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Nonfiction: What’s Really New and Different — and What Isn’t

In the age of preschool princesses and teenage werewolves, nonfiction, conspicuously, has class. That came across buoyantly in the March/April 2011 issue of the Horn Book, where prominent persons in the field wrote about their work and what today’s nonfiction aspires to.

Their aims are admirable, their commitment is impressive, their enthusiasm is infectious; as a cadre, they have a lot to be proud of. But not because their work, however fine, surpasses the work of their predecessors. It isn’t better researched or better illustrated, as some of the contributors suggest, and it certainly isn’t more venturesome. In kids’ nonfiction, “going where no adult book has gone before” is nothing new.

From the beginning of specialized publishing for children, the idea was to create books for kids different from adult books. Books that suited their interests, captured their imagination, told them what they wanted to know and made them want to know more. Books in new subject areas, and old.

New sorts of books, too, that capitalized on the attraction of pictures.

One was the pictorial panorama, replete with documentary detail, exemplified by the work of Holling C. Holling, in the 1940s and 1950s; of Edwin Tunis, in the 1950s and 1960s; of David Macaulay, in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond. Predicated on children’s fascination with the concrete and specific—how a beaver skin becomes a beaver hat, how the dome of a mosque is constructed—the books of Tunis and Macaulay, in particular, provided natural entrée into the life of an entire society. They were hands-on books, besides, original and authoritative, and as such also embraced by adults.

Photographs, in turn, gave a human face to strangers among us, and their customs…

One God: The Ways We Worship Him, telling-and-showing how “we”—American families—worship as Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, was published in 1944, a time to fight bigotry. The author, Florence Mary Fitch, was a distinguished scholar of Old and New Testament literature who wore her learning lightly. Absorbing full-page photographs, selected by Lothrop editor Beatrice Creighton, matched the text at every opening, giving the book a documentary feel. Fitch followed through with two similar books even more singular in their time, Their Search for God: Ways of Worship in the Orient (1947) and Allah, the God of Islam (1950).

Expanding into comparative religion, Fitch was doing what came naturally to a global resident and acquaintance of Gandhi. But developments in the world at large were catching up—and beginning in the 1950s, accelerating in the 1960s, children’s books, for the first time, kept pace with national issues and world events.

Three exploding areas held the interest of kids: the Space Age; the endangered environment; the civil rights movement and its counterparts.

In 1957, the launching of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, to the astonishment of the world and the chagrin of the United States, shook up American science education and spurred the publication of science books at all levels—supported, crucially, by federal funds for library purchase. This was Franklyn Branley’s moment. Director of education at the Hayden Planetarium (and subsequently the planetarium chairman), the indefatigable Branley wrote books that kept up with space science, year after year, as well as conceiving and co-editing Crowell’s monstrously successful Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out series of basic science picture books, many of which he also wrote. [See “What Makes a Good Space Book?” beginning on page 28.] His last such, published posthumously in 2002, was Mission to Mars: how would they do it? After fifty years, Branley was still keeping kids ahead of the curve.

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 exposé of the deadly effects of pesticides, especially on birds, was only one factor in the transformation of conservation, as a special interest, into environmentalism, as a mass movement. But it raised awareness. Late in 1969, which began with the massive Santa Barbara oil spill, Congress passed the landmark Environmental Policy Act, making endangered species and fragile ecosystems a national concern. Suddenly, the keyword was ecology. From 1955 to 1960, there were a bare handful of children’s books of this sort published; from 1965 to 1970, there were more than a hundred. They ranged from in-depth studies originating at the American Museum of Natural History; to close-ups of specific ecosystems by Jean Craighead George and others; to picture-book stories by old hands like Alvin Tresselt and Edith and Clement Hurd. Kids became steeped in the subject and tutored their parents.

Meanwhile, dealing with public issues of great moment, writing for kids grew up. The practice of “writing down” declined, and in nonfiction as well as in fiction, there was an openness to disagreeable facts. No area gained more from the new maturity than the civil rights movement and its offshoots.

The thrust began, in fact, even before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Nothing substantial had been written about Harriet Tubman for thirty years when, in 1932, Hildegarde Hoyt Swift published Railroad to Freedom. Even more telling, perhaps, nothing resembling a biography of the great Frederick Douglass had appeared for forty years when Shirley Graham’s There Was Once a Slave came out in 1947.

Swift’s book was historical fiction; Graham’s was distinctly fictionalized. But in the succeeding years of struggle, writers with solid nonfiction credentials took up the cause. They wrote lives of persons like Paul Cuffe, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Delany unknown except to the few black-history specialists; they wrote of historical episodes, like Reconstruction, still largely presented from a white point of view.

As a champion of social justice, Milton Meltzer was everywhere. Black history was his métier, then Jewish history. But he also edited the Crowell “Women of America” series, launched in 1969 with biographies of six assorted notables, including Margaret Sanger and Mother Jones, and the legitimate boast that no other biographies existed of many of them. That was true of Mother Jones. The first thorough, scholarly biography did not appear until 1974.

In those five intervening years, did Irving Werstein’s abbreviated bio, in the Crowell series, substitute for a bio by a historian writing at full length to academic standards? Of course not. But the Werstein book, even now, makes lively, trustworthy reading for the general reader. The same can be said of Russell Freedman’s biographies over the years and of the best of the kids’ nonfiction coming out today.

Freedman’s life of Eleanor Roosevelt might be the model of a kids’ book that sounds grown-up. ER was not only the First Lady of the United States, and subsequently the First Lady of the World, she had a personal life of epic proportions. By her own accounting, she was an ugly duckling mocked for her solemnity by her beautiful mother and an insecure young wife overborne by her magisterial mother-in-law. After her death, in 1962, the rest of the story emerged: Franklin’s infidelity, their asexual partnership and personality conflict, ER’s intimacy with newspaperwoman Lorena Hickok and her attachment to two handsome younger men in her orbit. Freeman’s 1993 bio tells it all: with “sensitivity and frankness” (School Library Journal), with “unflinching clarity” (New York Times). The same could be said today, nearly twenty years later.

What’s really new, then?

Research-consciousness, for one thing, if not the research itself. In that March/April Horn Book, Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s animated discussion of what she dubs “extreme research” demonstrates why she’s such an effective writer for kids: she makes holing up in the archives exciting, and fun. But the principles and procedures she cannily ticks off, one by one, are standard among experienced “adult” researchers, and were not unknown to Werstein, Meltzer, et al.

She and her counterparts are indeed making greater use of first-person testimony—in part, to write a different kind of book—and, chapter by chapter, they identify the sources of their many quotes. But they don’t generally source the information. A rich descriptive bibliography, such as Bartoletti provides in They Called Themselves the K.K.K., is a stand-alone resource. It’s not a substitute, however, for knowing where to find something in particular, whether to question or to learn more.

Which came first, the form or the format? In 1987, when Russell Freedman called his life of Lincoln a “photobiography,” he turned a new, squarish pictorial format into the equivalent of a new genre. Closely akin is photo-history, ideal for chronicling the civil rights movement: Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom, in particular, is a stunning synthesis of words and pictures. But Bartoletti’s Klan history is also inconceivable without the confirming illustrations from period journals—most of them not photographs, but engravings (there being, as she notes, few photos of Reconstruction-era Klansmen). Call it, then, graphic history or biography: an evolving form of book for the Internet age.

It’s about people. Based more on primary sources (and less on previous histories), heavily dependent on pictures, the new nonfiction, biography or not, tends to be about people: groups of historical figures, unusual individuals, selected faces-in-the-crowd.

The story tells, in historical context, what happens to these people.

Compare They Called Themselves the K.K.K. with its only consequential predecessor, Meltzer’s 1982 The Truth About the Ku Klux Klan. As his title suggests, Meltzer’s book is timely and impassioned. Pegged to a resurgence of the Klan, it provides a condensed history of the movement from its founding through its twentieth-century outrages. Bartoletti makes the Klan’s founding intelligible, then focuses on the lives of the black victims—the terror, the bravery, the dashed hopes—to the end of the Reconstruction period, when the harm was done and Jim Crow set in. Her update is succinct and empathic; she doesn’t editorialize.

Meltzer wrote to satisfy existing interests. Bartoletti writes to kindle and deepen interest. Meltzer’s book is political history, an adult book scaled down. Bartoletti’s could be called narrative history, from the ground up.

But it will not do to categorize too closely. Today’s pictorial, personalized nonfiction resists categorizing. That’s one of its hallmarks.

Take David Weitzman’s Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworkers Build the City, classified in the catalog of the Seattle Public Library under twelve subject-headings, six juvenile and six adult. Better yet, consider Weitzman’s output over the last four decades. Unlike some nonfiction writers for kids, he has followed his own star: from backyard history to industrial archaeology to book after book, for kids and adults, on the building of a giant locomotive (Superpower, 1987) or ship (Old Ironsides, 1997), to a more personalized industrial history, shading into biography (Model T: How Henry Ford Built a Legend, 2002) or social history (Jenny: The Airplane That Taught America to Fly, also 2002), to last year’s Skywalkers, which is fully social and industrial history, both.

Nowadays, the Mohawk ironworkers whom Weitzman follows for a hundred years might seem like a ready-made multicultural subject. And certainly there’s a timely “ethnic” interest. But the ironworkers from Quebec, with their Brooklyn outpost, have captured the interest of journalists—especially New Journalists like Joseph Mitchell and Gay Talese—for nigh on seventy years. What Weitzman adds, along with an expert’s knowledge of building with steel, is the insight to question the myth of the fearless sure-footed Indian.

And yes, the Mohawks, as Native Americans, add a dimension of interest. Blacks and other ethnic identities add interest. Women add interest. Odd people add interest, especially in picture-book biographies, probably the most creative genre in today’s books for kids. Typical has little place.

But the anomalous, offside nature of much of today’s nonfiction has something to do, also, with today’s publishing. Where once the traditional trade houses aspired to balanced lists, with a selection of picture books, fiction, and nonfiction, some of the largest firms now publish only a handful of nonfiction titles each year. Where once the old trade houses published lots of books in series, related to the curriculum, they have ceded that market to firms that publish nothing else. In publishing less nonfiction, they’re aiming for a bigger splash.

One way or another, the books are different—not better or worse than their predecessors, but interestingly different. Different books for different times.

About Barbara Bader

Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.



  1. This is a marvelous, balanced piece. This reader absolutely gets the sense that you have thorough knowledge and understanding of both the “vintage” and the current juvenile nonfiction fields. Thank you.

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