The best juvenile nonfiction strives to be both entertaining and enlightening, but writing a book that is both factually accurate and enjoyable can be a big challenge, says author and illustrator Meghan McCarthy. McCarthy was on hand recently to discuss these issues with some of her peers at New York Public Library’s latest literary panel, “Ethics and Nonfiction,” held on January 5. NYPL Youth Materials Specialist—and SLJ blogger—Betsy Bird moderated.
For these authors, a strong commitment to conveying the truth is paramount. When Deborah Heiligman wrote Honeybees (National Geographic, 2002), it wasn’t until the last possible minute that she noticed a factual error that the book’s illustrator had made: several bees are depicted flying in curlicues, not in a beeline as the insects actually travel. While it was too late in the publishing process to correct the mistake, Heiligman’s consternation over this relatively minor detail illustrates the strict allegiance that many authors have to accurately representing their subjects.
Panelists addressed the tension between crafting a good story and correctly portraying their subject. “It’s so hard to…infuse the story with excitement and stick to the letter of the law,” said Sue Macy, who wrote a precise history of women’s basketball in Basketball Belles (Holiday House, 2011) but wished that the book had been more entertaining in places. “I fight myself on this all the time because you want people to read the book but you also want to be accurate.” She is currently dealing with this very issue as she works on a picture book on women’s roller derby in the 1940s. One moment in her book—a character jumping over the railing during a game—may not have actually occurred, but Macy (who will note for readers that this detail represents creative license on her part) believes this addition will enliven the narrative.
Though Heiligman disagreed with Macy about this particular example, she, too, acknowledged the difficulty of adhering to the facts when constructing a narrative. In her picture book The Boy Who Loved Math (Roaring Brook, 2013), the story of Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös, she eliminated a line about how her subject’s sisters died of scarlet fever while he was being born, stating that she felt this would set a depressing tone and distract young readers from the rest of the book.
Authors also discussed the problem of how to proceed when not all the facts are available to them. When Susan Kuklin wrote Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery (Holt, 1998), the story of a Pakistani boy who became an activist against child labor, she came across conflicting information about the boy’s death. Unsure whether his death at age 12 was an accident or murder, she included both possibilities in her book. In this case, this was a “blessing in disguise,” as it provided opportunities for students to debate this question for themselves.
Panelists concluded by discussing the problem of information that some might see as inappropriate for younger readers. When working on Mary Leakey: In Search of Human Beginnings (W.H. Freeman and Co., 1995), Heiligman had some reservations about depicting Leakey’s affair with Richard Leaky, wondering if it would affect book sales, but ultimately included it. Macy said that when she was recently asked to write a middle-grade book on astronaut Sally Ride, she needed to be able to include that Ride had a same-sex partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Though her publishers were wary of the book being labeled a coming-out biography, Macy felt strongly that she needed to incorporate Ride’s relationship with O’Shaughnessy in order to honestly portray her life.
Ultimately, Heiligman’s words underscored the importance of accuracy in children’s nonfiction: “We have to make the choices as nonfiction writers to be…honest and true.”