How Much is an Author Obligated to Say?
You know, sometimes you write a review and then you spend time thinking about it long after it has posted. The advantage, or disadvantage depending on how you view it, of blog reviews is that technically you could change them at any time. But is that a good idea? If you want to clarify a point are you allowed to add onto the already existing review?
I think not. No one’s ever written a set of blog review guidelines (and even if they did, would they be followed?) regarding the pristine condition of one’s own opinion piece. Still, I think you should stand by what you’ve written and if you want to clarify a point you need to write a separate post for that very topic.
Which brings us up to speed for today! Now, two days ago I posted my review of Mockingbird, which was tough since I hadn’t written a critical review in a while. And not long after it came out, author Kate Messner and her commenters made a really good point about said review on her LiveJournal blog. At one point I complain about the fact that the author didn’t divulge her own personal connection to the material (which is to say, her daughter has Asperger’s and the book is about Asperger’s but she never mentions her daughter in any of the accompanying material). Kate rightly pointed out that what I was saying boiled down to a proclamation that an author is obligated to divulge personal details in a book if that book has a bearing on their real life.
That is not what I meant. This was poorly worded on my part, because while that is what it sounds like I’m saying, my intent was different. My point was that finding out the author’s connection to the source material was important because the material itself felt inauthentic. So when I got to the end I wanted clarification that Ms. Erskine knew about Asperger’s and wasn’t just making stuff up. When I didn’t find any evidence of the research she had conducted, I was confused about why she hadn’t mentioned her own personal connection.
Kate commented with, “Hmm…so playing devil’s advocate then… if a book feels inauthentic when you read it, but you find out the author has done research and/or has a personal connection, does that change things for you?” And herein lies the real question. Does it change things? Would my opinion of a book shift if I discovered an author either had or had not done their homework?
So I decided to test the idea out. I mean, I honestly don’t know the answer to this, but I had an idea. Let’s take five different middle grade novels and look at how I once viewed the text versus how they acknowledged their research or personal connection to the text. For my own sake, I wanted to see if I was consistent in my opinions.
My first book to consider was Singing Hands by Delia Ray. It came out in 2006 and I remember liking it quite a bit. The story was about a girl and her sister born to deaf parents. Did the author acknowledge any research done for the title? Well, in the “Thanks” section she writes, “I would like to thank Douglas Baynton for his generosity in providing insight about deaf culture and for his sensitive and expert critique of the original manuscript for this book . . . and to the Reverend Jay Croft and the members of Saint John’s Church for the Deaf for welcoming me into their lovely sanctuary . . . I am also indebted to Karyn Zweifel and the staff at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.” All well and good but it’s important to remember that this story takes place in 1948 and is historical. And since actual places and schools for the deaf are included in the text, that undoubtedly necessitated Ray’s research. So not a perfect example of what I’m looking for.
The next book I examined was Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby. Unlike Singing Hands, Rorby’s book is a little more contemporary. In the story, a partially deaf girl bonds with a chimp that knows sign language. Rorby writes in the Acknowledgments – “I began by reading books by deaf writers and by authors with deaf parents. Between working full time and graduate school, I managed sporadically to attend a few summer session sign language classes and wish to start by thanking Vicky Yancy at College of the Redwoods for her guidance in understanding the deaf community.” Yes . . . but since the book was examining not just the deaf community but also the world of chimps that can sign, Rorby had to do the research she did, right? Admittedly if she hadn’t mentioned any research at all, that would have colored my enjoyment of the text. Is that fair? In this case, I think so, but we still haven’t found a fair comparison to Mockingbird.
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin hits a little closer to the mark. Like Mockingbird it took the risk of writing in the first person. Its hero, Jason, is a high functioning autistic boy and the book was considered authentic enough in its voice to garner a Schneider Family Book Award from ALA (as did Hurt Go Happy, back in the day). Did Baskin mention where she got her information? Well, the Acknowledgments (in the front of the book) read, “To Estee Klar-Wolfond, founder of the Autism Acceptance Project, who answered all my e-mails and then spoke to me (for a long time) on the phone, which turned everything around and helped me find my way into this story. To Michael Moon, current president of the Autism Acceptance Project (TAPP.com), who read a slightly-later-than-first draft of this story and gave me the greatest praise: ‘I was touched by the book for I could relate back to my childhood.’ Coming from him, it meant the world to me.” Huh. So Baskin did research the subject seriously before writing about it. Interesting.
Before rushing to any conclusions, let’s look at the flipside of the Acknowledgment situation. Consider now the highly acclaimed and very much beloved The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd. Think back to when this book first came out. Compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dowd’s novel is a kind of locked room mystery. A boy goes up in The London Eye (that mighty English ferris wheel) and when his booth returns to the ground there is no one in it. This book got FIVE (count ’em) FIVE starred reviews. Ted, the hero, seems to have Asperger’s (though it’s never named) and like Mockingbird his story is told in the first person. The kicker? The Acknowledgments do not mention any research Dowd did. In fact, I don’t recall any objections at all to this book at the time.
What we can take away from this is the fact that clearly research is not always necessary. Or can we? Ted’s situation is never specifically named. Like Emma-Jean Lazarus he’s a different child, but not necessarily one with a label. Did I feel that Caitlin in Mockingbird had more of a label attached to her situation? And, if so, did I think that this necessitated research on the author’s part?
All I can really say to that is that when you compare the writing in Dowd’s book vs. Erskine’s the difference is in the reception. Folks are divided over Erskine, whereas they were universally supportive with Dowd. Why is that? Is it merely the quality of the writing, or is there something else at work?
I mention this last book The Boy Who Ate Stars by Kochka, if only because in a way it ties up everything that an author should not do. When this book came out in 2006 it was one of the first autism-related middle grade novels I’d encountered. Unfortunately, that particular novel turned the idea of an autistic boy into a kind of metaphor. A manic pixie dream child, more symbol than a flesh and blood person. When looking for how the author did the research the Acknowledgments only mention the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs. No autistic groups or personal connections. Clearly autism was simply a means to an end with this book.
So there we have it. And what do we have? Well, the only thing I can conclude from my findings is that when an author (or even a book’s copy) mentions that a character has a specific disability, I want some evidence that the author has a working knowledge of kids in that situation. Does an author have to divulge personal information? Not at all. Had Mockingbird said in the Author’s Note that Ms. Erskine merely had a working knowledge of the subject, that would have been enough for me. I’m not asking for credentials but rather proof that you cared about your subject.
Now, on the other hand, if a book doesn’t mention a specific disability but only hints at it, apparently that’s fine not only with me, but with the literary community at large. Why is that? Do we have to be told what to think in order to think it? Are our opinions entirely reliant on extraneous outside information? I don’t know, but what I do realize is that when writing reviews in the future I’m going to be very conscious of how my interpretation of a text is influenced by not only the words in the story, but the words about the story that accompany it. And I need to figure out if that’s a good or bad thing.
What think you?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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