Nonfiction Windows So White

Every reader of this magazine knows that Rudine Sims Bishop’s “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” framework has become a central part of our vocabulary as we evaluate books for children and teenagers. Indeed it is a kind of organizing metaphor in the industry-wide push for a more representative literature that speaks to our complex moment and multi-hued nation. But, as she made clear in Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction, the 1982 book in which she first spelled out her research and her thinking, her focus was, as the subtitle states, on fiction. Where does nonfiction fit in that image of reflection and wide vista? In Fire Shut Up in My Bones, a powerful memoir by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, he writes about the books that spoke to him as a poor, Black, bisexual child: encyclopedias. He did not want to read about himself, he yearned for a ­pathway to a world beyond himself. He was ­desperate for windows. Everyone needs nonfiction, which is simply curiosity explored and set down in print. The universe beckons. When a writer from any and every background believes that every topic is theirs to explore — any aspect of history, science, math, medicine — we will have a true blossoming of the promise of diversity.

That’s a fine image, but where are we now? The heart of the current critique is the assertion that the experiences and worldviews of those who have been abused, mistreated, and silenced are as important as, or more important than, the lives and points of view of those who have been seen as dominant or normative. And it is true that the view from a marginalized individual or group may serve as an indictment or even rejection of a familiar narrative. Taking down a statue is not just removing an icon meant to intimidate; it is an opening to rethinking the entire narrative history of this nation. As James Baldwin put it during his famous debate with William F. Buckley, “When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history, and neither did I. That I was a savage, about whom the less said the better, who had been saved by Europe, and brought to America. And of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. These were the only books there were.” Baldwin’s experience of history was the same as what Bishop found in children’s fiction: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

How does contemporary nonfiction fit with this attention to overturning old narratives, and making the lives of all people central? I am not using the term nonfiction in the Dewey sense — no folklore, poetry, theater, or memoir. In my view, a nonfiction book is one in which whatever is narrated, claimed, or asserted within the book can be checked outside of that book. The book is saying such-and-such took place, or looks like this, or adds up to that, or has these characteristics. Nonfiction can be vividly narrative — it is not confined to lists of facts and can contain speculation — “I believe this is why that happened,” “I think this was her motivation,” “I suspect that was his secret desire.” But those leaps by the author are clearly identified as such. Nonfiction stands or falls on research. The author is making a claim about the world beyond the pages of the book, based on the author’s best effort to validate that claim. Nonfiction is the essence of the other side of Bishop’s formulation: a “window.” She was writing about windows in fiction, yet her words apply equally to nonfiction: children need books “as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds.”

A window, but how clear is the glass? Any historian knows that what we research, and the sense we make of our findings, is influenced by who we are. Does that mean all nonfiction is “relative”? No. If nonfiction were truly “relative,” then Trump’s warped fantasy that COVID-19 would just disappear would be as valid as scientists’ careful study of its structure and spread. The fact that my perspective is limited only means that others are invited to do their own research and reach their own conclusions. Then we can compare the merits of the different studies. A new view may expose gaps in mine, or enhance mine, or prove to be less satisfying than mine. None of us is God with omniscient vision, but that does not mean all accounts are equally valid. And valid to whom?

Do some topics “belong” to people (or are they best discussed by people) who have a direct link to that subject? There are four issues here. Accuracy — is a person with an inherent link to a topic more likely to “get it right,” to be attuned to nuance in the topic or in how the topic is discussed? Emotion — no matter how good a book may be, if it is written by an outsider, what attention must we pay to the reception, including a sense of violation that may be experienced, by some insiders? Fairness — if a topic may bring financial benefit to an author, can work by an “outsider” author be seen as a form of appropriation, as in Jeanine Cummins’s much-debated adult novel American Dirt? Opportunity — since many established authors have advantages of color, class, and standing in the field, should some topics be reserved for authors from underrepresented groups, in order to bring more authors and a wider range of authors to nonfiction?

There may well be aspects of a nonfiction story that are best understood by insiders — which means that any nonfiction writer should seek out those perspectives, as a matter of diligence. Tanya Lee Stone (who is white) won an NAACP Image Award for Courage Has No Color, the True Story of the Triple ­Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers because she recovered a history, largely from primary sources, that no one else had written for young people. Now that the Triple Nickles are better known, their story is there for others to explore. The same was true of Steve Sheinkin (also white) writing the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award–winning The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. When I, a Jewish man, wrote Unsettled: The Problem of Loving Israel, I, of course, read memoirs written by Palestinians and histories by those sympathetic to a Palestinian point of view. In turn, an “insider” writing history must seek out perspectives from ­outsiders — who may well see trends or patterns that are harder to discern from within.

The question of appropriation came up when I wrote Rising Water: The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue. When the book was announced, some felt I was wrong to do it — that the story belonged to the Thai people. I am glad that another account of the events has been written by Thai American author Christina Soontornvat (All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, a 2021 Newbery and Sibert honoree). But the rescue was always an international story — a story of global cooperation in which Chinese volunteers, the United States military, British and Australian cave divers supported by divers from a myriad of nations, and Japanese irrigation specialists, as well as Thai courage and generosity, were all crucial to the operation. I did need to find Thai readers and academic experts to make sure that I was not hampered by my limited language and lack of cultural knowledge. But that was equally true when I hired Chinese and Japanese readers for the same project. Getting to know the language and perspective of the U.S. military was as much of a learning experience for me as coming to understand Thai Buddhism. From my point of view, Rising Water is about internationalism and immigration as much as it is about a cave in Thailand. Yet I realize the matter of “ownership” is not just a question of accuracy but also of emotion.

Some years ago, I met a young blonde German woman who was a scholar of…Yiddish. I flinched and registered something between possessiveness and repulsion. What are you doing, I felt, studying the language of the murdered? But then I paused — she had devoted herself to a language I grew up hearing but chose not to learn. Her scholarship is what matters, not her heritage. I recognized my feelings (and my assumptions), but I honor her devotion and her achievement.

Opportunity: I desperately want more writers from every perspective and of every background to take up nonfiction. I don’t think it would help anyone for established white authors to steer clear of any nonfiction topics; but I do think authors, editors, and publishers should, at every opportunity, look for ways to bring authors from underrepresented groups to youth nonfiction. Ideas, everyone? For such programs to work, we all need to spread the word about the glories of writing nonfiction.

We Need Diverse Books asked my wife, Marina Budhos, who is of mixed Indo-Caribbean and Russian-Jewish background, to serve as a mentor to nonfiction writers, which Marina was eager to do. But it proved very difficult to find writers who wanted to work in the genre. Why is that? On the one hand, fiction has a certain glamour that nonfiction often does not, and the breakthrough books that have gotten press, film deals, and enthusiastic readers have all been novels, so it is understandable that potential authors might not think of nonfiction. And I have heard from African American authors that editors have discouraged them from exploring topics other than “their own” heritage. As Bishop noted in 1982, “When narrowly circumscribed definitions of Afro-American experience are held by publishers and editors, they can limit opportunities for Black authors to make unique contributions. Such definitions also belie the variety and complexity to be found in Afro-American ­experience.” That limitation is simply wrong. It whitens nonfiction, which darkens windows. We need a great many nonfiction writers from all backgrounds to write, to publish, and to develop the confidence to follow their curiosity wherever it leads.

The most recent CCBC statistics on diversity in youth literature show a bit of welcome growth: in 2018 BIPOC authors accounted for only 3.2% of the nonfiction total, in 2019 that reached 10%, and as of late 2020 the percentage had inched up to 11.5%. But as Melissa Manlove, senior editor at Chronicle Books, reported to me, when she assisted in organizing the SCBWI/Smithsonian Nonfiction Workshop, it was far easier to find BIPOC authors who focused on history or social studies than, for example, science, math, or biology, to participate on panels.

As the diversity movement meets nonfiction, I hope one result is that many more authors from all backgrounds decide to write nonfiction — about any topic. I expect there will be questions, resistance, hesitation about some of the subjects I and others tackle. But I hope we all agree to meet at the shore of research, diligence, and craft. We must all use our skills to encourage every young person to follow wherever their interests lead them, and to know that every possible topic belongs to them. Nonfiction is the ladder to the infinite — you can’t be more diverse than that.

From the March/April 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Marc Aronson

Nonfiction author Marc Aronson is an associate professor of professional practice in the Rutgers University library and information science department. His forthcoming book is Four Streets and a Square: A History of Manhattan and the New York Idea (Candlewick, fall 2021).

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Christine Taylor-Butler

is so much to unpack here I don't know where to start: 1. You are correct - "own voices" has resulted in authors like me known for writing nonfiction into some pigeon holed "hades" where publishers now call because they need "Own Voices cover" on a generic ubiquitous book on civil rights or history. I mean - how many books on MLK does the world need? I decline, but don't pass the work to my peers because those publishers also want to pay pennies on the dollar. None of those publishers has been interested in alternative narratives about other aspects of Black history that are just as important. But alas, those little known topics are still reserved for white males with privilege. (Read Carol Boston Weatherford's eloquent explanation of her journey) 2. I just about choked when I read this line ".....But as Melissa Manlove, senior editor at Chronicle Books, reported to me, when she assisted in organizing the SCBWI/Smithsonian Nonfiction Workshop, it was far easier to find BIPOC authors who focused on history or social studies than, for example, science, math, or biology, to participate on panels...." Where was she looking? There are so many of us out there who have degrees in those fields (and write in those fields) that it just points to the fact that we need to stop allowing white gatekeepers to "gatekeep" who is selected for a panel. I do know that many of my colleagues have offered speak at events and haven't gotten through the approval process even when fielding their own STEM panels. Or when we do, we're put at the end of a hallway in the most remote part of the convention center far from everyone else and scheduled against a famous/popular speaker which then starves off the audience. But in general I took umbrage with your inclusion of someone like Tanya Lee Stone to make your point. She's brilliant and she's fully aware of how her books fit into the diversity space. You are right - no one else was writing about those men and she created an opening for children to learn. That's wholly different than you covering the Thai rescue which is contemporary and still fresh in everyone's mind. Even so, her accomplishments don't validate your point because Tanya writes with humility. So much so, I asked to interview her on another book for STEM Tuesday blog. For decades, BIPOC authors and illustrators have asked publishers to level the playing fields and hire more gatekeepers that look like the growing numbers of BIPOC children born in the US. Instead, BIPOC editors have been leaving the field due to lack of support. This issue isn't about whether "you" can write a book. It is about an industry that allows authors who look like you to write broadly - or (facetiously) write ALL the books. The bottom line is BIPOC people have asked for a seat at the table. Instead, we're placed at a broken card table outside near the dumpsters far from the acquisitions/awards stage, with no marketing, lower compensation rates, and gatekeepers claiming they published white authors writing diverse subjects because they can't "find us." To which I tell them - you'll find us in the back alley where you put us. Under the broken lightbulb that hasn't been changed for 50 years. I've been luckier than most of my peers. I've written pretty broadly (all those science and math topics the conference organizer can't seem to find an expert on). But the handful of books published by my peers under the "own voices" banner in the last few years doesn't make up for decades of continued marginalization and preference for a white perspective on anything and everything. The best I can say to you is write whatever pleases you. You aren't the problem. The problem is gatekeepers who prefer your narratives to those closer to the cultures being written about and are willing to cut you a check while sending a rejection letter to equally skilled peers.

Posted : Mar 22, 2021 01:48

Roger Sutton

Thank you, Christine (and let's not forget your excellent book about Mount Everest, SACRED MOUNTAIN). The STEM Tuesday blog can be found at https://fromthemixedupfiles.com/stem-tuesday/.

Posted : Mar 22, 2021 01:48


Martha Brockenbrough

They can be extracted, certainly. But better to eliminate the middle man than rely on “sharing” to bring authenticity to young readers. So much is lost and distorted in translation. There are so many stories to tell. White writers can and should do better in their choices.

Posted : Mar 21, 2021 01:35


Penelope Librarian

The most important thing, second most important thing, and third most important thing for any book, whether fiction or nonfiction, is what is on the page. Everything else comes after that. Aronson is completely correct in his assertion that for nonfiction, what matters most is the quality of the research and the ability of the writer to tell the story from their chosen angle. Identity markers matter so much less. In fact, the idea that only identity X or identity Y can tell story Z or relate to concept A best veers perilously close to racialism. The very best example are the many biographies, perhaps too many, of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The most outstanding one for adults was written by Jane Sherron de Hart, neither Jewish nor a New Yorker nor a jurist. But each biographer takes a somewhat different point of view on her, the same way that every nonfiction writer takes a different point of view on their subject, whether written for kids or adults. To denigrate a nonfiction writer for taking on a subject from their point of view not because of what is on the page, but because of their identity and who they are, just feels eighty years ago.

Posted : Mar 21, 2021 12:52

Martha Brockenbrough

I'm disappointed no one has responded to this. I don't know where this "eighty years ago" argument comes from, but it feels entirely unsupported by any reality of publishing that I'm aware of. Ms. Librarian's post walks right up to the edge of claiming that reverse racism exists. Yes, she's obscured it in the variant "racialism." But that's what she's arguing. Reverse racism doesn't exist except in the minds of white people who view any steps toward equity as a personal loss. Anyone who knows what was happening in children's literature 80 years ago knows that whiteness was the absolute default. For more than 50 years, librarians have noted the lack of books by BIPOC as well as the paucity of stories. One of my graduate students calculated that at our current rate of progress, it will be 100 years before we reach equity. But let’s consider the crux of her argument: that it doesn’t matter who writes the books. Consider how this argument might apply to museums. Excellence is determined entirely by the exhibits. This ignores where things came from and the cost borne by the people who were pillaged. It's a great way to justify any means to reach an end of "excellence." But even that excellence is subjective and very much informed by the same values that look away at disrespect given to the people for whom those artifacts—and stories—are their precious birthright. Meanwhile, I know nothing of Jane Sherron De Hart's religious background. But she is one thing that Ms. Librarian fails to mention: a woman. It hardly seems like an accident that the best book about a champion of the rights of women happens to be a woman. And it's a very good thing there is a hungry market for such biographies.

Posted : Mar 21, 2021 12:52


marc aronson

I see a number of comments here, I will respond to several. However my largest point is this -- the thrust of my article was to add nonfiction to the discussion of diversity which had previously emphasized fiction. And indeed my focus as a professional (author, editor, and professor) is to bring more voices to young people and, especially, to encourage Bipoc authors to tackle STEM topics. To that end I have been seeking out African-American experts in the sciences and letting them know about the need for their voices in books for younger readers. I think that opening doors is more important than defining channels.

Posted : Mar 20, 2021 10:40

Christine Taylor-Butler

You are kidding right? BIPOC people have been writing STEM for decades but haven't been recognized or acquired. We don't need your help getting more people to write STEM. We need publishers to start recognizing the value of those authors, starting with compensation rates that are lower now than they were 20 years ago. If you don't understand the problem, please don't make yourself part of the solution. It's offensive.

Posted : Mar 20, 2021 10:40


Anne Ursu

For an essay that prizes the value of "research, diligence, and craft," the assertion that it wouldn't help anyone for established white authors to steer clear of certain topics is bizarre. BIPOC writers and scholars who are experts on this very issue have been explaining exactly why it would help pretty much everyone for eons. The reasons are out there, easily findable--including a marvelous essay in this very issue--if one demonstrates one of the core virtues of any non-fiction writer: curiosity.

Posted : Mar 20, 2021 03:57

marc aronson

I have read many of the articles and while I agree that more speakers from previously under represented groups is crucial, and, even, that there is a special value in those voices, that doesn't mean I won't have my own shading and my views.

Posted : Mar 20, 2021 03:57

marc aronson

To clarify a bit further: I recognize that there is a particular fury in this moment -- a sense that voices that had been silenced and marginalized are being heard, demanding to be heard, and are impatient with hesitation, resistance, evasion. I lived through a very similar moment with the rise of Black Power in the 60s when I was a teenager. But that does not mean we cannot have a variety of views, share them, discuss them, and debate them. I wrote the article to open such exchanges of views. Isn't that precisely what we want -- to think together, even if that means we may not, in every particular, entirely agree?

Posted : Mar 21, 2021 12:36


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