By Janet Bode
Picture me at a party of strangers. A woman asks, "And what do you do?" I answer, "I write nonfiction books for teenagers."
"Oh, are they fiction?" she says before suddenly discovering a friend across the way and disappearing in that direction. I'm always hearing that I have a peculiar profession. The very word "nonfiction" appears to make brains fuzz over.
Even among those whose business it is to understand and appreciate the importance of the use of nonfiction in the classroom seem indifferent. These English and Language Arts teachers tell me they see their job in terms of teaching and discussing the literary aspects of fictionÑits tone, plot, setting, characterization and the universal human themes created by a writer's imagination. Nonfiction, they say, is only about content.
And I want to say, "Yes, it's about 'content,' but in the best possible way. Teenagers discover that nonfiction is their connection to the world around them-past, present and future."
For me, exploring and recording real life means gathering a clutter of raw, unstructured facts, details, events and stories, especially stories. Each book's soul is a mix of interviews with teens and adults involved in the issue. In their own voice in their own way they tell their tales through flashbacks, wandering impressions, lessons learned, self-descriptions, and on and on. With nonfiction, I can't dream up plot lines, manipulate characters, craft settings and add provocative happenings to build in a drama or logic that the facts don't support. I must uncover that driving narrative thread, while capturing truth and staying truthful.
What makes nonfiction work and hold the readers' attention is the solid editing, shaping, fine-tuning and re-editing. I devote easily half my time to analyzing and organizing my collected facts and deciding how to convey the essence of the people I meet during my research. I hunt through the dialogue for the words that will glue young readers to a text they have come to assume will be boring.
As I move through my journey, I visit with adolescents in middle and high schools, public libraries, youth programs and juvenile detention centers around the country. I always leave time for them to write voluntarily about their lives. "Please give me a few lines, a drawing, a poem about what's best or worst around you," I say. Or I might ask a more focused question, "Has divorceÉeating disordersÉa difficult friendship touched your life?"
And their thoughts set free, fly. These remarkable bits of paper become both a mosaic and my doorway into their day-to-day existence. Some of them end up on the pages of my next publication.
Regardless of their ethnic or economic background, I find that about half the kids in any classroom are happy and stable. They have supportive families, problem-solving skills and practical hopes for the future. Another quarter of them is in temporary trouble. There has been a move, a parent's job loss, a date rape, a tragic accident. For the short term, they need extra adult care and attention.
The remaining quarter worries me most. These are the ones coming of age in chaos. While I'm continually in awe of children's resilience, key adults in their homes might be alcoholic and/or drug addicted. Abuse, neglect, violence and an ever-changing cast of characters swirl around these youngsters. While working on any project, I keep this entire audience in mind. Their photos pile around my desk.
After talking to a group of teenagers about my life and theirs, I offer up my books to these potential readers. They flip through the pages until, surprise, they come to a cartoon strip. My frequent collaborator, Stan Mack, often recounts stories in that style. Even the reluctant readers among them slow down. They finish that chapter and go on to another. In between they might discover student-created essays and art, offbeat statistics and quirky original surveys. They like the fact that information can be conveyed in an array of forms. And they begin to understand how journalistic techniquesÑthe gathering and processing of data--can be used in school and in their own lives.
The World Beyond
I'm convinced of the value of nonfiction for adolescents because they write and tell me so. Remember those students whose lives are basically together? They read my books when they're working on papers. They confess that from these intimate looks into what's happening to their peers, they've learned compassion, an emotion often in short supply in our culture. In an early letter a middle school reader of New Kids on the Block: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens explained that the book showed her there was a world beyond her tight circle of friends: "You learn, you laugh, at points you could cry and it makes you want to read more and more about the topic." She made my day. I felt I had to answer her, a practice I've continued.
The others see the books as a lifeline, a place to start when trying to figure out how to piece themselves back together. Voices of Rape , for example, generates a huge volume of mail. In countless variations readers express relief that they no longer feel alone dealing with that experience. An incarcerated 16-year-old father sent me a letter about Hard Time: A Real Life Look at Juvenile Crime and Violence. He started by saying, "I came to reading this [book] because one of my homeboys sent it to me and said it might make me think about life a little different and it did."
By reading and discussing nonfiction, teenagers, I believe, will be more likely to recognize the resources around them. It will help them think and encourage them to form opinions. It will let them see they are part of a rich and varied larger whole.
Personally I think we all lose out if we don't bring nonfiction into the classroom and actively promote it. I think that we should exchange ideas in The ALAN Review, at conferences, in teachers' rooms and simply spontaneously about how to excite our students as much about nonfiction as we do with fiction.
But of course I'm prejudiced.
Beating the Odds: Stories of Unexpected Achievers (illustrated by Stan Mack), Franklin Watts.
The Colors of Freedom: Immigrant Stories, Franklin Watts.
Death is Hard to Live With: Teenagers Talk About How They Cope With Loss (illustrated by Stan Mack), Delacorte Press/Laurel Leaf
Food Fight: A Guide to Eating Disorders for Preteens and Their Parents, Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division/Aladdin Paperbacks
Heartbreak and Roses: Real Life Stories of Troubled Love (co-author Stan Mack) Delacorte Press/Laurel Leaf; revised edition Franklin Watts
Kids Still Having Kids, revised edition (illustrated by Stan Mack and Ida Marx Blue Spruce) Franklin Watts
Reference Citation: Bode, Janet . (1999) . "Course Correction" The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 3, pp 13-15.