Friday, March 3, 2017

What we're reading: Entertaining nonfiction!

I am not a reader of nonfiction. Give me a good novel, and I'm up all night; present me with nonfiction and I nod off within a few pages (or sentences!).

I know, however, that there are people out there, including teens, who prefer their stories unadorned, who want "just the facts, ma'am" (although that Dragnet reference to Joe Friday trying to get his suspects to just tell him what happened will probably go over the heads of all teens and most adults!). A good fantasy novel gives these readers a pain behind their eyes. They are eager to find out everything there is to know about astronomy, or the physics of flight, or the science behind, I don't know, surfing? and they don't want any distracting make-believe to get in their way.

Some nonfiction books have appeared, in the past six years or so, that will perhaps be attractive to both the fiction junky and the nonfiction purist; one of the slightly unflattering-to-nonfiction names by which they are being called is "readable nonfiction."

One of the encouragements for authors to write more of this kind of book is the prize established by YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Association), which is the division of the American Library Association devoted to teens. YALSA's Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, established in 2010, honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18) during a Nov. 1 – Oct. 31 publishing year, and announces an annual winner with a shortlist of up to five titles. This award honors those books that rise to the top in their ability to best communicate their subject factually and truthfully while making that subject interesting and engaging to teen readers.


This past year, the graphic novel March, Volume 3, by Congressman John Lewis, won the prize. The trilogy is a first-hand account of his lifelong struggle for human and civil rights, culminating in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. The fact that a graphic novel could win not just this prize but also the Coretta Scott King Award and the National Book Award tells you just how powerful this nonfiction trilogy must be.

This is just the latest in a trend, though, to take moments in history with which we all think we are completely familiar and turn them into powerful and exciting narratives. One book I recently read that does this is Chasing Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson.

This book is based on a collection of archival material, trial manuscripts, interviews with relatives of the conspirators to murder Lincoln, and interviews with those who hunted them down. Rather than the static picture that begins and ends with John Wilkes Booth shooting President Lincoln, then standing on the stage to shout "Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!" before fleeing the theater, this book gives details about the various plots beforehand (including one that never worked out, to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom), the organization and planning of the entire evening's events (which were supposed to include the deaths of Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward as well), the exact details of the assassination, and the fast-paced 12-day pursuit of John Wilkes Booth from D.C. into Maryland and Virginia.

Nothing here has been fictionalized--all has been gleaned from original sources such as letters, trial transcripts, newspapers, broadsides, and other documents of the time. But all of it has been crafted into an exciting narrative that makes you want to read on, as if it were a story in a novel.

I was impressed by this book. Everything about it was done right: the presentation (interesting layouts, fonts, and color choices), the archival materials (lots of great photos, drawings, etchings, posters, etc. to illustrate the text), and the "story." From the planning to the co-conspirators to the act itself to the manhunt afterwards, this was a narrative rather than a dry recitation of facts about the assassination of Lincoln, and included interesting facts like what John Wilkes Booth was carrying in his pockets, the background of those who sheltered him and why they did it (gladly or reluctantly), and so on. If history was always presented this way, many more people would be fans.

If you are one or the other--a nonfiction enthusiast or someone who can't stand it but has to read some for school--take a look at all the winners of the YALSA award for the past six years here. Burbank Public Library owns many of these titles, and we'd be glad to help you locate them, check them out, and perhaps truly appreciate reading nonfiction for the first time!

Here are some sample titles and subjects that may intrigue you:

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin