March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Guest Kvetching: Transparency is Paramount | Consider the Source

fact-or-fictionConsider 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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Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. I agree it’s crucial to make the distinction–it’s fine to blur the lines, as long as the blurring is clearly noted. The power of nonfiction is so often misunderstood or overlooked. I frequently remind authors that it’s ok to share when something isn’t known. Rather than writing around missing information, which rarely works, or resorting to fictionalizing to fill in the blanks, isn’t it more exciting to confide “we just don’t know?”

  2. Thanks for this post, Tanya. I wrestled with this a lot in writing a biography (SAMURAI RISING, coming out in 2016) because many of my period sources freely mixed some fictional accounts in with the factual. So I had to constantly assess how good my sources were, and whether something was credible or not, and if the different sources said different things, which one I should trust. I remember someone once advising me to “argue sources in the back matter” so I ended up writing very extensive source notes. The period sources even include dialog, which I used sparingly, noting in the sources that all dialog should be taken with a grain of salt. I made the point (again, in the back matter) that even if we can’t be sure that X person did or said exactly what is recorded in the sources, that is the way X person has been remembered, and that is also of historical interest.

    I also had gaps in the person’s life where nobody knows where he was or what he was doing. I explained that to the reader in the main text, and also explained that people started making up stories about this period of his life, and these stories became very popular. I told some of the stories before going back to his next appearance in the historical record. It was all a constant balancing act but a wonderful learning experience.

  3. So important, Tanya. I’ve always had trouble with texts that blur these lines, but the issue can be dealt with in an important and instructive way, in every sense, by full and upfront description and explanation of the author’s approach, source material and intent. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Well said, Tanya. As I’ve mentioned to you before, I think that we need more librarian voices in the school community if we want our children to read quality books in school. At a time when our expertise in collection development is needed most, three things are often happening within school communities. School media specialist positions are being eliminated due to budget cuts, school libraries are often staffed by non-degreed personnel, school “library time” is used to teach computer and keyboarding skills necessary for new mandated online testing. These things can contribute to the purchase of poor-quality books, the inability of students to discern fact from fiction, and a general unfamiliarity with the very skills that are necessary for critical thinking.