Monday, June 28, 2010

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I subscribe to the Institute of Children's Literature e-newsletter.  I'm also a graduate. Jan Fields is a writer, an instructor at ICL, the moderator for their newsletter, and has been a writing instructor at a community college in North Carolina (my home, too). She wrote a great little essay/article in the e-news dated June 24, 2010, titled "Why Nonfiction Doesn't Need to Be Jolly." My being a writer of both fiction and nonfiction picture books, I found the information interesting and helpful. Thought I might share it with you. And I quote...
I suspect a lot of writers connect the word "nonfiction" with horror filled
memories of slogging through dull textbooks and trying to memorize all the war dates through history. Or trying to memorize the states and capitals. Or trying to memorize scientific terms for the test. In other words, we remember mostly painful associations with nonfiction as a child. So we assume kids won't want to read our article unless we jolly them into it. 
So many beginning writers will do one of the following...
1. Address the reader directly, a lot, in kind of a jolly voice...asking questions about the readers life to try to draw comparisons with the article subject.
2. Mix fiction into the nonfiction much like you'd mix tasty syrup into icky medicine to force it past a cranky child's lips. Since we assume fiction is tasty and nonfiction is icky -- we're sure we need some fiction to make the nonfiction fun. 
And yet, those are two things editors hate to see and will reject you over. Why? 
Editors know something many writers have forgotten. Kids actually like nonfiction a lot. 
Many young children will choose a nonfiction book over a fiction book. Many fluent readers become obsessed with specific topics and will read every scrap of nonfiction on the subject. Many children go to an obsessive collecting period -- and find themselves collecting quirky facts right along with their Pez dispensers and game cards. 
Kids know that the world is an endlessly interesting place and they want to know more about it. They aren't interested in reading about sharks in an article that constantly asks them how they would feel personally about swimming constantly or gulping hunks of meat at dinner. They know those questions are taking up space that could be filled with unexpected, exciting information about sharks. And it's the sharks that made the child pick up the book or flip to the article. The kids are after the facts, not the frivolity. 
Editors know kids don't want a lot of filler cluttering up their article. They don't need to be told about sharks by Tubby the Tuna. They don't need to be spoken to in a whizbang golly gee voice. They just want the goods -- the facts, the true story, the new research, the information they don't yet know on the subject. 
And kids know a lot. If a boy is interested in sharks, his shark knowledge can rival the folks at Sea World because he reads everything he can find about sharks. So if your shark article just goes over the same stuff the boy can read in an encyclopedia or his school science book, he's going to be disappointed. He wants you to tell him the thing he doesn't know. More than that, he wants you to tell him the thing is other shark-loving buddies don't know either. 
That's why books like Dinosaur Mummies grabs reader excitement -- if dinosaurs are cool. And mummies are amazing. Imagine the excitement over Dinosaur Mummies. No hype needed, just the topic blew the reader away. If you remember history as a blur of dull dates and facts, you haven't read a lot of kid magazine history lately. That's where you'll find out about the president who let a foreign dignitary bring an alligator to the White House. That's where you can learn about the president who chased a goat down Pennsylvania Avenue. Or about the president who brought a Wind in the Willows-type love for motorcars to the White House -- and the problems he faced as a result (Mr. Toad would have totally understood.) 
Kids want the true untold totally cool stories from history. They want the little known facts and cutting edge research from science. They want clear looks into specific moments and event in other cultures. They want nonfiction that is focused and fresh. No jolly needed. 
So if you're still thinking of nonfiction as dull and dry -- get thee to a library! Kid nonfiction today is amazing! Let what you find help get you excited about nonfiction all over again because I promise your readers are already excited.
Thanks, Jan for that great article!  

Happy writing and keep on keepin' on!

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