- A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child by Joe Sutliff Sanders
Why is children's nonfiction an often neglected area of study in the children's literature field? What role does nonfiction play in shaping young readers? Why are theoretical frameworks for viewing children's texts most frequently constructed and deployed to analyze fictional works, often at the expense of other literary forms? In A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child, Joe Sutliff Sanders responds to these questions with the formation of his own theory of children's nonfiction as a genre, aiming to construct a framework for evaluating a text's capacity to invite young readers' critical engagement. By approaching the nonfiction genre from a microanalysis position, Sutliff Sanders formulates an intriguing and potentially useful set of tools aimed at opening the analysis of children's nonfiction to greater scholarly attention. [End Page 381]
Sutliff Sanders frames his theory of nonfiction analysis as "one that looks for where a text is willing to invite its readers to dialogue, to negotiation, to the testing of information, to critical engagement, and where it is not" (12, emphasis original). Building on Barthes' theories on disregarding authorial intention and Bakhtin's work on the dialogical nature of a text, Sutliff Sanders crafts an analytical model that allows him to "give priority to meanings that have little to do with authorial intention" (20). A Literature of Questions also makes a model of Anne Haas Dyson's work on children's interactions with texts when freed from authority-driven readings and guidance. Her work combines Bakhitin's with Paulo Freire work on a liberationist pedagogy, which contrasts with a "banking model" of education where students are passive receptacles to be filled by the teacher. Unlike much existing scholarship in children's nonfiction, such as Julia Mickenberg's Learning from the Left, Sara L. Schwebel's Child-Sized History, and Courtney Weikle-Mills's Imaginary Citizens, Sutliff Sanders's work eschews periodization or age-level divisions in choosing primary texts, aiming to create a theory that is applicable regardless of publication date, reading level, and subject matter. While Sutliff Sanders writes, "I have privileged no specific set of texts or authors in illustrating my theory beyond those that are already important to the conversation about nonfiction across education, library, and literary circles," the primary texts are largely American in origin (10). There is room to criticize the author for his methodological decisions, especially for relying on existing structural frameworks that tend to bias the types of texts already present in both classrooms and scholarly works cited pages, as well as tending to favor the texts that support rather than undermine his theory. However, Sutliff Sanders readily acknowledges his own position and potential bias in making these choices, creating a space for critical engagement with his work while inviting others to apply this theoretical framework to contexts he has not yet considered. While the lack of periodization or age level divisions can, at first, unsettle readers used to a narrower or more focused scope, this methodology does provide the opportunity for fascinating juxtapositions of nonfiction texts throughout the book.
The work Sutliff Sanders does in constructing a framework for analyzing children's nonfiction is fascinating and highly useful. A central function of the text is to identify "a set of hallmarks that flag places where nonfiction routinely chooses between inviting and refusing critical engagement" (7). To do this, Sutliff Sanders first makes a convincing argument in chapter 1 against reading nonfiction genres as "literature of facts" or a "literature of final answers" given that "facts are constantly under revision" in any field (40, emphasis original). He argues that presenting nonfiction in terms of definitiveness closes off avenues for critical engagement for both students and teachers [End Page 382] (40). In chapters 2 and 3, Sutliff Sanders convincingly lays out a scheme of rhetorical markers at the level of "voice" and storytelling style, which he claims can function as generic features of invitations to critical inquiry. For example, "hedging," or the...