The Past Is Never Static. The Same Can Be Said of Our Books
Sometimes it feels as if the people that write Nonfiction and the people that write Fiction exist in entirely different worlds. Both are held accountable for what they write, but depending on the mix of fact and fancy, and how it’s applied to the text, that accountability can be a strange, shifting thing. Plenty of authors have gotten in trouble for rendering the past inaccurately. Others have gotten in trouble for excluding certain elements or depicting elements in ways that meet with disapproval. In this way, they are the same.
Nonfiction, however, has something Fiction will never have. Not really. When a work of Fiction is pilloried it can be pulled from the market or, if it’s in its earliest form, rewritten altogether. Nonfiction, in contrast, can wait years and years. Can be completely accurate and important. And then, if it chooses to do so, it can be rewritten.
Recently I received in the mail a new f&g (a folded and gathered galley, pre-publication) of Brian Floca’s Sibert Honor winning nonfiction picture book Moonshot. I remember Moonshot well. I remember the year it came out, and how certain I was that the perfect little moon on the cover would soon be sporting a perfect little Caldecott Award there. I was off in my calculations (Floca would win, soon thereafter, not for Moonshot but for Locomotive) but the book still met with success. Astronauts praised it wildly. Look at the new edition coming out this year, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and see the quotes from Michael Collins, James Lovell, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan and Edgar Mitchell Also, if you look at the teeny tiny type on the cover you may notice a new word residing there. “Expanded”. Huh. Wonder what that means.
Now I know Moonshot. I read it to my kids so regularly that I practically have large chunks of it memorized. Moonshot was the book that actually made me understand precisely how we got to the moon at all. Now I can graduate up. This year’s Rocket to the Moon by Don Brown serves as a natural next step for slightly older readers, and just as accurate. But I digress.
So I open up the book idly, not expecting much, and after a page or two I get a shock. Katherine Johnson is looking right at me, dead in the eye. And not just her either! All sorts of people I hadn’t seen in the book before (is that Margaret Hamilton?). And there, on the opposite page is new text to accompany all these images. I was so amazed that I just kept flipping through. Nothing for a while. Then . . . oh my! Suddenly we have a section explaining how the astronauts ON the moon managed to get back up to the Columbia while it was hanging about up there. And then, a little later, a blow-by-blow of what reentry is like.
I’d never seen anything like it before. I’ve heard of nonfiction books updating themselves to a certain degree. Even award winning books do it. Remember when the Caldecott Award winning book, So You Want to Be President added Barack Obama to the end? It wasn’t a wide discussion, but I know a couple people raised their eyebrows and wondered whether or not a book should be allowed to keep its award if it’s made changes from the original text and/or images. To the best of my knowledge, no American children’s book has ever had its medal stripped for any reason. This is all to the good, but more interesting to me is the notion that we can change our nonfiction. Because if you can change it, and improve it, and update it, what else can you do?
Think now to all those texts that teachers use in schools. No. No. That’s too broad. Think instead of the mediocre books they use. The nonfiction ones that did a perfectly decent job when they first came out, but that don’t really cut it anymore. Now imagine what could happen if we updated them. To a certain extent that happens. I’m not talking about mediocre books, necessarily, but outdated ones surely. Gail Gibbons practically cornered the market on nonfiction, so it seems particularly smart to me whenever I see a newly updated edition come through.
Last year Johnny Tremain was published with an entirely new comic section at the front, created by Nathan Hale. It was a smart move on someone’s part, though if they’d really committed to the bit they should have had Hale re-illustrate the whole book from cover to cover. He could have given a little accuracy in his images to the dated account of Boston at the time (long story short, no black people). I’d always chalked up Johnny Tremain as a lost cause, and I still think that Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson should always be paired with it, but Hale’s work on the book gave it new life in some way. It may be one of the rare cases where the nonfiction addition is more fun than the fictional original.
The thing I like about children’s book publishing today is the willingness that some people have to try new things. Particularly when those new things pertain to Nonfiction. People are getting creative, and I want more of it. More rewrites. More new illustrations. More backmatter. More context. More more more! And I know that mistakes will be made. That’s inevitable. We’re people, after all. But when I look at Katherine Johnson in Moonshot I know that there’s a lot of possibility there.
I’m just excited to see where it all goes.
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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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