Debating Nonfiction

Marc Aronson, in his Horn Book Magazine article “New Knowledge”, has provoked some interesting conversations by arguing that there is a distinctively new and different kind of nonfiction for young people, something that involves original research and speculation. He concludes:

Just as we have both realistic fiction and speculative fiction, maybe we ought to split up our nonfiction section into books that aim to translate the known and books that venture out into areas where knowledge is just taking shape. See you on the borderline.

I’m definitely on the side of those who do not see such a sharp distinction between old and new. I’ve read older works of nonfiction for children filled with original research and am wary of speculation in nonfiction writing in general, be it for an adult or child audience. And so I appreciated Jim Murphy’s response “The Line of Difference” as well as Laurie Thompson’s “Drawing Lines in Nonfiction: ‘Old’ vs. ‘New’.” Marc’s responses to them on his blog are here and here.  Be sure to read the comments too — lots to mull over here.

ETA As Marc and others know, I’m a big fan of many of the new books that introduce new ideas, say his and Marina’s Sugar Changed the World, a SLJsBoB contender. But I still read it more than once carefully, critically and, yes, warily.


Filed under Nonfiction

7 responses to “Debating Nonfiction

  1. whya re you wary of speculation in nonfiction? Part of my reason for writing the HB piece was to bring views like that out into the open and to weigh and consider them. So what is your concern with what Dr. Zarnowski called the Literature of Inquiry — which must, of necessity, involve speculation?


  2. I’m fine with inquiry (love it, in fact), but speculation seems something different to me. I’m a critical reader and have definitely come across books for all age groups that are overly pushing problematic viewpoints, polemics to be blunt.


  3. but why should we equate “speculation” with “polemic” — they do not go hand in hand. To specualte is to venture an idea beyond the current limits of proof — but that does not mean those ideas are beyond being tested. In fact the kind of speculation I argue for inherently invites challenge and counter evidence. Rather than say you are wary of speculation, it seems to me you — and I, and others — need to work out the criteria for healthy speculation — we should not avoid it, we should embrace it, but in so doing define the rules of the road.


    • By wary I mean I’m cautious. There are all sorts of books and all sorts of writers. I will continue to be a critical and careful reader of all books including these where authors are pushing this particular envelope. Some are successful, but some are not. I’m amazed how easily people of all ages are able to be convinced of certain things, even if they are misrepresented in a book or other media. (I’ve seen it, for example, in exhibits at museums and other historical environments. One quite recently by someone who was very authoritative, but I knew was incorrect.)


  4. Mark Flowers

    When discussing “speculation” in NF, I think it’s important to recall that many of the “settled” issues on many NF topics either originated as speculations, or remain speculations (just well-grounded, generally accepted speculations).

    History, in particular is not possible without making conjecture and speculation about how things happened. Of course these should be based on research, but we can never *actually* know what happened in the past.


    • I agree! My concern is that much as we would like our books to be complete instructional objects, you can never know how each reader is going to take that information in. How experienced, how naive, how intellectual, how willing to turn over new information, etc etc. My wariness is that I want to be sure a book with speculation therein is indeed very solidly based on research and I’m not sure all of them are by any means, thus my wariness.


  5. Pingback: Thinking Further About Nonfiction « educating alice

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