Telling the Reality Behind Fiction

How much (or any) of their research should writers of fiction for children provide?  That interesting question, posed by blogger Betsy Bird yesterday, provoked a fascinating conversation.  The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that the text should speak for itself and that author notes are not necessary — ever.  Yet I have to wonder, is all fiction the same in this regard?  Or nonfiction for that matter?   In fact, as a reader, critic, teacher of children, and author of a forthcoming work of fiction I find that line between fiction and nonfiction to be very porous, one that writers move between all the time.  It happened to me.  Feeling it was important that child readers know that it really happened, I tried to tell the true story of a child on the Amistad as straight nonfiction, but it turned out there wasn’t enough material to do that. And so I fictionalized the story using all the carefully researched facts from my nonfiction version.  So now, although it is a fictionalized true story, I still plan on the same sort of author note I’d had in mind when it was nonfiction.

As I wrote to someone who commented on my post of yesterday on this topic, I’ve learned through many years in the classroom that kids want to know what is real and what isn’t.  Heck, I want to know that too in fiction about real people and events.  So to ease my frustration here’s a chart that roughly shows the continuum between nonfiction and fiction.  It by no means is a comprehensive list of all the types of fiction or nonfiction, just a handful to show what seems to me the somewhat arbitrariness of insisting all fiction doesn’t need back matter while all nonfiction does.

Also at the Huffington Post.



Filed under Huffington Post, Writing

13 responses to “Telling the Reality Behind Fiction

  1. Kristin M.

    Monica –
    I’ve been fascinated with this discussion since Betsy wrote about it a few days ago. I touch on it somewhat with students in the children’s literature course that I teach. They are often frustrated that there isn’t a more definitive answer.
    I’m curious about your thoughts in putting Historical Fiction more to the right of Realistic fiction. This is one that I go back and forth on personally and that specifically comes up when I’m teaching.


  2. Kristin,

    Good point. I actually meant for Historical Fiction to be more to the left than Realistic Fiction and corrected it on the chart. That said, it is still pretty arbitrary. As I think about it, even fantasy writers do author notes. I’m thinking of Megan Whalen Turner who lets readers know about her vaguely Mediterranean setting. Thanks!


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  4. Great chart! Of course after reading Lies My Teacher Told Me I don’t really trust textbooks. At least not K-12 American History ones. And I often find Bios and Memoirs suspect. Am I getting too jaded? No, I guess it’s good, It keeps me looking at more than one source for information.



  5. I guess that means Pam Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer is a fictionalized true story–or is it creative nonfiction? Either way, thanks for the chart!


  6. Irene Fahrenwald

    Hmmmm. What to do with science fiction? Does one rate it based on the ratio of science to fiction?


  7. I’d put sci-fi way to the right in the same line as fantasy. Also alternate histories. They are both speculative and I wouldn’t assume anything to be real or care. Unlike books that are meant to be more true to life, if historical.


  8. This is very helpful Monica. Thanks! For parents who don’t “speak” literacy or are trying to find things that “lean” toward one end or the other, this is a great way to show them a path.


  9. I personally adore authors’ notes. I like to know that the author of, for example, Dirty Little Secrets has done some work with the Children of Hoarders support group, and I got a huge thrill out of finding instructions for some of Marcus’s gadgets from Little Brother online, just as Cory Doctorow suggested.

    I think that this is true of a lot of kids and a lot of teens, too. There’s such a thrill in recognizing that a plot point or a setting is not just made-up – that we can experience what the characters experience.

    The original discussion, however, as it related to Mockingbird and the subject of Asperger’s Syndrome, is almost on another plane, as Asperger’s is an incompletely-understood condition that varies widely between individuals. I think that while the author of that book is not obligated to disclose her own experience with Asperger’s, the book would have benefited from a brief statement from the author.

    It’s a complicated, contemporary subject that involves children – I think you have to put it on a different spectrum (so to speak) than that of historical, geographic, or technical research.

    Thanks for an excellent discussion!


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