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Early New Year’s Resolution: Read more YA non-fiction

December 8, 2007

At the Nonfiction Matters blog, Marc Aronson asked why people weren’t listing non-fiction among their favorites of this year, and if they even notice the omission. So, here’s why there is no non-fiction on my favorites list right now.

But first, a little background. I used to read a lot more non-fiction than I do now. The decline started pretty much ever since I stopped going to the main library, which has a lot more of the non-fiction I’m interested in than the branch library I work at. And especially since starting this blog, which is my own fault, because I’m the one who didn’t want to write about adult books here. Even then, though, I read mostly adult non-fiction, so even if I still was reading a lot of non-fiction, I’m not sure how many titles would go on a list of favorite YA books.

Getting back to the original question, most of the YA non-fiction I’ve read this year are rather lacking in the narrative department. I could be like Gayle and put Aranzi Aronzo’s The Cute Book on my list, but… Nothing against Quick Pick-type non-fiction, and maybe my standards are too high, but I personally need some sort of narrative to call a book a favorite. Arbitrary, perhaps, but hey, it’s my list so I can follow my own criteria. The Cute Book is definitely, well, cute, but do I like it as much and does it matter as much to me as the fiction that I comfortably call favorites? At this point, no. In a few years, maybe it will be elevated to favorite status. But right now, I can’t say I’ll be as enamored with it in the future as I currently am. All the fiction on my list, on the other hand, have had a larger impact on me than the creation of a few felt mascots, whether by broadening my literary horizons or having something that simply blew my mind or simply by being a book I know I’ll read again because I loved the writing and/or characters. Non-fiction is capable of doing this as well, but not when a book consists solely of instructions, anecdotes, etc. There is a place for Quick Pick-type non-fiction on some lists, but they don’t measure up to the fiction and narrative non-fiction books I love best, and hence don’t make my favorites list.

The second factor is simply that I don’t have the opportunity to read all the non-fiction I want to. I want to read books like Who Was First: Discovering the Americas by Russell Freedman and Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism by Ann Bausum. But considering that these type of books barely circulate at my library, not like those Chicken Soup for the Soul or getting into college books, or the majority of the fiction and graphic novels we have, it’s hard to justify buying a book that will likely only get borrowed by me. Yeah, I do have books like With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote, Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America, and Dear Miss Breed in my collection, but I can hardly make an exception for every book I’d like to purchase. I therefore don’t have all the non-fiction I want in my collection, and because I don’t have it, I can’t read it and put it on my favorites list.

Now, as to whether people in general making favorites list notice the omission and what they think about it if they do, I’m not exactly sure. I wonder if part of the answer is the amount of quality non-fiction that’s published for adults and how many of us bypass YA non-fiction in favor of the adult stuff. And I do think that most YA non-fiction is tarnished by a school taint. If it looks anything remotely like a book you’d have read to write a report when you were in school, it would have to be a pretty amazing book to get you to overlook the association with school and make it on to a favorites list (though maybe not a Best of list). Given the choice, I would always pick the adult stuff, even back when I was a teen and borrowing books for school assignments. Plus, I’m not sure all the adult non-fiction I’m interested has YA equivalents. I mean, can you imagine Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, which is one of my favorite adult non-fiction books, as a YA book? And there is a children’s version of Salt: A World History (can you tell I’m a sucker for microhistories?), but no YA version. I do have high hopes for the Groundwork Guides series, though, so once Cybils season is over, and the books are finally cataloged, maybe I will have some YA non-fiction to add to my favorites list.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2007 7:16 pm

    I remember loving Ann Rinaldi when I was younger. She writes great fact based fiction that it (kinda) non-fiction.

  2. December 18, 2007 6:51 am

    I am not in a library, but I am a former boy and around boys, and I see a real passion for nonfiction as pleasure reading — biographies, history, and, yes, record-book stat collections. Notice that the books you mentioned as possible buys were mainly about female accomplishment. Wouldn’t boys want some nonfiction about guys?

  3. December 18, 2007 10:20 am

    I did notice that as I was writing, but those are the kind of titles I want to read.

    I do purchase biographies, how-to books, sports books, and stat/quote/miscellaneous collections for my collection. Unfortunately for me, these aren’t the types of non-fiction I’m interested in reading. So when faced with deciding which books to borrow, I end up not reading most of the YA non-fiction I have access to, and reading either fiction or adult non-fiction. Which is why there is no YA non-fiction on my 2007 favorites list.

    If Who Was First and/or Muckrakers end up on an ALSC or YALSA list, or win an award, maybe I can get them–and read them–then.

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