During one of the panels at NCTE ‘18, I asked the nonfiction authors about the process they go through in fact-checking their books. Each author assured attendees that they do rigorous fact-checking and that their editors and publishers also check the facts in their books. There was a confidence, an assuredness in their responses. Knowing who the authors were and what their backgrounds consisted of, I shared their confidence.
However, what happens when you discover that the information in a book is not correct? And I don’t mean just an accidental typo where the text mentions one date and the back matter references another date. Those kind of things happen. What I worry about are the bigger things that reinforce commonly believed information that might be outdated or simply false.
For example, if I were to ask the average adult or most 4th graders if all spiders spin webs, I would guess that they would say “yes”. I know I would have. Sure, those with a background in arachology, would know that hunting spiders or spiders that are members of the wolf spider family use other methods to capture prey, but that wouldn’t be me. A book mentioning that all spiders spin webs would be accepted by many without raising any questions. And yet it should be challenged.
In a recent conversation with a friend, with a science background, I discovered that this so-called trait about spiders that I had accepted as fact was indeed false. Now, let’s take this one step further, what happens when an author writes in a book that all spiders spin webs? If I were the reader of the book, I would accept what I read about spider making webs. My students would also accept it and together we would continue to propagate a myth. Do I believe that the writer intentionally tried to disseminate false information? No. There are some things that we think we know and don’t need to research. Just as I am certain that the author was not trying to pass off false information, I believe that most editors would accept what the author wrote without giving it a second thought. And yet, a nonfiction book containing this detail would be inaccurate.
As I thought about this, I struggled with what to do. Most elementary teachers that I know are generalists. Some may have a specialty area based on their own interests but we are trained to teach mostly language arts and math and a little of everything else. How do we know that what we are reading is accurate? Teachers are busy. It is hard enough to carve out the time to read lots of books each week. To add fact-checking books to my to do list seems a bit overwhelming, especially since I want to believe that all of the authors, editors, and publishers who create nonfiction for children also recognize how critical their roles as researchers and fact-checkers are to teachers, librarians, and students.
Currently, I am working on a series of lessons on deserts and forests. I am close to pulling out my hair. I am not working in my wheelhouse. As I work on these lessons, I am double and triple checking everything because these lessons will be implemented in multiple classrooms with dozens of children. Since this isn’t an area that I am a specialist, I am not accepting anything and questioning everything. The tricky areas come with what may be seen as generally accepted or commonly accepted facts that most people believe about deserts or forests. This is the blindspot. And this is the area that all authors, illustrators, editors, and publishers will need to address before sending a nonfiction book out into the world.
Don’t forget to link up your nonfiction reviews…