I have a school-aged son, so like many other children across the country, he and his teachers are in the midst of transitioning to the new common core standards. I think it’s too soon to tell whether these reforms are for good or ill, but I’ve been interested to note that there is a movement afoot to shift much of what children read to nonfiction http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/22/what-should-children-read/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 There’s a funny 2009 op-ed in The Washington Post that points up some potential weaknesses, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2012/12/07/the-common-cores-70-percent-nonfiction-standards-and-the-end-of-reading I’m a true blue believer in the value of literature, and it’s inconceivable that a kid could get a high school diploma without being asked to read To Kill A Mockingbird, Huck Finn or The Catcher in the Rye (a novel I heard some high-schoolers referring to as “historical fiction”) but I’m not sure that ramping up the narrative nonfiction is such a terrible idea. By the time I hit high school, I’d been raised on a wonderful but self-selected diet of fiction. I’d encountered so little of what my teachers called “creative nonfiction” or the “new journalism” that discovering its power and range was revelatory. Books that stood out included John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, John Gunther’s Death be Not Proud, and Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Boy by Roald Dahl, The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. While our history textbooks might have been comprehensive and lucid, they were seldom compelling, and for me, narrative nonfiction brought the issues and actors to life. Sure, we needed some frameworks and overviews—dates and names and context– but these were the books that made dead white guys, the wars they waged and the laws they passed interesting, mostly by giving voice to everybody else.
What narrative nonfiction would you nominate for the new common core? Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family is a bit of a doorstop, but certainly it could be excerpted. I’m not the first to say so, but I think Into Thin Air would be a good candidate.