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A Literature of Questions

Nonfiction for the Critical Child

2017

Joe Sutliff Sanders

A Literature of Questions

A critical analysis of children’s nonfiction that focuses on the extent to which such works invite young readers to ask questions

The first book to theorize children’s nonfiction from a literary perspective, A Literature of Questions explains how the genre speaks in unique ways to its young readers, inviting them to the project of understanding. It lays out a series of techniques for analysis, then applies and nuances through extensive close readings and case studies of books from the past half century.

Nonfiction books for children—from biographies and historical accounts of communities and events to works on science and social justice—have traditionally been most highly valued by educators and parents for their factual accuracy. This approach, however, misses an opportunity for young readers to participate in the generation and testing of information.

In A Literature of Questions, Joe Sutliff Sanders offers an innovative theoretical approach to children’s nonfiction that goes beyond an assessment of a work’s veracity to develop a book’s equivocation as a basis for interpretation. Addressing how such works are either vulnerable or resistant to critical engagement, Sanders pays special attention to the attributes that nonfiction shares with other forms of literature, including voice and character, and those that play a special role in the genre, such as peritexts and photography.

The first book-length work to theorize children’s nonfiction as nonfiction from a literary perspective, A Literature of Questions carefully explains how the genre speaks in unique ways to its young readers and how it invites them to the project of understanding. At the same time, it clearly lays out a series of techniques for analysis, which it then applies and nuances through extensive close readings and case studies of books published over the past half century, including recent award-winning books such as Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts: Thirteen Women Who Dared to Dream and We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. By looking at a text’s willingness or reluctance to let children interrogate its information and ideological context, Sanders reveals how nonfiction can make young readers part of the project of learning rather than passive recipients of information.

A Literature of Questions

Joe Sutliff Sanders is professor of English at Kansas State University. He is author of Disciplining Girls: Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story and editor of The Comics of Hergé: When the Lines Are Not So Clear.

A Literature of Questions

Contents
Introduction: The Literary Study of Children’s Nonfiction
1. Beyond Authority: Questioning the Literature of Facts
2. Voice and the Seamless Narrative of Knowledge
3. Nonfiction’s Unfinished Characters: The People Who Are Wrong, Flawed, and Incomplete
4. Inquiry at and in the Margins: How Peritexts Encourage Critical Reading
5. Seeing Photographs: Breaking the Authority of Nonfiction’s Favorite Medium
6. The Pursuit of Reliability in Almost Astronauts
7. The Empathy of Critical Engagement: Emotion and Sentimentality in Children’s Nonfiction
Conclusion: Critical Engagement’s Moral Imperative
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index