I write and edit children’s nonfiction books and I’ve been wondering lately–am I, are we, so focused on functionality that we’re missing the chance to inspire?
Most of the conversations around the office have to do with how to make our books easy for teachers to use “right out of the box.” We provide essential questions, common core correlations, glossaries, primary sources, a whole platter of design elements that make it easy for them to tick the standards boxes while still providing their students with a comprehensive education. That’s our goal. And I think it’s a good goal.
We have experts read our books before we publish them, not just to score a few lines of endorsement to print on the back cover, but to make sure our books are appealing, to make sure people will enjoy reading them, to make sure we succeeded in providing a useful commodity.
But all of our endorsers are grownups. They’re teachers, librarians, homeschoolers, professors, experts of industry. Know what they’re not? Kids. None of them are under the age of 25.
And this is starting to worry me. Do adults really know what kids are going to find inspiring? Do I?
My best ideas for kids’ books come from my kids. Yeah, I’m lucky to have them. When we binge watch whole seasons of Doctor Who (as a family so it counts as family time!) and then spend hours discussing the possibilities of time travel, alien life forms, morality in the face of alien invasion, I wonder if maybe a book about the science of science fiction might be in my future. When the yearly poetry unit roles around again and my kids starting spouting metaphors, it occurs to me that a book teaching kids to read poetry might have some worth.
But, again, these books are functional. They are written for adults to use with kids, not for kids to pick up spontaneously whenever they are struck with the urge to fritter away an hour on the page. What makes kids reach for one book and not another? What makes a book attractive to kids? Am I serving kid readers as well as I could be?
Fiction is a whole different world. One I’m actually more comfortable in. I can pick up a middle grade or young adult novel and I can get a pretty good idea if kids are going to like it. It’s a gut thing, but it’s also a character thing and a tone thing.
The nonfiction books I write and edit have no characters. They definitely have tones, ones that I work hard to get exactly right. They don’t have plots, but they are organized against a specific framework. The best part of my books are the sidebars. This is where I get to be as inspiring as possible. I inject tiny biographies of amazing people, quotes from persistent people, weird (and gross!) factoids about the topic. The sidebar material is almost always my favorite part of the book. Is this enough? To kids come away with enough inspiration?
I don’t know the answer to this. But I do know I need to ask the question. And I think finding the answer is going to take a while. And a lot of books.