When I grew up in Bethesda, MD, it was a sleepy suburb of Washington, DC. So it was easy to take school field trips to the Smithsonian and we did frequently. Although I have mostly good memories of those trips, primarily I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and size of the museums — typically the Museum of Natural History — that we visited and also the didactic and boring explanatory material. There was no context! There were no engaging anecdotes! Why should we care about this enormous whale or shiny diamond?
But the Smithsonian museums were nothing compared to a museum somewhere in Massachusetts that I remember visiting. Honestly I can’t remember much about it except that it was the dustiest, dingiest place I’d ever been and had no apparent organizing principle. Without more details it’s kind of a dusty, unfocused story, but my point is that kids’ non-fiction can be like that too. Just the Facts M’am, approach. A stiff re-working of an adult book or a textbook that treats every fact and event with equal weight and leaves the reader wondering what is the point? Why should we care?
No longer!! In the couple decades, with the growth of narrative non-fiction and some really great story telling, non-fiction has come alive. You’ve got people like Steve Sheinkin (Bomb), Tanya Lee Stone (Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream), Kadir Nelson (We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball) and Candace Fleming (The Family Romanov) telling stories in such compelling and exciting (while true!!) ways that they suck the reader in and hold them fast. And, of course, museums also have evolved. Particularly with the rise of special exhibits (okay, I realize that was decades ago) and more focused exhibits, not to mention better explanatory material, going to museums now is a vast improvement from the 1970s and 1980s….
So! That’s my moment of appreciation for both narrative non-fiction for kids and also museums! I try not to take either one for granted.