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Where Do All the Prizes Go? The Case for Nonfiction

by Milton Meltzer

Every year since 1922 the Newbery Medal has been awarded to an author for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” Of the fifty-three Newbery winners to date, how many have been nonfiction? Only five: Hendrik Van Loon’s Story of Mankind (Liveright), the very first, in 1922; Cornelia Meigs’ Invincible Louisa (Little), 1934; James Daugherty’s Daniel Boone (Viking), 1940; Elizabeth Yates’ Amos Fortune, Free Man (Dutton), 1951; and Jean Latham’s Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (Houghton), 1956.

What about the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards or the National Book Award for children’s literature? Is the picture different? No. Nor is it different for most of the other children’s book prizes designed to honor the best literary work. The laurels crown the storytellers. Librarians, teachers, reviewers — the three groups who usually administer the awards or serve as judges — seem confident that only fiction can be considered literature. But what is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden? What is James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson? What is Tom Paine’s Common Sense? Not one of them literature? All merely nonfiction?

Let’s go to the dictionary. “Literature,” says the one at my elbow, ” is writing in which expression or form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features — such as poetry, fiction, history, biography, essay.” What about art? Can such works as those I have named be considered artistic? To the dictionary again: it defines art as “the quality, production or expression of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” Does Thoreau’s Walden satisfy that? Literary art has, I think, two related aspects: the subject and the means the writer uses to convey his ideas — the craft. The craft is the making, shaping, forming, selecting. And what the reader gets from the exercise of the writer’s craft upon a subject is an experience. If the subject is significant, and the artist is up to it, then the book can enlarge, it can deepen, it can intensify the reader’s experience of life.

Imagination, invention, selection, language, form — these are just as important to the making of a good book of biography, history, or science as to the making of a piece of fiction. Yet in Sheila Egoff’s collection of pieces on children’s literature, Only Connect (Oxford), there is barely a reference to nonfiction. Nor, using that catchall definition of literature as “the best that has been thought and written,” does Egoff herself ever mention nonfiction in her book. Of the contributors, only two refer to nonfiction, each mentioning but one example they consider to be of literary value. John Rowe Townsend, the British critic, ignores nonfiction entirely in his piece. Perhaps the fact that he writes children’s novels explains his bias.

I looked again at Isabelle Jan’s recent book, On Children’s Literature (Schocken). She deals primarily with French and English literature but talks, too, about the writers of many countries. And again, nothing about nonfiction. Yet at the very end of her closing chapter, she has this to say:

Why indeed should a certain form of artistic expression be judged superior to another, considered to be the only one worthy of being called ”literature,” and established as the norm, when all that really counts is that human expression should have the widest possible range, no matter from where it springs or what form it adopts? What is important is man’s ability to create.

I agree. Then why, I wonder, did she exclude nonfiction from her own book?

Lillian Smith in The Unreluctant Years (ALA) devotes one chapter of the book to nonfiction, but I find I disagree with her argument. She says the difference between a book of knowledge and a storybook is one of intention. In the former, the writer tries to impart knowledge; in the latter, he has a story to tell. And this is where I think she goes wrong: “In the telling of a story the author’s whole mind and heart are necessarily engaged and his preoccupation is with the art of literature. This can only be a secondary consideration with the writer of an informational book. His interest must center in the special field of knowledge he is to present.” She concludes that informational books are for this reason “infrequently literature and seldom do they survive the generation for which they are written.” But I say that the best writers of nonfiction put their hearts and minds into their work. Their concern is not only with what they have to say but with how they say it. Lillian Smith, like so many others, is guilty of bearing in mind only the finest writers of fiction when she discusses children’s literature and thinking only of run-of-the-mill writers when she discusses information books. She compares the rare few — the best — in fiction with the hacks in nonfiction. But there are as many stories as there are works of nonfiction which deserve to be promptly forgotten. In both cases no art is exercised, nor does the writer put his whole heart and mind into the book. Or if he does, it is a second-rate mind and an unfeeling heart.

Even more lamely, Lillian Smith goes on to say that there are three ways of writing informational books for children. One way is to present facts; a second is to present facts and interpret them; and a third is to do both and create literature at the same time. I can hardly accept this separation, as though literary quality were applied like a coat of paint.

Nonfiction — the very name, as Aidan Chambers points out, is so “curiously negative and off-putting.” While it has not been completely ignored, he goes on, nonfiction “does get brushed off and pushed to the back … as though information books were socially inferior to the upper-crust stuff we call literature.” The doyens of children’s literature, he complains, have narrowed its meaning to encompass only stories, poems, and plays — the holy three” he calls them. “We’d do better by children, and ourselves if we revised its accepted definition to include all that is published …. every book, no matter what its content and purpose, deserves an.d demands the respect and treatment — the skill and care — of art.”

But I can think of only a few critics who have given serious attention to nonfiction. One is England’s Margery Fisher. In her own review journal, Growing Point, she has always discussed both nonfiction and fiction with the same care and acuteness of vision. Three years ago she published a five-hundred-page evaluation of nonfiction called Matters of Fact (Crowell). As writer and occasional reviewer, I find it as useful and stimulating as her monthly magazine. What I like especially about Fisher is that she does not treat each new book – whether it be science fiction, a life of Lincoln, or a study of cowboys – as though nothing had ever been written on the subject before. She constantly compares and evaluates, drawing upon her knowledge of the whole body of children’s literature. Often Fisher summons up works long past to inform us that something better is available. I treasure her critical essays on books grouped by theme or genre not only for the specific assessment of each title but for the general principles to be deduced from the comparative analysis. In her introduction to Matters of Fact, the author points out that ” the writers of non-fiction for children are not universally thought of as writers in the same way as authors of junior novels . .. . Because of an unexpressed feeling that information books are not ‘creative,’ they are far more often reviewed for their content than for their total literary value.”

Happily, Zena Sutherland is not that kind of reviewer. Like Margery Fisher, she does all the reviewing for the magazine she edits, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. She believes, she says, that some nonfiction books “are read for pleasure and do teach without drudgery.” But note from her italicized words how defensive she has been made to feel by a host of librarians and teachers who can’t bring themselves to make the same confession. In her essay Sutherland insists that “[g]ood literary style, often erroneously attributed only to works of fiction, can and does exist in nonfiction.” She praises some books for “the flow and cadence of language, the distinctive way in which an author uses words and phrases. Such grace may be more often found in fiction, but no reader who has savored the lyric prose of Victor Scheffer in Little Calf (Scribner’s, 1970) or the dry humor of Edwin Tunis in Chipmunks on the Doorstep (Crowell, 1971) can deny that an informational book can be enjoyed for its style. No reader who has enjoyed the lucidity and vigor of lsaac Asimov’s science books or Alfred Duggan’s rare combination of erudition and wit can deny that nonfiction can be creative.”

Reader, yes, but reviewer? Rarely. I have heard the children’s book editor of The New York Times Book Review dismiss works of nonfiction categorically as “non-books.” Perhaps he was irritated by the assembly-line information books some publishers have unloaded on schools and libraries. Such mass-produced books are often perfunctory, tasteless, and unreadable, although as a feeble defense it is said they fill an educational need. The book review editor cannot conceive of such books making any contribution to literature. But in his distaste he has gone to the extreme of rarely opening his pages to the discussion of nonfiction for children, although he does take picture books and novels quite seriously.

The Saturday Review for the past two years has been limiting itself to two seasonal roundups of children’s books, choosing only a small favored fraction of the total number published. William Cole’s spring and fall pieces touch lightly on books for the three-to-eight and the eight-to-eleven age groups, omitting books for the older child. Nonfiction is included, but like everything else in his grab-bag, individual titles are lucky to get more than a sentence.

In the specialized children’s review media there is a better balance between space given to fiction and nonfiction. The Horn Book issues I have tested show a two-to-one ratio — that is, picture books and fiction taken together receive twice the space of nonfiction. But often more than twenty novels are reviewed while only one biography or one history book is singled out for attention. Science books are treated in intelligent roundups, with helpful comparisons drawn. If space is at a premium, why not try this method sometimes with history or biography?

In all media, the reviewer of nonfiction most of the time limits himself to asking how much information the book contains. And how accurate or up-to-date it is. Infrequently a reviewer will compare the book with others on the same subject, but only as to factual content. Rarely will he ask what more there is to the book than the mere facts. I would want to ask how well it is organized. What principle of selection animated the writer; what is the writer’s point of view; does the writer acknowledge other opinions of value? And then, beyond all this, what literary distinction, if any, does the book have? And here I do not mean the striking choice of word or image but the personal style revealed. I ask whether the writer’s personal voice is heard in the book. In the writer who cares, there is a pressure of feeling which emerges in the rhythm of the sentences, in the choice of details, in the color of the language. Style in this sense is not a trick of rhetoric or a decorative daub; it is a quality of vision. It cannot be separated from the author’s character because the tone of voice in which the book is written expresses how a human being thinks and feels. If the writer is indifferent, bored, stupid, or mechanical, it will show in the work. The kind of man or woman the writer is — this is what counts. Style in any art is both form and content; they are woven together. The historian Peter Gay, who cares enough about this question to give a whole book to style in history, shows how in all the classic historians — Gibbon, Burckhardt, Macaulay, Ranke — “style shapes, and in tum is shaped by substance.”

To go back to one of my prize examples, Thoreau. What literary work is more crammed with factual substance than his? His interest in the particular and the minute informs many of his best pages. But there was something mote than facts which he wished to set down:

Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures; they should be material to the mythology which I am writing; not facts to assist men to make money, farmers to farm profitably, in any common sense; facts to tell who I am, and where I have been or what I have thought: as now the bell rings for evening meeting, and its volumes of sound, like smoke which rises from where a cannon is fired, make the tent in which I dwell. My facts shall be falsehoods to the common sense. I would so state facts that they shall be significant, shall be myths or mythologic. Facts which the mind perceived, thoughts which the body thought, — with these I deal.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I make no claim that every piece of nonfiction written for children — or adults, for that matter — has literary merit. Only a few. A great many books are only mediocre, and a number of them should never have been published. But the same is true of novels. Who will remember ninety percent of them five years later? One year? Tomorrow? Still, to go back to the Newbery Awards, I would guess that some of the novels given the prize in the past might easily have been matched or surpassed in literary quality by works of nonfiction, if only the judges had not swallowed the nonsense that fiction alone can be literature.

If one goes by the outcome of the work done each year by the Newbery Award committees, one can only conclude that fiction is everything to them. Nonfiction must be given short shrift in their discussions. What can one do to help them realize that nonfiction can have more literary value than a Sears Roebuck catalog or the telephone directory?

But I have found one judge who has the courage to publish her opinions and confess to her prejudices. It is the children’s novelist, Jane Langton, who told all in Publishers Weekly. Langton once served as one of the two judges for the Book World Children’s Spring Book Festival Awards. Her three-page article deals honestly with the problems of the judge drowned in scores of entries. She was dead certain she could tell a good novel from a bad novel without any academic set of standards to go by. One sniff, and she knew. But she was all at sea in judging the nonfiction entries. Finally, after much rummaging through the stacks of books and thinking about her responses, some standards emerged for the nonfiction. To be in the running a book had to “exude some kind of passion or love or caring.” If the author didn’t care, why should the judge? The book had to have literary quality. She, the judge, had to like it; and she had to feel that the book could make a mark on the young person reading it, change him or her in some way. Which meant, as well that the young reader, too, had to like it.

Good! Those standards appeal to me. But what happened when it came time to apply them? Langton and the other judge conferred feverishly by mail and phone in order to arrive at the final list of five. In the last moment over the phone, Langton said, “Now don’t you think we’ve got to have at least one nonfiction book? What about … ” and she named one title. “Yes,” said the other judge, “I think that’s the best one.” So that’s how winners are made.

Was it fair? Langton asked that herself. No, she answered; they chose only one book of nonfiction among the five winners out of “sheer naked prejudice and personal bias in favor of fiction.” Recognizing that bias, that prejudice, which I have tried to demonstrate is almost universal, Langton urges that fiction and nonfiction should be given separate awards and judged by separate judges. What do you think?

From the February 1976 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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