tell the story at all. Show it — and show it in the minute detail that readers of a good story crave. Take the American Revolution, for example. There were over two hundred battles in that seven-plus-year conflict (search for American Revolutionary War battles on Wikipedia for a complete list), but most of us would be hard-pressed to name more than a few: Lexington and Concord, Trenton, Yorktown. Is it really and truly possible to fully grasp the significance of those scant few battles without the context of the other two hundred? I don’t think so, despite what the history textbooks would have us believe. Moreover, when you reduce history to a litany of names and dates, a rote list of cause and effect, then you suck all the life out of the story. How could you ever hope to do justice to the American Revolution in a single book, let alone one as inadequately brief as most children’s nonfiction books?

Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb is the most decorated book of the past year, winning a Newbery Honor, the Sibert Medal, and the YALSA Nonfiction Award, and garnering a National Book Award nomination. It epitomizes in a single volume the kind of narrative nonfiction treatment that I would like to see played out in a series. The book has relatively few photographs, and they are nearly superfluous; the real star of this book is the text. Too often, the default design for children’s nonfiction seems to be an oversize trim with a highly visual layout, and there are certainly advantages to this format, especially in the hands of a gifted, purposeful author, but my experience is that the oversize trim is not quite as reader-friendly, while too many photographs can rob author and reader alike of the opportunity to exercise their imagination.

I’m hoping Macmillan will decide to reformat the paperback edition of Bomb just as they did with Claudette Colvin. The paperback’s smaller, novelistic trim size circulates much better in my junior high libraries. In fact, Titanic by Deborah Hopkinson, The Fairy Ring by Mary Losure, and Steve Jobs by Karen Blumenthal — all from this past year — are among my highest circulating nonfiction titles. It’s not that the large trim sizes do not circulate; it’s that the small trim sizes always circulate, and circulate without booktalking. There just aren’t enough of them.

To be sure, many adults like a large, visual layout as well, and are drawn to magazines and coffee table books because of them, but smaller trim sizes with less visual designs are more characteristic of the majority of the adult nonfiction we hope many students will eventually embrace. Do students arrive at those books from reading Freedman, Murphy, and company? Or do they have to go away to college to learn how to read nonfiction and discover the pleasures of the genre? It’s hard to say for sure, but we do know that there are virtually no young adult nonfiction books that meet the text complexity band for grades eleven and twelve under the Common Core State Standards, and that is very telling. I know I’m pushing an odd combination of nonfiction characteristics, basically narrative nonfiction on steroids: series books that read — and look — like fiction, that have covers and titles that speak to genre readers. Perhaps it’s also odd that I haven’t discussed some of the things that we traditionally associate with nonfiction, such as accuracy and documentation, or the current emphasis on the standards for reading informational text. Of course these are important, just as other approaches to writing nonfiction are equally valid, but it’s also important to cultivate and instill a lifelong love of reading, and nonfiction can be an integral part of that lovefest.

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About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is a school librarian for the Modesto City Schools District in California.

Comments

  1. Brilliant article, Jonathan. I would buy that series on the Revolutionary War, or Vietnam War, or the evolution of the automobile or . . . whatever. The world needs a middle-grade Mary Roach. I guarantee there is an author out there who is up to the challenge. Let’s hope they read this article.

    What Nathan Hale is doing with American History in graphic novels is very popular at my school. If we could just find the narrative equivalent.

  2. I’d nominate the Who Was? bobblehead biographies for that distinction. Kids want to read all of those, no matter who is the subject. I’d suggest shelving them with series paperbacks instead of in biography, frankly.

  3. Susan Cassidy says:

    Hi Jonathan,
    OK, not exactly what you suggest since it’s still a huge topic, but Joy Hakim’s 10 volume History of the U.S. (originally published in 1993 by Oxford University Press) is close. “Our” public library system owns it, but each volume was cataloged separately, so I doubt many people read the whole series. But it’s terrific!
    Susan Cassidy

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