Consider this: the current push to invigorate our students’ critical-thinking skills has created a demand for more nonfiction for children and teens. This need has stimulated a resurgence in the variety of approaches to the genre. While it’s a welcome expansion, there is a downside: the blurring of the line between fiction and nonfiction without the full disclosure that readers deserve.
I consider this a problem. Readers, particularly young readers, must know what information they can trust. If a book includes components that are fictionalized, it’s the responsibility of authors, illustrators, and editors, along with sales and marketing personnel to let them know. There are multiple opportunities to provide this transparency in a physical book, including but not limited to: title, subtitle, documentation, and other back matter.
The Common Core is a likely contributing factor in this recent experimentation in approaches to nonfiction. But as someone who has been working in the field of children’s publishing for more than 25 years (first as an editor), it’s also clear that every so often ideas and conversations surface about how to best inspire students to access texts in ways that help nurture their critical-thinking skills. Attempting to provide a larger and more diverse body of work that falls in the category of (shudder) “informational texts” is a good thing. However, anyone who writes nonfiction understands that it takes time to do the research necessary to make a nonfiction piece credible and accountable, while providing young readers with enough plot and character development to deliver a compelling story.
There are certainly ways to speed up this process. Inventing dialogue, creating narrators, writing something “based on” a true story, and so on. I do not have an issue with these techniques, or with many other intriguing and creative approaches, as long as they are identified for readers. For me, the problem arises when I feel duped or manipulated into thinking I am reading nonfiction and discovering I am not—or worse, not being able to determine whether anything was made up, save writing to the author.
I know I am not alone in this feeling. I have had many conversations with peers on this topic, including a few with Marc Aronson, on whose blog I am currently guest kvetching. Earlier this month, Marc summed it up succinctly in an answer to a question Elizabeth Bird posed to him about invented dialogue in nonfiction. He responded, “We should be honest about saying what we do and do not know.” Exactly.
And in an A Fuse #8 Production post on August 25, 2014, Bird wondered: “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?”
I second Bird’s sentiment and add the following: not only should we hold our students to the same standards, indeed kids might argue that they hold us to certain standards—trustworthy information.
For me, the issue is simple: practice truth in advertising. If a subtitle says “a true story,” then it should be. If the story has been embellished or fabricated in any way, readers should be informed—in an author’s note, a prologue, a subtitle, or in some other way. Transparency is paramount.
Tanya Lee Stone’s nonfiction work has received such notable awards as an NAACP Image Award, Robert F. Sibert Medal, Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, and a Golden Kite. Her work often focuses on unknown or little-known histories. She has a B.A. from Oberlin in English, a M.Ed., and teaches writing to undergraduates at Champlain College.
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