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.