I’m very intrigued by Scholastic’s relaunch of the Dear America series this fall. I had mixed feelings about the original books — some were terrific, some were not, and all were packaged in a way that made kids think they were real diaries. So, first of all, let me say — Bravo, Scholastic, for now putting the author names on the covers. That will definitely help young readers better understand that the diary writers are fictional characters and did not really exist.
Because, yes, in my experience in the classroom kids do sometimes think the books are real. Here’s a 2004 child_lit post of mine:
A few minutes ago a boy in my class exploded.
He’s calmer now and went back to his work, but not before saying, “I’m angry with the guy who said, ‘Let’s fool kids by pretending they are real.’ ”
And what was he so angry about? Finding out that the Dear America books are not real. He is working with two other boys on a historical fiction project, but somehow had not registered that fiction in the case of his book meant not real. He evidently has read many WWII Dear America books and was completely beside himself to discover they were complete fiction. At first he was furious with me and ready to run to the library to show me other books that were real. I finally calmed him down enough to show him the tiny disclaimer at the back of the book at which point he made the above comment. He has gone back to his desk feeling completely and utterly betrayed.
My impression is that Scholastic is working hard to avoid this today. Not only by putting the author names on the covers, but by making the covers look less “real” by using photographs instead of drawings. (That is, a child today will realize that the cover photograph is not actually from, say, 1620 whereas the paintings on the older books could be and were in fact misconstrued to be real-life portraits.)
For example, here’s the new cover for Kathryn Lasky’s A Journey to the New World. Now I can’t say I’m wild about the photo as the girl looks way more 2010 than 1620, but I as I wrote above, it is probably to reinforce the fact that she is a fictional character. I’ve been teaching a unit on the Pilgrims for a couple of decades (and have written about it in books and articles) and can say with reasonable authority that Lasky did her research. In fact I read parts of the book aloud. It is so much fun for the kids to recognize exactly where she got her info (as it is from the same primary sources they use — Mourt’s Relation and Bradford’s memoir). It is, to my mind, a superb example of well-researched and well-written historical fiction.
PS Years ago I got a bit tired of the hyperbole surrounding Harry Potter (and, mind you, I love Harry Potter) and wrote a Dear America parody about a poor kid who hated HP.