Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?
Maybe it’s Common Core. Maybe not. I’m not always quite certain how far to place the blame in these cases. However you look at it, children’s nonfiction bios are getting weird these days. In some ways it’s quite remarkable. I’m the first one to say that nonfiction for kids is better now than it has ever been. I mean, when I was a young ‘un the only nonfiction I ever enjoyed was the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Not that it was actually nonfiction. I mean, it made these interesting suppositions about the youth of various famous people, complete with fake dialogue (I am the strictest anti-fake dialogue person you’ll ever meet). I enjoyed them the way I enjoyed fiction because, for the most part, they were fiction. Boy, you just couldn’t get away with that kind of thing today, right?
Meet three new “nonfiction” series of varying degrees of fictionalization and authenticity that caught my eye recently. I can’t exactly call them a trend. Rather, they’re simply interesting examples of how publishers are struggling to figure out how to tackle the notion of “nonfiction” and “high-interest” for kids. And it’s now our job to determine how successful they’ve become.
First up, let’s go back old Childhood of Famous Americans. They remain beloved, but they’re problematic. So what do you do when you have a product that slots into that category? You rebrand, baby!
Introducing History’s All-Stars from Aladdin (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Observe the following covers:
Look vaguely familiar? Pick up the book and you may find the words “Childhood of Famous American” in there individually, but never strung together in that particular order. The publication page only mentions that the books were previously published as far back as the 1950s (little wonder I’m worried about that Sacagawea title, yes). Yet the design, as you can see, isn’t far off so we had to wonder. Is it just the same series? A side-by-side comparison:
The publisher description calls this “a narrative biography” which is technically the accepted term for this kind of book. But there is no way you could use this for a report. They’re fiction, baby. A kind of fiction that doesn’t really have a designated place in a library collection at this time, though that could change. Which brings us to . . .
Ordinary People Change the World – A series by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
It’s the series bound to wreck havoc with catalogers everywhere! They look like Charles Schulz characters. They read like nonfiction . . . sorta? Kinda? Kirkus said of I Am Rosa Parks that it was, “A barely serviceable introduction with far more child appeal than substance.” Yet they’re bestsellers and visually incredibly appealing. Published by Dial (a Penguin imprint), the books were a risk that appears to have paid off in terms of dollars. In terms of sparking interest in these historical figures it’s also a success. But is it factual? Is it accurate? Does it stand up to scrutiny? Does it matter? Why shouldn’t it matter? You see the conundrum.
Finally, there’s a series coming out from Scholastic that looks like it might be along similar lines to these, but that I haven’t seen firsthand quite yet:
Called the When I Grow Up series, again we’re seeing historical figures as children. But maybe these are entirely accurate in their retellings? They’re Scholastic Readers, made to meet the needs of early readers. It’s the title “When I Grow Up” that raises the red flag for me. Because, you see, they’re written in the first person. And as a librarian who has had to field reference questions from first graders asking for “autobiographies”, this is problematic. If a book is entirely accurate but seems to come from the lips of its biographical subject, what is it worth in the pantheon of nonfiction?
People will always say that worrying along these lines is ridiculous. If the books are good and spark an interest, isn’t that enough? Why do you have to require strict accuracy at all times? My argument would be that when biographies are written for adults, people are meticulous (hopefully) about maintaining authenticity. Why should we hold our kids to different standards?
It’s a debate. These books just crack it open wide.
Along the same lines (WARNING: Shameless plug looming on the horizon!) I’ve gotten out the jumper cables and restarted the old Children’s Literary Salon at NYPL. Babies have been born and it is time to get back in the swing of things. On that note, on Saturday, September 6th I’ll be hosting one of children’s nonfiction all-stars in a conversation that might very well touch on this topic. Behold!
Personal Passions and Changes in Nonfiction for Children and Teens: A Conversation with Marc Aronson
Author, professor, speaker, editor and publisher by turns, Marc Aronson’s love of nonfiction and his conviction that young people can read carefully, examine evidence, and engage with new and challenging ideas informs everything he does. Join us for a conversation about the changing role of nonfiction for youth, and the special challenges and advantages of this one-of-a-kind genre.
See you there, yes?
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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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