By Elizabeth Wroten
Problems with Children’s Nonfiction
On 01, Feb 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I know there are a lot of problematic nonfiction titles out there for children in terms of race, religion, culture, etc. Unfortunately we have quite a few of them in our library collection right now. But as I am working more closely with kids in the library on research projects I am discovering that there are some deep issues with children’s nonfiction across the board. It’s not just those problematic titles that need to be reconsidered and weeded.
I guess I started noticing this a few years ago, but it’s become most apparent in the last two weeks to me with the research project I’m working on with my second graders. The vast majority…no, all of the nonfiction we have on the Underground Railroad contains incorrect information. And not just one or two insignificant facts. Big glaring untruths. I’ve noticed it in history texts about Ancient Egypt too because that’s what I studied in college and this seriously makes me wonder if it’s endemic to children’s nonfiction. (I bring this up a bit here in my review of a book about Hatshepsut.)
I’m not just finding these half truths and fairy tales (as a good friend of mine called it) in books printed for children. It’s in the database our library subscribes to. YIKES! Through another friend I know that unless you are reading peer-reviewed journal articles from a database the articles are written by copy writers, so the articles are only as good as their research. The friend I heard this from actually writes for one of the large database companies (or has in the past) and she would turn the articles out in an afternoon. That included the research and the writing. I’m not trying to be critical of her (I actually trust her), just the companies that don’t require more work and research behind the articles they put out and don’t do some due diligence and fact check them. Or better yet, pay people who are experts in the field of the article to write them.
These inaccuracies cause several problems for me. The first and most pressing is that I’m at a loss of what to use for good resources for my students. These guys are second graders so their reading skills are just coming together and they need simplified resources. That’s why we had relied on a lot of those nonfiction books and articles to begin with. I’m finding ways to get them the information they need, but it’s a lot of work on my part and isn’t ideal. Most of the resources need to be read aloud to them so they can understand the information. I will say, though, telling them about this problem and the process I’m going through is an excellent lesson for them to instill skepticism and impress on them how important thorough research is.
I’m also finding that not only do children’s nonfiction titles frequently not cite sources (another excellent lesson for my students), even when they do they aren’t always good sources. In fact a lot of these inaccuracies are perpetuated by a few sources that everyone seems to consult. Which leads to the second problem, I really just want to weed our entire nonfiction collection. Just throw every book out and start over. I already am weeding to some extent, but I think it needs to be gone over with a fine tooth comb now.
Once I’ve purged all the incorrect things though, I don’t have many, if any, places to turn to find good books to put back on the shelves, which is the third problem this raises. With all these books either not citing sources or relying on the same outdated or incorrect information sources (and in my bleak state of mind) I don’t know where to turn next to build a solid collection. I can’t fact check every book and I would need to be buying them and reading each and every one before putting it into our collection- a task that is both too time consuming and a huge hassle, but something I will probably have to do for the time being.
I do think one solution is to have a small, but incredibly well curated nonfiction collection. I would rather they had only a few places to turn than a lot of bad ones. Is anyone else noticing this or grappling with it? Thoughts, ideas, solutions? Please be careful about what you are putting on your shelves!