Transcript from an interview with Marc Aronson

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Marc Aronson. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Connecting the dots of history

Hi, I'm Marc Aronson, I'm an author of nonfiction books for middle grade and high school, and I teach at Rutgers in the School of Library and Information Science, and I have a doctorate in American History.

When I was growing up, I was always interested in history, I think partially because both of my parents were immigrants. My father came here in 1922, and my mother came in '39, just barely, barely escaping from Hitler. And so if your parents are immigrants, you know there's another story that's different from the story that's all around you. You know there's a past that's different from the present, but in some way connects to the present.

So I was always interested in figuring out those connections, linking those dots. I'm also an only child, and I think a very great author once said that only children are spies. And you're spies because you're in the world of adults, and you're always sort of half-overhearing things you're not supposed to hear. But then you have to try to make sense of them, you have to try to make sense of the clues. And I think in some way history to me always meant figuring out those clues, connecting those dots, connecting me to some world beyond me, the world of adults, the world of my parents' past, the world of Europe, the world of other times and places.

That always felt like a treasure to me, to make that connection. So I initially hoped to be an archaeologist. I was very, very influenced by a book called Gods, Graves and Scholars, by C. W. Ceram, which was an adult book about the great archaeologists, Schliemann discovering Troy, Sir Arthur Evans discovering the palace of Knossos in Crete. And that always seemed wonderful to me, it's what I wanted to do.

But there were maybe two issues. One was the issue that it sort of seemed like everything had already been found. All the good stuff was already known, I can't find Troy, it's been found! And so it was a little bit discouraging on that front. And then the other issue was that at my Bar Mitzvah, when I turned 13 and the rabbi was going to talk about my interest in archaeology, happened to be the week John Kennedy was assassinated. And so in a certain way, history interrupted my interested in the deeper past.

When I was an undergraduate, and actually when I returned years later to graduate school, I thought I would study medieval history. And I think that was because my grandfather was a rabbi, as were many, many, many, many, many, many prior parents and men. And so I was always very interested in how a religious world, a defined religious world meets the modern. Because that's what happened in my family, my father was an artist who left that world, defined religious world.

And so medieval history seemed like that same story, where you had a Europe defined by religion that started to break out in the Renaissance and started to move out of that. So I was always interested in those borderlines. But I think I was also interested in another borderline, and that's the borderline between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. It's the same thing. It's leaving a closed-in community of shared beliefs and moving out into a wider world and a time of challenging beliefs and ideas.

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Writing for young people

After I got my undergraduate degree, I did not go straight to graduate school, I worked in book publishing. My parents were both set designers, so I sort of had grown up in the world of where art meets commerce. So I did my own version of that, I worked in book publishing. But then I went back and got my doctorate, and I switched to American history partially because it was going to take me a long time to learn Latin and German and Greek and whatever I might have to learn.

But I also think that I've always loved American history. When I was a young boy, my parents were worried because I wasn't reading. And I didn't seem interested in reading. Until one day I proudly told them "I love this book!" and it was the first book of George Washington. And I read it because it mattered. I really wanted to know about George Washington. I had no interest in Dick and Jane and reading as reading.

I wanted reading to know. So I returned and got my doctorate in American History. But at the same time, I was working by that point at Harper, which was then Harper & Row before it was Harper & Collins, in children's books. And so I started to think, is there a way to bring together one side of my life, the academic side, where all these really interesting ideas and discoveries are taking place in a language adults can't read, much less kids, and this other side of my life, where I'm learning how to write for young people, how to connect with young people, can I bring those two sides of my life together? And that's what I've tried to do.

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Common Core: A new set of learning standards

This is a really fascinating moment in education, because 46 states and Washington, DC have adopted the Common Core standards. Right now, the Common Core standards are standards for reading in language arts, in both fiction and what the Common Core calls IT, informational texts, what we used to call nonfiction but basically it's the same. Also in science and in math.

And the Common Core is not yet a standard for content. It's not "you need to study Gettysburg as opposed to Vicksburg." That's not what it's saying. It's thinking, and the reason for the Common Core, why do we have the Common Core? The Common Core came about because under No Child Left Behind, every state had to show adequate yearly progress. And states, not being stupid, said "all right, we'll set the bar at progress at that which we can make."

So famously, a child graduating, doing really well as a 12th grader and graduating high school in Mississippi, was an 8th grader in Massachusetts. And this just made no sense. It made no sense for the colleges that these graduates went on to or for the workforce that they went on to. The other thing is, we came to realize that education, especially in reading, had focused very heavily, not only on fiction as fiction, which has much to offer, but also on personal response to fiction.

One of the most standard sets of essays children did from elementary school on were personal narratives. How do I feel about this text? What does this text, what emotions does it give in me? Do I identify with the character? And we come to realize that when those graduates enter college and the workforce, where they're asked to assess material, not on what do I feel, but what does it say, they were unprepared. Because when they were dealing not with what do I feel, they were being handed textbooks which were telling them XYZ date, name, event, timeline, chronology.

So they could either regurgitate that set of settled information or give a personal response. They could not analyze the wealth of kinds of information that are coming at all of us all the time. So what the Common Core has developed is this idea of a spiraling approach, which means, this is what I love about it, when you have a preschool class that's sitting there in a library and the library is reading them the story of the Three Little Pigs, as well as every other tool she's always used to engaged the kids, she is also going to be asking them what do you think's going to happen next to the house of straw, the house of wood?

She's going to ask, okay, what's your evidence? What in this story gives you evidence for thinking that's going to happen? And then she also may say, well, who's telling this story? Would the wolf tell the same story? What's this same story from the wolf's point of view? And fortunately, we now have picture books that tell the same story from the wolf's point of view. Why does this matter is 'cause as the spiral moves up, that same child will keep being asked, as he or she reads, why do you think that?

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Evidence and nuance in nonfiction text

What's the evidence, not in your feeling, but in the text? Show me where the text says that, that I can prove your argument, make an argument, and then this idea of point of view, and this gets to what's so important and exciting about the Common Core, the Common Core from 5th grade on is having your people understand that all nonfiction has a point of view. That is not to say that it's all relative, everyone has a point of view as in it's all the same.

Maybe the Earth is flat. No, it's not saying that. What it is saying, however, is when we look at any nonfiction, whether it's an encyclopedia entry or a vitriolic op-ed, there is a person who wrote it, and that person wrote it from a particular stance. They had an objective, they had a voice, they had a reason for writing about it in that way. And so when you look at nonfiction, it's not as if there is this perfect truth out there that we channel and absorb and regurgitate.

There are arguments. There are contentions. There are points of view that we come to recognize, that we juxtapose one against the other, that we compare and contrast, and that out of that process we begin to develop our own argument, our own contention. Well, where this is going to relate to parents, and I think this is so important. Under Common Core, in elementary school, 50% of the reading across all subjects is non-fiction. In middle school that becomes 55%, and by high school it's 70%.

That means your English Language Arts class, or in elementary school your homeroom class, is reading nonfiction, but not nonfiction by topic, who were the pilgrims, who was Pocahontas, any of those kind of identify and define questions, but rather to read it with the same texture and complexity that you might have read a novel, that you might have read The Giver in one year or Maniac Magee in another year.

You're going to try to look at voice, point of view, writing style, use of evidence with the same richness that you have also and will continue also to do with novels. That also means that you won't be, quote, "covering" as much. You can't possibly get from Plato to NATO if you're going to stop, look, inquire, think. Now, there are many wonderful things about this if it's done well, and if it's done well of course is the question.

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Teaching the Common Core

I'm doing a lot of consulting in many parts of the country, working especially with teachers and librarians to figure how are they going to deal with the Common Core? And one of the biggest questions that comes up is this matter of point of view. Because when you had a textbook, and especially if you think of an elementary school teacher who may not have any context, training in social studies or science, and is basically using the textbook as her guide, and therefore feeling that this is pretty reliable.

Now she's asked to look at point of view, "how am I supposed to know which is right, which is wrong?" Well, first of all, that's the wrong question. And the perfect and beautiful and I'm-so-grateful-to-it answer to this, is my younger son was in preschool a couple years ago, and they did a little play, and it was a class debate on "is Pluto a planet?" Pluto is our gift, because every preschool kid early learns the planets.

Except how many planets are there? Are their eight? Are there eleven? Are there thirteen? The very latest is they may be back to nine, because it all depends on what's a planet. Now, we have a set of very good books that have been coming out, which are exploring this, because here's a perfect illustration, we're going away from memorizing nine names and having a convenient mnemonic that allows you to do it, to see this is a discussion. This is a debate.

There isn't a right answer, there are interesting questions to be asked, and certainly for some kids, this is going to be distressing. "Wait, wait, wait! I need the answer! I gotta memorize this!" And understandable, kids do start out in a more concrete place, and we don't want to overwhelm them, but we are also at this very beginning age, just as we can do the same thing with why did the dinosaurs die out. Okay, now most theories believe it's the comet, but people are not completely sure, and we've got a lot of dino books.

So, what we can start to do is have the future be comfortable in that there's a discussion. There is a debate. And so I'm working with two other educators, Dr. Myra Zarnowski of Queens College in New York, and Dr. Mary Ann Cappiello of Lesley University, and what we're recommending for teachers and librarians is to develop the idea of a cluster. And that is that instead of relying on a book, a textbook, which synthesizes everything and gives it to you in this predigested, mulched-up form, that what you do is you bring kids show kids three or four books that are in juxtaposition.

That may have different answers, or may be written in different voices about the same subject. And so it's less about making sure kids get the nine in order, and it's not nine anymore, but rather that they understand that different books, different nonfiction texts can have different takes on the very same subject. Now, this also opens a great door for me as a writer. Because it means that I can have point of view in my book. Because I am not saying my book is the one, the only, the answer, the textbook. It's my book.

It's the book that I've written, here's my evidence, here's why I think that's so. Check my sources, disagree with me, but I'm giving you my take, and I invite you to challenge that take. I want you to, that's exciting, just like the 4th grade girl who asked the question that I hadn't asked. And so I think the teachers in kind of the elementary area, where they may not have a grounding in what's the most sophisticated new theory on Pluto, can have a grounding in introducing kids to the juxtaposition of points of view.

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Endorphins for the brain

The other side to it is I hope more and more of all of our readers, our best readers, middle and struggling, is coming to recognize that thinking is pleasure. Thinking is not a responsibility, I have to execute this assignment. It's exciting your brain cells. I call it, it's endorphins for the brain. It's when you make connections, it's when something you didn't know before, you look at from a new angle.

And that's what the Common Core wants you to see, nonfiction as pleasure reading. Pleasure because it excites your brain cells, because you're knowing more, 'cause you're seeing things differently, 'cause you're coming up with a completely new argument. One of my favorite experiences is I wrote book called If Stones Could Speak, where I got to spend part of a couple of summers at Stonehenge with a team of archaeologists. And it was about how I got to live out my childhood fantasy of being an archaeologist.

And the key point in this book was that a man from Madagascar, an archaeologist from Madagascar, asked a question that none of the famous British archaeologists had ever asked, which opened a whole new door to Stonehenge, and a 12-year-old boy saw evidence at Stonehenge that no one had ever seen. So it's about asking new questions, it's about showing that I was wrong as an 11-year-old to believe there were no new discoveries, and I was teaching this or talking about this to 4th graders, actually, in Houston.

And this 4th grade girl, looking at the book, pointed out a set of questions I hadn't asked about my own book, which I then e-mailed the archaeologist and she was right. And I was so thrilled, because she did to me what I was telling them to do to the world. And I think if the Common Core works, that's what's going to happen. The young readers will be challenging what their teachers tell them, what I tell them in books.

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How parents can encourage nonfiction reading

So now, what can parents do? I think one of the challenges for parents is that typically the parent most involved with the child in reading is the mother, and that mother may not think of herself as liking nonfiction.

She may particularly recall books she loved as a child that she's so eager to share with her children, or she may have a special feeling about what fiction offers, and it is absolutely, kids will continue to read many wonderful novels in school.

I think that mother may not recognize how much nonfiction she actually reads. I mean, if we add self-help and diet into the world of nonfiction, I actually think... we know adult males read more nonfiction than fiction, but I think if we add the full set of categories of nonfiction, I think adults in general read more nonfiction than fiction. But the second thing is, so much really good upper elementary, middle school, and now YA nonfiction is being written, I think those same parents will come to discover this is a literature they had never seen.

That they did not know that books like this existed, because their own memory, much as they have this treasured memory of Judy Blume or the book that spoke to them so, or Harriet the Spy or Wrinkle in Time that spoke so perfectly, may well have experienced nonfiction through those very textbooks that we're moving away from or from a teacher whose dry recitation of facts killed whatever interest that parent may have had in nonfiction.

I think the books that parents will find are much richer than that, and there's one wonderful, wonderful hidden truth about nonfiction for younger readers, and I mean K-12, the entire spectrum. I was on a listserv recently where we were talking about nonfiction for this age, and a British publisher came on the listserv and he said, "You know, you have something in America that exists nowhere else in the world," and that is we have these handcrafted nonfiction books that are by single author that are not a series, in which the author picks the photos and the author works on design.

So that means that our books, from picture book to 12th grade, are made with the same care as a 32-page picture book, where we the author are working on where does the text go, where does the art go, how does the page turn work, how can we create an immersive experience so that the reader is taken into the world we're discussing, rather than being lectured at about that world.

And this does not exist in any other country. In other countries, there is series nonfiction, which kind of takes a set of familiar topics and may be beautifully illustrated, but is not an individual creation, and I hope those parents, as they start to look at our books, will recognize that craft, which is the same kind of craft that goes into fiction, where one author has a story she wants to tell.

And moving further on that, adult nonfiction isn't illustrated. Coffee table books are, or you have a biography which has a set of black-and-white photos in the middle of the book. So they as adult readers may not recognize this wealth of illustration, that... I always think illustration is the wrong word, because illustration means I say "sunrise," I show a picture of a sunrise.

This is immersion. This is where we're using real archival images to be like a diorama in a museum. And I'm very proud of us for doing that.

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Librarians know nonfiction

I think one of the big necessities of the Common Core is that the librarian, whether school or public, and the teachers have to get back together. I think they've been out of touch, the teachers have been overwhelmed, they've been dealing with testing and NCLB, the librarians very often suffer from the stubbed-toe complex, like I tried, she didn't listen, why bother? That can't work.

Because the biggest problem we're seeing in the teachers is not so much that they're resistant or want the right answer, it's they don't know the books.

They know fiction, or they can know fiction or they know what's around or they know the book they used last year or the teacher down the hall did. They do not know nonfiction. They don't even know that it exists in these wonderful forms. The librarians do know those books, or at least they're trained to know how to know. They know the Orbis Pictus Award comes from NCTE. They know there's the NCSS-CBC list of notable trade books.

They know about the Sibert. They know about the Young Adult Nonfiction Award. So they can be the resource, to come to this, you should say, "let's build a cluster." For example, last year Candace Fleming came up with a new Amelia Earhart book, which had a very innovative structure, uncovered some new facts about Amelia Earhart. Put that next to two or three other Amelia Earhart books, not as one's right and one's wrong, how are they different? How could they be different? And think about this. Have the teacher work with the kids; how can nonfiction be different? How could it be that... it can be different...

In the old days it couldn't be different, 'cause there was a right answer. In the new days they can be different, 'cause there's a point of view. Just as, what I always say when I do school visits, or what I sometimes say is, if you hear a rumor in the school, X did Y, do you necessarily believe it? Maybe you do. Or maybe you ask your other friend "do you think that really happened?" You gather evidence. You hear stories around you all the time. You try to figure out which make sense, which don't.

That's the same thing we're doing with our books and in our nonfiction.

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History is life

I write books for middle grade and for high school ages, and they are quite, quite different. And sometimes people ask me, "how come you write about archaeology, you write..." I'm working on a book on paleoanthropology, but I also write about J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Kennedy and Sir Walter Raleigh, and "why do you write about such widely varied topics," and I think, really, behind everything I do, I just love nonfiction.

It's actually a love affair. I get to be in love with what I am doing, because it's just so interesting. Why wouldn't you want to have a career which involves finding out questions you want answered, getting to answer them in interesting ways, trying to write about them beautifully and share them with young people? What isn't perfect about that, and so I guess to me, life is interesting.

What is nonfiction? I was just talking to 7th graders in Houston, and I was talking about history. And many times kids think "I'm not into history," and I say, "what is history? History is everything that human beings have ever done, as understood in every possible way by other human beings. How can you not find something in that that appeals to you?" I often begin discussions with young people when we talk abut what is history, I say, "Every single thing in your life is the beginning of a historical question.

"Why did you have cereal for breakfast? Why do you wear those shoes?" There's a great academic book on who invented the jump shot. If you think about it, basketball was invented in 1896 by James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts. Everything that happened on that court had to be invented. Therefore it has a history. So history is just, think of life as an advent calendar, where you open the door and behind each thing is a treasure, is a mystery.

Well, I get to open those doors and investigate those treasures, so I do think that beating behind everything I do is this love affair that I get to play out on the pages.

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Just the facts

I think there are many needs nonfiction meets. For example, for some readers, and at some times, they actually do just want the facts. When my sons and I look at the box score of a basketball game or a baseball game, we don't necessarily want flowing prose, we want to know who got how many hits, what's the final score, what does this do to so-and-so's batting average or their place in the rankings, and I think there are readers who really, their favorite thing about nonfiction is accumulating facts.

It's a form of collection, just like other people like to collect Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards or other things that they collect. And so I think we have to recognize that there is a kind of excellence in nonfiction that's pure facts. We also know, and it's no secret to any parent or teacher, that there's a whole subset of kids who love books of records. And it is interesting to know fastest, longest, oldest, quickest, most expensive, all that. It's fun.

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Crafting nonfiction

I think another kind of excellence, though, is a personal engagement, where there's something about this author and that subject where the author has pursued it, not because someone said, "hey, we need a book about the Washington Monument, it's taught in 4th grade in X number of states, fulfill this mission." It's because there's some kind of personal drive, personal passion that the author has to communicate that, and that's felt in care.

I was saying, the care of how the author crafts a sentence, Jim Murphy says, the wonderful author Jim Murphy says that any time he changes a word in his books, he thinks of his books as poems, and he starts from the beginning again, because he feels it changes the cadence of his books. I'm not that meticulous. I think of my books really more as symphonies, as compositions, and I really try to feel the unfolding of the melody.

I really do think of it as you state your theme sort of in the overture, and you have these little bit of foreshadowings, and they're going to weave through and come back and build to a climax, and that's what I try to do in my books, which is a little different from what Jim tries to do. Susan Campbell Bartoletti, what she tries to do is get as close as she possibly can to sort of that primary source, those individuals that she's trying to capture. And that's another personal mission.

It's not exactly the same mission as I have or Jim has. I don't think we need to have the same mission. But I think there is, I think you can tell a book that has that glint of the personal. That someone has put their heart and soul in this 'cause they really wanted to bring this gift to their readers.

I think you can tell those books that have that personal stamp. I think it's not different from fiction. You can tell a finely crafted novel from one that's more formulaic. And formulaic novels serve a purpose, just as formulaic nonfiction does, but I don't think it's that kind of excellence. So I think the personal quality is... and I should add here that the personal quality can be reflected in many different ways. One of the things is attention to how you write.

When you're writing nonfiction, too much nonfiction has basically serviceable prose. In other words, in the mind of the author, what matters is the content. So they're basically getting you to the content in an okay way. They're sort of adding the bricks and then you have a wall. I think an author who pauses to really look at why is it this word and that word, why is it the cadence of that sentence against this sentence?

When I wrote my biography of Robert Kennedy, one of the challenges I had is Robert Kennedy was so defined by his place in the family that I did not feel I could begin the book with "Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on..." because that would be as if he was an individual. So the way I wrote that first page, he is not mentioned until the very last word on the first page. The page is about his brothers.

And because you need to feel how overwhelmed he was by the family that surrounded him. So I think you can feel... you may not notice it, or when Tanya Stone published Almost Astronauts, readers may not notice that all the photography in that book is black and white until women blast off into space, and then it becomes color. That, it's not like you can put that on a checklist, but you feel the liftoff.

You feel how women have now taken flight, and how that would be different from a book, even a book that had color throughout, where it was kept in the same key. So that's a kind of care, a kind of love, even, that I think comes through in books that have that personal crafted quality.

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Finding great nonfiction

Finding nonfiction right now is truly a challenge, because in B&N there is almost no nonfiction, and what's there is either sort of Eyewitness, very kind of lavish color books, or a few very standard and crammed women's history, African-American history in February, you know, some topics, holidays around the world, whatever. Biography series.

And the problem in libraries is while libraries do, in fact, buy award-winning books, good books, the shelves are so overstuffed, and so overstuffed very often with books that have been bought for curricular reasons, it's hard to find. And I think a parent has to do a few things, or a teacher. One, talk to the librarian. Talk to someone who knows. Two, start to pay attention as you and a child you're with makes their way through a stack, what kind of works for this child or this subject.

One thing I've often thought is kind of interesting: Young readers do author studies. It's a very common thing that's done from 6th grade on. They almost never do author studies on nonfiction authors. The assumption is almost as if, again, the topic defines the book, not the writer. Why? Writers have styles. Nonfiction writers choose to write... Kathleen Krull writes witty books. Her books are different for someone else who would do 50 inventors or painters or composers.

She has a style. And some authors, as I do, have more than one style. So I think that you should come to recognize, does your child like a Russell Freedman book? Does that work for your child? Well, there are a lot of Russell Freedman books. So you start, just as you would do with fiction. Does your child like Lois Lowry? Well, there's other... The Giver isn't the end of her writing.

And so I think you pay attention to what's a kind of book. And think that something I've been talking about is, in fiction we have a very sophisticated sense of genre. There are many subgenres. In nonfiction we have three. Biography, memoir and everything else. And I think we have to start to develop, as librarians, as teachers and parents, what's the subgenre my child likes? Does my child like historical mysteries?

Does my child like historical detective stories? Does my child like to read about scientists? Is my child fascinated with math? I think math is the area we publish, is the worst. We have math completely as a set of exercises, not as intellectual exploration. As far as I know, there's one book, Hans Magnus Enzensberger's The Number Devil, originally written in German, is the only kid/adult book that makes math exciting as an intellectual journey.

So I think we need to start to... you need — you teacher, you parent — need to start to figure out which of these kinds of nonfiction is working for your child, and then talking to the librarian. I would also add, as kids get into teen age, there's a whole other subset of nonfiction they need which is the same as a how-to.

How to get a summer job, how to do well on the SATs. We already have the sort of "your body's changing," diet kind of stuff, and also sexuality, etc. But I think recognizing that that's part of the nonfiction world your kid may be drawn to, because they need advice, just as we adults need advice. So it is daunting. It is daunting, but I think that sort of exploratory mode, and I would say begin exploring in the library.

"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln