The Power of Non-Fiction

Margot likes to spotlight various award winning books in her posts here at Quirky Girls Read. I totally dig that. My sister-in-law has set a goal to make her way through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners – focusing for the time being on the female authors. I grew up on Newbery and Caldecott winners for children’s literature. My favorite author won the Nobel Prize and used his monetary award to found the PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction. There are all kinds of literary awards out there. Just because something has won an award doesn’t mean I’ll like it. It just means the people that pick the winners liked it. No different than the Oscars as far as I am concerned. But I do feel that they represent a higher quality of work created by someone who has the talent for making an impact with words.

The Robert F. Kennedy Book Award has been given out since I graduated high school in the late 1980’s. It is given to the book which “most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy’s purposes – his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity.” It is selected by the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights. That means that you will find some heartbreaking, but inspiring work on this award’s winner list. As much as I love Toni Morrison (who won for Beloved) and Tracy Kidder (who won for Among Schoolchildren), my favorite author on this list is Jonathan Kozol.

As a wide eyed, optimistic college freshman at Boston University I stumbled upon Kozol and thus began my love for non-fiction. Rachel & Her Children: Homeless Families In America was published in 1988 and won the RFK Book Award in 1989. This powerful book uncovers the world of the homeless. Living in a city for the first time and seeing masses of homeless people huddled over the warm heating grates outside the Boston Public Library’s steps and begging for change in the tunnels of the T (subway stations), the book’s impact on me was stronger than had a read it from the comfort of the suburbs.

I love Kozol because he holds a mirror up to the ugly parts of society. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He just hammers you over the head with facts and real examples. You get to know the subjects in his book and he also spells out what has occurred – of their own doing and by society – to put them at a disadvantage. Rachel & Her Children wouldn’t let me look at homelessness in the same way and made me realize just how easily any of us could end up on the street.

I gobbled up his next book, Savage Inequalities: Children In America’s Schools when it was published in 1991. I was about to embark upon my full term of student teaching in Chelsea, Mass. which was an urban school system on the brink of such disaster that it was taken over by Boston University for a decade. To read about the divisiveness the simple state of poverty caused in East St. Louis, among other communities, made me so angry I vowed to only teach in impoverished places if they would have me. Kozol’s first book, Death At An Early Age, covers his experience teaching in Boston’s public schools in the 60’s. He was fired a year in for teaching a poem. He has been railing for civil rights and equal education ever since.

As an assignment for a class placement at Brigham & Women’s Hospital I was instructed to go to the historic Old South Meeting House (where the Boston Tea Party was hatched) to attend a speech by Kozol and write it up for the department’s economic research file regarding infant mortality rates in Boston’s African American society. I was magnetized by Kozol’s speech. I was motivated. I was angry. I was sold. Like everything else in this country, it all comes down to money.

I graduated with a degree in Elementary Education and never could get a job. The teaching job market was flooded when I was interviewing. Not even the Chelsea Public Schools that gave me my training found me good enough to make the cut for their limited open positions. Out of desperation I actually interviewed for one of the richest school districts in Connecticut – against my self-made vow to only work in poor communities. The administrators were horrified by my inner city teaching experiences and rather than seeing the strength I had from handling those situations they chose to avoid me at all costs lest any of my cooties rub off on their good kids. The rich get richer and the poor can’t afford to hire anyone so their children never have a chance. I try to teach that lesson to this day to anyone who will discuss education with me. That is entirely due to Kozol’s message that I absorbed on my own accord in conjunction with my scholastic courses.

Good non-fiction gives you facts. Great non-fiction makes those facts move you. The RFK Book Award is not exclusive to non-fiction books, but it does a nice job of including some pretty stellar ones.

Learn more about this talented author and his work at this website.

Learn more about the RFK Book Award winners at their website.

Has a non-fiction book ever left you in awe? Consider looking for one off of award lists or ask your favorite book blogger or librarian to recommend something in your area of interest.


About thebumbles

In addition to online Freelance Writing, Molly blogs about books on Quirky Girls Read and about everything else on The Bumbles Blog. Visit her often and let her know what you think! Unless you are a Yankee fan - then there might be a problem ;0)
This entry was posted in Award Winners, Bookish Thoughts, Nonfiction, Posts by Molly. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Power of Non-Fiction

  1. Molly, I’m definitely going to have to read Kozol. Thank you for turning me on to him. I’m a big fan of non-fiction, particularly history. I think the book that affected me the most strongly, for years, was about Grand Duchess Anastasia. James Blair Lovell wrote Anastasia: The Lost Princess, making a very compelling argument for the veracity of Anna Anderson’s insistence that she was, in fact, Anastasia. My mother was a forensic investigator, and the evidence about the ears matching on something like 19 points sold her on the fact. I realize the DNA evidence does not match, but the samples were so degraded that I don’t think the results can be used as proof positive. I think that mystery will be forever unsolved.

  2. Carrie says:

    I enjoy reading non-fiction and Kozol’s Savage Inequalities is definitely a book that has stuck with me. A few other non-fiction titles that I would recommend (especially if you like your non-fiction with a social justice bent) are:
    Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Heal the World by Tracy Kidder
    American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle
    The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler
    Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement by Janet Poppendieck.

  3. izzybella says:

    Oh, wow, wow, WOW!! This sounds amazing and is immediately moving up in line on the TBR list. It actually reminds me of another book I read some years back called Nobody Don’t Love Nobody: The School with No Name. Linkage:

    Okay, so there’s an outraged compassionate person who lives inside me who gets incredibly riled up about these stories; and she is at constant war with another person inside of me (one I am less proud of) who in the back of her mind always secretly wonders what a homeless person did or did not do to arrive at their state. I hate that ignorant, judgmental part of me, and I hate admitting it is there. But it’s for that reason that works like this are so important. I want to always to be the kind of individual who sees past all those things, and I honestly believe that for the most part, I am. But I’d be lying like a dirty little liar if I said I was perfect in that respect and needed no further education. So thank you for sharing this. I think I need it today.

    • Margot says:

      I just read the GoodReads summary for this book and then a couple of reviews. It turns out my library has a copy so I put in a request. Thanks for the recommendation. I’m looking forward to reading this.

  4. Heather says:

    I just added all of his books to my Goodreads list! I love nonfiction. Carl Sagan’s The Demon-haunted World had a huge impact on me when I read it. I love reading about science and nature, and this one really started me on it. Thanks again for such an excellent post.

  5. kaye says:

    Wow Molly, that was a very well-written article. I’ll have to read that author. It would have been a great experience to listen to him lecture. My husband and his father were both teachers/administrators and now my daughter is a teacher. I’ve seen so many drastic changes in education over the last 30 years that the appeal to teach is not what it was. The federal government has attached so many requirements to the job that it makes it a high stress low paying job. But it sounds like you would have been a great teacher for inner-city kids. We stayed in Boston a few years ago and that is the first time I had ever seen a homeless person myself. I live a pretty sheltered life and even though you hear about these types of things, when you never see them it’s easy to put it in a bubble and never think about it. I read two non-fiction books last year that really had an impact on me. One was about the Rwandan Holocaust titled “Left to Tell” and the other was “We Band of Angels” which was the account of the nurses on the Bataan Peninsula. They were both outstanding. I would go as far to say that “Left to Tell” left me so shaken and altered that I think about it often. A couple of years ago I read a book I think it is a good thing to read these types of books and have vicarious experiences through the voice of the author. It makes one more aware of the world.

  6. kaye says:

    anyway–I started a sentence there at the end and I couldn’t find the name of the book and forgot to delete “A couple of years ago I read a book” My bad!

  7. jennygirl says:

    Great post! I have never heard of Kozol but the social issues he writes about are unfortunately still present and probably not any better. Thank you for bringing this author to my attention. I will certainly check his works out.

    It’s shame about your experience trying to get a teaching job in a rich school. I would like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not unfortunately. I feel as though most Americans don’t really care enough to do anything about these issues. And the few that do care, get burned out from doing so much. If everyone just did a little part, the world would get better. Thought provoking post too!

  8. Margot says:

    Molly, you have made a great case for the power of non-fiction. Why don’t we/I read more non-fiction about social issues? Probably because our/my emotions become so highly charged and it exhausts us/me. That really is just an excuse. There are so many things that need to be changed in this world. I think we’ve/I’ve become lazy about making myself aware and then working to make a difference.

    I read Kozol’s first book back in the 70’s after I’d had my years of teaching in an inner-city school. My husband was transferred right after school started and the new city transferred me into a rich suburban school. It was classroom culture shock for me. I haven’t read his other books but I’m putting them on my list right now.

    Since retiring my non-fiction tastes have calmed down. There was a time I read every business best-seller out, especially about human resource issues. I still love to read about people. I love memoirs and, of course, all sorts of food books. This year, however, I’m reading the Feminist Classics and my old social ire is gradually resurfacing.

    Excellent job, Molly, as usual. Thanks for filling in for me.

  9. stacybuckeye says:

    I feel like I read Kozol in college, but am not sure. I feel like I’m so out of the loop on education these days. I’m guessing quite a bit has changed since I was a student teacher and then substitute in the mid 90’s. Or maybe I just hope it has…

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