Category Archives: Nonfiction

More Mulling on the Nonfiction/Fiction Conundrum

In the past year there have been some interesting discussions about nonfiction books that seem like fiction (e.g. Steve Sheinken’s Bomb) and fiction books that seem like nonfiction (e.g. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair). The one this week on the child_lit list serve (about how to identify books like Nelson’s) prompted me to write the following response:

… I’ve been thinking about how children take in history for many, many years (written some books and articles about this) and the issues of authenticity and authority are complicated. I’ve seen errors in nonfiction books  that were highly lauded, that appear to be absolutely perfect, only because I was an expert on the subjects. As you note, writers of history have to shape and consider what to include and what to leave out so the act is not as pristine as may be thought. 

I’ve just read Andrea Cheng’s ETCHED IN CLAY: THE LIFE OF DAVE, ENSLAVED POTTER AND POET, a fictionalized, multi-voiced, poetic exploration of what this enigmatic artist’s life (there is so little firsthand material about him) might have been like. Kirkus gave it a star and describes it as “verse biography.” I see it as belonging in the same area as Nelson’s book, another fictionalized biography.

A few weeks ago I attended a session about nonfiction for children at the New York Public Library. One of the issues that came up was how to make these stories engaging and accessible for young readers. One author spoke of fictionalizing one aspect in her otherwise nonfiction book and writing about this in the back matter as a solution. Another panelist said she would not have done this, feeling a nonfiction book should be only nonfiction, I’m guessing. Illustration came up too — an artist in one case had to imagine a significant person in a picture book biography because she was unable to find any images of her.

These stories and others just make me think again and again that the telling of history is not something that can be firmly one thing or another. There are reasons to fictionalized true stories in ways that aren’t  those of the historical fiction novelist. The novelist is firstly telling a story that happens to be set in the past. The story is front and center. Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES is firstly a heartrending story; I don’t think we expect to learn a whole lot about the French Revolution reading it. But others are writing about historical situations that they want known most of all. That these lightly fictionalized works end up being in the same category as works like Dickens’ seems very odd to me. (I guess this goes way back to me railing against the use of historical fiction to engage kids in history — way, way, way back on this list:)

And I’ve got a dog in this fight. Like Nelson and Cheng I wanted to get a person’s story out, someone for whom firsthand information is limited (Sarah Margru Kinson, a child on the Amistad). I tried for many years to write it as nonfiction, but the editors I worked with felt the individual always seemed too distant for the child readers and so, with enormous trepidation, I crossed the border to fiction. I suppose it will now be termed historical fiction, but I’m uncomfortable with that because the story is still as true as I could make it and I want children to know that. I don’t see them engaging with the book as they would a work of fiction, but more as a true story. Possibly like readers will with Nelson and Cheng’s works.

It seems to me that these stories need to get out there to children. That the historical record is slanted toward those in power, that the lack of the significant source trail that we require and demand should not be obstacles in getting these stories out there. When it comes to those enslaved from Africa we see a limited number of stories over and over because those are the ones for which there are records and sources. But there has to be a way to get more stories out there and it may be we have to look at that funny place between fact and fiction as one place to do it.

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Filed under Africa is My Home, Historical Fiction, History, Nonfiction

NYPL’s Ethics on Nonfiction Panel

Susan Kuklin, one of the panelists at last weeks NYPL Literary Cafe has done a thorough write-up at I.N.K.: “Ethics in Nonfiction for Kids.

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Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Melissa Sweet’s Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade has happily picked up some well deserved awards since its publication a year ago, say NCTE’s Orbis Pictus award and ALA’s Sibert award. It is a fabulous book and worth checking out as we head into this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. To learn more about it see my review and interview with Melissa along with video and a slide show here.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Middle Grade Readers and Informational Books

The Common Core recommendation for a greater percentage of informational reading in schools has created quite a bit of buzz these days. Since, like many of my middle grade colleagues, I already use a lot of informational material as a 4th grade teacher, I am hopeful that this new emphasis will only be a good one.

For example, when doing an author study of E. B. White I enrich our readings of his iconic children’s books with excerpts from his essays (especially “Death of a Pig“), letters, interviews, and even his obituary. And because I’m a big fan of the judicious use of primary sources to give kids a taste of what it was like back in time, I love leading my students in “translating” a bit of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source journal from some of the original Mayflower passengers, during our Pilgrim unit in which most of the reading is informational in nature. (For more about this see my book Seeking History: Teaching with Primary Sources in Grades 4-6.)

As for independent reading, I find my 4th graders gravitating to a wide variety of informational books.  Some have intriguing topics, some have unconventional formats, and some are just captivating for other reasons. Here are several new and forthcoming 2012 informational books that I feel are going to be very successful with my middle grade readers and yours too, I hope:

Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert by Elaine Scott

This is a clear and compassionate look at the circumstances and most of all the people involved in this riveting event. Caring, thoughtful, well-researched, this is a take that is perfectly calibrated for middle grade readers.

Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

A quirky, captivating, and original look at the iconic president. Middle grade readers are going to love Kalman’s ability to pull out intriguing facts on the man, her warm regard for him, and her absolutely unique and wonderful paintings.

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close

What a wonderful way to look at the creations and the creating process by the artist himself.  Simply and clearly told by Close himself, in this book children are going to be engrossed in both his words and his art. Of particular note is the section where they can mix and match parts of his different portraits to create new and unique ones.

Temple Grandin:How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery

This is an excellent biography for middle grade readers about a unique woman.  Clear and without sentimentality, but still empathetic, this account of Temple Grandin’s life and her autism is done just right for this age group. In addition to showing how her autism actually accentuated Grandin’s particular sensibility for animals and thus led her to her life work with them, this book also gives young readers an age-appropriate view into the way the meat they eat comes to them.

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

This memoir of the author’s 1970s childhood in China offers young readers a personal take on a particular time and place. Eight stories tied together by family are delightfully presented in a graphic novel format.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos  by Jason Chin

A fascinating consideration of the development of these unique islands using a representational and imagined island. Well-researched (with the sources all clearly indicated at the end), simply told, and beautifully illustrated Chin gives a good sense of this remarkable region that fascinate us today as it did Darwin so long ago.

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Filed under Charlotte's Web, comic, In the Classroom, Nonfiction

Revisiting: Engaging Informational Picture Books

I’ve been very interested of late in the attention being paid to the Common Core State Standards recommendation for more nonfiction in classrooms. There are many ways to do this, one of them being a greater emphasis on nonfiction picture books. Here are a few older books I’ve much admired for their spare and elegant texts, compelling voices, original design, fresh ways of presenting information, superb research, and engaging illustrations. They are ideal for classroom teachers looking for great nonfiction to add to their libraries and teaching.  Please add your own suggestions in the comments!


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Filed under In the Classroom, Nonfiction

Marc Aronson’s Master of Deceit

I’m old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover and also old enough to want to forget all about him. However, young people are not me and so with a sigh I dutifully opened up Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies — and was immediately gobsmacked by the start of the prologue:

FACT: In November 1964, William Sullivan, an assistant director of the FBI, set out to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into killing himself.

With that Aronson had me and kept me until the end. Beginning with the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hoover, moving on to the development of the FBI mystic, and on through wars of honor and stealth, Aronson weaves a tale that you absolutely could not make up. With a clear and engaging voice he questions, probes, connects, and brings to light a remarkable time in American history. From John Reed to Joseph McCarthy and back to Martin Luther King, Jr. the book is a rich brew of personalities, historical details, and revelations — of the King suicide plot, of the crafty doctoring of photos and documents by the FBI, and of many other manipulations by Hoover’s men (and male they pretty much all were) within the complicated context of the times. Enhancing the powerful text and imagery is the book’s superb design: the fonts, the placement of images, and organization; Aronson’s author note detailing his research process; the expansive notes, and index. It is all and all an outstanding work of history for young people.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job

For years one of my favorite teaching materials for the Civil Rights Movement has been the documentary Eyes on the Prizein particular the section focusing on the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March and so I was delighted to come across Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s MarchShe begins with a prologue:

On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, she knew she had to go to jail.

“I want to go to jail,” Audrey told her mother.

How could you not want to read on after that? Through Audrey and three other young people who were involved Levinson vividly makes this historical time up close and personal. And honest — there is no sugar coating here — at the very beginning she provides “A Note on Name-Calling” in which she clearly lays out the varied terms by which African-Americans have been referred to and referred to themselves over time. After that she presents those terms as they were used during this time period without further comment.

This is a real life story that takes place over a brief period of time and Levinson does a superb job bringing out the suspense, drama, harshness, and celebration of all. I especially appreciated the elegant way she brought in the complications — what was working and what wasn’t, the different behaviors and personalities of the leaders, and most of all the varied voices of her young people. Audrey, Washington Booker III, James W. Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter all were part of the marches, but in very different ways. By highlighting their different backgrounds, Levinson makes myth reality. Complementing her text are photos and perfectly-placed sidebars highlighting dates, quotes, and excerpts from relevant documents; an author note articulating the research and writing process; notes indicating sources for each chapter (though, I admit, I wanted even more of them); and an index. (I love books with indices!)

This is an engrossing, compelling, and fresh view of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of young people who were part of it.  Highly recommended.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Coming Soon: Mary Losure’s The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World

I’ve long been besotted with the Cottingley Fairies story even going so far as to use it to frame a talk I gave on literary fairy tales. Thinking I might write a kids’ book about it one day I went on to do a ton of research, but now along comes Mary Losure who has done even more research than me and written that very book, The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Mary Fool the World. Darn you, Mary! Just kidding as this is one terrific book (that I reviewed in the March Horn Book — starred no less).

The story, if you don’t know it, involves a handful of so-called fairy photographs by two young girls in 1917 Cottingley, England. It was the time of spiritualism and a great yearning by many for fairies and such to be real. So when prominent types such as Arthur Conan Doyle heard about the photos the story went viral (in the early 20th century manner, that is). Even after growing up, Elsie and Frances insisted for years that the fairies in their photographs were real.

My adoration for the story is because I vividly remember spending time in gorgeous places myself as a child where, being highly imaginative and prone to fantasy play, could easily have convinced myself that fairies inhabited the area.  A butterfly seen in the corner of my eye?  Really a fairy.  So I totally get how it may have for Frances, the impressionable younger girl.  And the fun Elsie may have had encouraging that play and belief.  Until it all got away from both of them.

Losure provides her own take on the story — say why the girls (especially Elsie) may have been inclined to make-up such photographs, much about Conan Doyle’s and the other adults’ need to believe, and much more within the context of the times. Sympathetic, fascinating, well-researched (and I should know:), clearly written, this is an all around great read.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Reviewing

Thinking Further About Nonfiction

Jim Murphy has a post up over at I.N.K., “Battle Cry Freedom” in which he further considers aspects of the conversation Marc Aronson’s “New Knowledge” article provoked.  Jim is rightly concerned about problematic research and other questionable methods of creating nonfiction (say invented dialog) as well as the critics, reviewers, and gatekeepers who are unaware and thus support what Jim calls”rogue” books.  He wonders:

Which brings us to the most important element of the discussion: our readers — kids of varying ages and depths of learning and sophistication, who read (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes happily) and absorb the printed word as gospel. When a rogue book gets out (whether it’s a willful act to grab attention or build drama in a text or an honest attempt to re-interpret the historical record) who is going to pick up the pieces?

I wonder about this too.  Jim writes further:

Is it fair to expect librarians and teachers to constantly patrol and explain these problem texts to scores of young readers? And in case you think any errors might be minor in nature, please remember that recent Virginia textbook where the author informed young readers that thousands of slaves happily signed on to defend the south and its traditions during the Civil War. That text (and its historical implications) was floating around in schools for weeks and months before the error was caught and the books recalled. There’s no reason to assume something just as egregious couldn’t happen in trade books.

Whether they are as serious as this example, I’ve seen errors in lauded books of nonfiction that troubled me greatly and which were pretty much dismissed by those who already had decided these were terrific books. And even before Jim raised this issue I was wondering about it when doing my own debating with Marc.  Since I’m smack dab in the middle of the intended audience and see how they respond to books and ideas, I have similar reservations to those Jim has expressed.  Marc has responded here and he, Jim, and others have continued the conversation in the comments.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Debating Nonfiction

Marc Aronson, in his Horn Book Magazine article “New Knowledge”, has provoked some interesting conversations by arguing that there is a distinctively new and different kind of nonfiction for young people, something that involves original research and speculation. He concludes:

Just as we have both realistic fiction and speculative fiction, maybe we ought to split up our nonfiction section into books that aim to translate the known and books that venture out into areas where knowledge is just taking shape. See you on the borderline.

I’m definitely on the side of those who do not see such a sharp distinction between old and new. I’ve read older works of nonfiction for children filled with original research and am wary of speculation in nonfiction writing in general, be it for an adult or child audience. And so I appreciated Jim Murphy’s response “The Line of Difference” as well as Laurie Thompson’s “Drawing Lines in Nonfiction: ‘Old’ vs. ‘New’.” Marc’s responses to them on his blog are here and here.  Be sure to read the comments too — lots to mull over here.

ETA As Marc and others know, I’m a big fan of many of the new books that introduce new ideas, say his and Marina’s Sugar Changed the World, a SLJsBoB contender. But I still read it more than once carefully, critically and, yes, warily.

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