What is Literary Nonfiction? Part 1


At first glance, "literary nonfiction" seems like a contradiction in terms.  Shouldn't a book be either a story or factual, not both?   First, some background, and then I'll give a few examples of what might fit in this category.

In case you haven't heard, there are some big changes afoot in public education.  California, along with most other states, has adopted the Common Core State Standards, which seek to prepare students for future success by teaching "21st Century" skills: critical thinking, creative problem solving and effective communication.

Recognizing that most reading required for college or career is nonfiction, the standards place a greater emphasis on informational reading.  Students in K-5 would have a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction.  This doesn't necessarily mean a lot of dry, factual texts.  To foster interest in critical thinking, children's curiosity could be sparked with a good true story.

Now for the examples:

The subtitle helps pull you into reading Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class
Invented Basketball. In 1891, young teacher James Naismith wanted to try something new with his bored and misbehaving students. Indoor football was too rough, and so were indoor soccer and lacrosse. When he tried tacking up a couple of peach baskets for goals and wrote rules limiting physical contact, a new sport was born.  Joe Morse's action-packed illustrations have a proper turn-of the-century feel and Naismith's original typed rules are reproduced on the end papers.  Author John Coy's spare but informative text has an inviting tone that will attract young readers.


Bad News for Outlaws: the Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, U.S. Marshal reads enough like a dime novel that the glossary of "western words" in the back comes in handy. Here's a sample: "Word spread that Bass was a square shooter but a hard man. Outlaws learned that when Marshal Reeves had your warrant, you were as good as got unless you hightailed it out of the territory." But though it reads like a tall tale, it's actually a well-researched biography by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson of a man who escaped slavery to make his reputation in the Indian Territory that is now Oklahoma.  He made more than 3,000 arrests in his career. Doesn't that cover art by R. Gregory Christie make him look resolute?

This next example is a nonfiction tearjerker. Eight Dolphins of Katrina: a True Tale of Survival by Janet Wyman Coleman documents the aftermath of hurricane Katrina by exploring the fate of several dolphins left to ride out the storm at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Missisissippi. Their home had survived hurricane Camille, but this time it was flattened by a forty-foot tidal wave. Hoping that the dolphins were somehow alive out in the Gulf, their trainers set out in a boat with a helicopter circling overhead. You can guess from the title that the story had a happy ending.

Part 2 of this blog will include a more extensive reading list.  Do you know any books that you think would qualify as "literary nonfiction?" If so, add them to the comments below and they might be included on the list.

No comments: