A Good Old-Fashioned Nonfiction / Informational Fiction Debate
Today’s post is mighty interesting. It is both debate and guest post all at once. Amy Alznauer (who recently received a starred review in PW for her new book The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan) and I sat down and realized we were coming at common type of children’s book from two entirely different angles. But here . . . I’ll let Amy explain it instead . . .
Over coffee recently, Betsy and I began discussing the fraught but fascinating topic of picture book biographies that also happen to contain elements of fiction, a category she has named and even celebrated as “fictionalized nonfiction” or “informational fiction”. And though we both felt there was nothing more important than getting at the truth we found ourselves taking fairly different positions on how that might best be accomplished.
Betsy has described herself as “downright conservative when it comes to fake dialogue” and says she likes her nonfiction to “adhere as closely to the truth as possible,” understanding truth as being anchored by factual correctness.
I, on the other hand, see picture book biographies as necessarily taking some liberties with fact in order to get to a deeper truth. This is most apparent in the illustrations, which generally cannot claim historical veracity, but I believe this is often just as important in the text.
So, we thought we’d have a conversation (with only minimal bloodshed, I assure you) about the border between fiction and nonfiction in the realm of children’s books and how carefully it should be guarded.
So, Betsy, why don’t you kick us off?
BETSY: Thank you, Amy! So lemme clarify my “conservative when it comes to fake dialogue” stance. First off, I acknowledge freely that any book that is illustrated is naturally going to have some element of fictionalization at work. We can never know if that person stood in that particular way on that particular day, etc. And even when it comes to speech, there are methods an author can use to indicate to the reader that they are taking liberties. A book where a historical figure is shown with a speech bubble in the sidelines, for example, indicates that the book is using comic book and graphic novel elements. It looks fictional and isn’t misleading the reader.
But when actual honest-to-god quotation marks are in use, that’s where the anvil falls. A quotation mark is a contract with a reader that a person definitely said those specific words at some point in history. I’ve heard many a fine author of nonfiction say with enormous sarcasm, “Gee, we can just make stuff up? Then why did I break my back making as authentic and honest a book as I did when I could just fake it instead?”
So many great picture books like The Boy Who Loved Math, Nothing Stopped Sophie, or 2020’s new The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America are fun to read AND historically accurate. In an era where people don’t know whether or not to trust what they read, authors have a responsibility to their young readers to tell the truth and not fudge it because it’s convenient from a literary perspective.
How think you?
AMY: Wait! I thought we were going to disagree, but I find myself agreeing with everything (almost) you just said. Every author should break their back to make an authentic and honest book and certainly not toy with history for literary convenience. We do have a contract with our readers. But what exactly is the nature of that contract? What expectation do readers bring to picture book biographies, especially with respect to dialogue?
Maybe an analogy would help. Your position seems to liken picture book biographies to adult biography and assume similar conventions apply. Anything in quotation marks must be a direct, verifiable statement or at the very least be preceded by the necessary caveats.
I think there is a better analogy. Like picture book biographies, biopics, literally biographical pictures, also take on the challenge of revealing a life through the interplay of word and image. When Aretha Franklin speaks in the upcoming film Respect, no one will expect her words to be directly drawn from historical record. Similarly, when Carol Boston Weatherford’s picture book, Moses, offers us a vision of Harriet Tubman’s impassioned dialogue with God, no contract is broken.
But still, there are real expectations. The dialogue, and everything else for that matter, must be rigorously inspired by historical sources and not violate the spirit of the person who lived and spoke. This is a back breaking task, and one that seems particularly essential right now as we search for ways to recover the voices of people whose words were never historically recorded. Women, underrepresented groups, and yes, children are all, more often than not, in that category.
Pouring an entire life into a short, illustrated book requires all sorts of tampering with history: winnowing, compression, the creation of representative moments, and the imposition of a narrative arc. Although this demands fidelity to history, it is an essentially imaginative act.
BETSY: Ah. And here is the rub of it. When it all comes down to it, I’m reminded of that old series of books Childhood of Famous Americans from when I was a kid. Those books were, I will admit freely, fun. They were probably the only time I willingly read something on my own that could be deemed anywhere close to Nonfiction. Indeed, as a child I was quite certain that they were Nonfiction and would have been shocked to hear anyone say otherwise. And yes, they invented dialogue but kept close to the spirit of the individual.
That said, there’s a difference between the books of that time and the books of 2020. Most importantly, Nonfiction for kids sucked in the 1980s. I mean, it just did. Sure you had some Aliki and the occasional Jean Fritz but by and large, it sucked. And these days kids have a wealth of books to choose from. We don’t have to go back to the bad old days of inventing things rather than doing our homework anymore! A book like this year’s The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha is every bit as thrilling, if not more so, than a book that lets itself get wrapped up in flights of fancy. If I hold children’s books to the same standards as adult books that is only because they’re just as good as adult titles on every level. Plus, shouldn’t we be teaching our kids about verifiable facts from as early an age as possible?
Rather than tampering with history (a good phrase!) I think we can winnow and compress and not lose a jot of authenticity in the process. We’re human. We impose narrative arcs to every aspect of history anyway. Who is to say such an imposition isn’t a truth in and of itself? That sounds like your point, yes? All I’m saying is that you can be creative and not sacrifice the good faith of the reader through supposition and fiction. You’re welcome to do so. I mean, there’s plenty of space on our library shelves for the kinds of docu-dramas you mention. But authors and editors should just know that the librarians will be shelving those books in the fictional picture book section when they arrive.If you won’t hold yourself accountable to history, we’ll be happy to do it for you.
AMY: You are talking about how you wish picture book biographies were handled, right? For even the Library of Congress doesn’t currently make the distinctions you do. We see Weatherford’s Moses catalogued as nonfiction right alongside The Cat Man of Aleppo. And Booklist, among others, continues to give starred reviews to books like Margaret McNamara’s Eliza: The Story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (a wholly invented first-person narrative), which they dubbed “a lovely biography.”
So, that begs the real question: What victory will be achieved by asking picture book biographies to get in line and eliminate all invented elements? Will this purification of genre really help children learn, as you suggest, about verifiable fact?
First, though, I just want to note how odd it seems to me to turn such a literal eye on books that often employ wildly fanciful illustrations to tell a story. Within these biographies, we see Einstein riding his bike up a beam of light. Or numbers crowding the streets like people and sailing out in a gale from Sophie Germain’s pen. Or the child Jane Goodall swinging one-handed from a vine over a fantastical jungle. Will we ever be able to hand books such as these to children and declare, “This is verifiable fact!”?
You might respond that such liberties in artwork are fine because children must develop a visual literacy, an ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. But aren’t they learning to do that with text, too? To recognize all the gradations of genre out there in the wild world of books?
So, instead of teaching children that here, on these shelves, what they read is fact, we might instead teach them to look for genre clues. Is the book packed with photographs and endnotes and precise quotation attributions? Or are people flying through the air on bicycles? The former suggests fairly strict nonfiction, the latter, a more mixed form. And these two genres often exist together in a single picture book biography – the author’s note and the story itself. By encouraging children to read both, to compare and contrast, we are developing exactly the type of literacy we hope for.
To me a picture book biography is above all a vision, through art and text, of a person’s life. Readers come to its pages not primarily for research but for inspiration and insight. What might it be like to imagine time differently? Or to swing on a vine, dreaming your way into an unknown future? Or to love art or numbers or birds so much that you eventually become an expert on that very thing? The fantastical elements are natural to the form and flagged, both through image and style, on the page. The author’s note is there to expand and clarify and keep everyone honest.
I don’t think the heart of our disagreement is which authors do their homework and which do not. The author’s note of Eliza reveals the painstaking research behind the imagined text. I think, instead, we disagree on the definition of the genre itself. But regardless of how we hammer out the details, I hope these books continue to be shelved where children will find them. For in the end, we both want the same thing: for children to discover books that might tip their minds from indifference to engagement or even to passion.
BETSY: Amy has graciously allowed me the last word on this matter but the problem with that is that I agree with much of what she has to say. Regardless of where the books end up, we want kids to find the good ones. And who doesn’t love the idea of teaching kids what to look for in their literature? If I don’t miss my guess, debates like this one will rage for as long as people parse the truth for their children. The needle may move too far in one direction or another, but if it ends up creating the best possible books for kids, regardless of how you define “best”, then I’m going to count that as a win.
Big time thanks to Amy for joining me here on the blog! And look for her The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity (illustrated by Daniel Miyares) this coming April 14th.
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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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