About That Speech

I urge you all to get your hands on the July/August 2008 Horn Book Magazine in order to read for yourself Laura Amy Schlitz’s Newbery speech. While seeing Laura perform it was magical, I’m happy to say that it also reads beautifully on the pages of the magazine. And editor Mary Lee Donovan’s profile is absolutely wonderful too, a dialogue complete with footnotes, a clever reference to those in the winning book itself.

And I really urge those who read Marc Aronson’s thoughts about the speech to read it for yourselves especially if you are planning on weighing in on the issue as Colleen Mondor suggests you do. “Facts are necessary, facts are useful, facts are fascinating. But stories enlarge our lives.” said Laura. “They awaken us to color and depth and pattern. They help us make sense of a random world.”

I recently read Laura’s biography, The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer who Dug for Troy. What fascinated Laura and caused her to research and write Schliemann’s story was the lack of clarity — that some of the facts (even in the man’s own diary) were possibly, nay likely, fabricated, made-up. The fact of this likely fabrication of facts fascinates me too, I can tell you. It is interesting. And interesting is the key word. In her speech, Laura described her young listeners’ preference for an interesting story over the true one. And then how she overheard them as, true story forgotten, they passed on the interesting one. The one about the librarian and the bear. (Interested? Find a copy of the July/August Horn Book pronto!)

Trails of fact and story, of truth and fiction. Dorothy Bradford, of the Mayflower, killed herself. Fact? Fiction? Which do you want? The true story or the interesting story? Poor woman, it is the interesting one that continues today to be thought of as true. Annoyed as I am by this I nonetheless believe that we cannot totally control facts when they go out into the world. Whether it is Laura telling me an interesting story or me creating one of my own from the true story — either way, imaginative thinking is what is going on.

For whether we read a story that someone made for us, a true one or an interesting one, or take the facts to create a story for ourselves — either way we are using our imaginations to create a narrative. These narratives can be huge — say the nation-building of 18th century America or small — say the examination of a particular individual and his or her contribution to life on this planet. Either way, the facts of these bits of history are made into narratives, to make them come alive, fiction or fact — not sure the difference, the dichotomy, the polarization is as great as some make it to be.

I’m interested always in imaginative thinking. To do history you have to be able to place yourself, imagine yourself, empathize, and otherwise think about a past time, a time that you have not experienced. Similarly, to enjoy a work of fiction you have to buy into it, be able to imagine yourself into that setting that you have not experienced. As I continue to think about children, their learning, their thinking, and their interaction with books I’ll continue to think about the complexity of our imaginations and ways of engaging with art, with truth, with facts, with story.


Filed under History, Newbery

9 responses to “About That Speech

  1. As I said on my site, and continue to say elsewhere, I loved Laura’s speech and do no see her as any kind of enemy of NF. But I do have three concerns: 1) while I think Laura herself meant no harm, and clearly values NF, she said more than you quoted. She admitted to a secret preference for fiction over nf. And many of us heard that as more than a mere admission — it is a kind of sisterly bonding which often takes the form (when said by others) of “I hate math.” These are not confessions but rather a shared sensibility that goes from a preference to a defended assertion. This kind of talk makes books for younger readers feel like the land of fiction — even as we endlessly hear about the difficulty of getting boys to read. Laura touched a sore nerve. 2) Laura contrasted story, which makes meaning, to fact. I agree that story can make meaning — but so do logic, ideas, testable theories, experiment. Sure you can say that a theory is a kind of story, but then story means everything and nothing, it does not stand in contrast to anything. 3) As Roxanne pointed out on my site, pure fact often is more satisfying to readers (see books of records) than are stories.

    These are the concerns Laura’s speech touched on for me.



  2. You are so right, Marc; Laura said more than I quoted which is why I think it is so important that those who weren’t there read the whole speech for themselves. And I do sympathize with how her admission for secretly preferring fiction over nonfiction like “most librarians” struck a nerve. But she said a great deal beyond all of this that was so stimulating that I hope it becomes part of this conversation too.


  3. I agree — it was a great speech. I began my blog by saying it was an amazing night, the two best NC speeches I have ever heard (and seen). She had a great deal to say — and I don’t want to sour that. But the very fact of the combination of her marvelous words and spellbinding presentation gave all the more of a stage to the broader issues around fiction and nonfiction that her speech brought to light. I am grateful to her for that.


  4. I am not sure that I definitely meant “pure fact often is more satisfying to readers (see books of records) than are stories.” I said on Marc’s blog that “whether “facts” are not as fascinating, and some times more fascinating, to the young people” (young readers.) Note the “often” and the “some times” :) I do think that it is unfortunate that Schlitz drew a line between fiction and nonfiction while I believe what she wanted to illuminate was simply the power of stories and how stories CAN help us remember facts and make sense of the world around us. By her admission of favoring fiction over nonfiction and by her entertaining, outlandish bear-mauling tale example, she managed to perpetuate a somewhat skewed belief amongst librarians and publishers that nonfiction is dry, or uninteresting, or will not shed light on our lives; while fiction is more entertaining and illuminating. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction and I have to say, facts and “real” stuff can be as “life-enlarging” as made-up stories. I guess what I want to say is that “real life facts” (since when FACTS and STORIES are opposing terms? — So many “facts” are stories or part of stories) can offer color and depth and pattern, too. So, I see, the real issue here is the hinted polarization of these two realms. And I believe that we cannot easily separate facts from stories — or nonfiction from fiction. And to presume that they are actually opposing forces is even more faulty. And I guess my original discomfort with that part of her speech came from this separation. And the truth is, even if I tend to, like her, gravitate to the fiction titles, I have enjoyed tremendously many many many nonfiction books that are told with or without linear story arcs through the years. And I wish educators and publishers will continue to use and produce high quality nonfiction for young readers — boys AND girls!


  5. To bring this discussion full circle, readers of this blog, and mine, may recall that Monica objects to my view that nonfiction for younger readers needs to be more personal — to include more of the author’s own stake in the issue s/he is discussing (see Susan Kuklin’s posts at Nonfiction Matters on how interviewing teenagers on death row became a highly personal issue to her). Well if Roxanne is right, and fact and story are linked, one clear meeting place is in Point of View — the author’s stake in the history s/he is recounting. So if fact and story are linked, then it is all the more true that nonfiction for younger readers is better when the POV is made explicit.


  6. Roxanne, thanks so much for weighing in. As you know, I’m really tussling with this issue!

    Marc, thanks for responding as well. I’m all for the personal in nonfiction; it livens things up and makes it all the more interesting to child readers! However, I do think it is critical that writers of nonfiction for children the age I teach (8-10 years-old) to recognize that they are unlikely to have had the experience or guidance to recognize that the point of view being presented in the book is only one of many out there.


  7. Yes, Monica, one of many. But for kids raised on Google, that is no revelation. They see all of those voices screaming for attention: read me, read me. Books present a path through that maze — the path taken by the author named on the book. Kids don’t have to walk the same path, but they see a model, a way through the labyrinth.


  8. Not all 8-10 year olds are Google experts by any means. They need guidance there too.


  9. Pingback: Talk About Story! « educating alice

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