Nonfiction children’s books have been under a moderate amount of scrutiny in the past several years or so, which has ultimately been a good thing. Gone are the days when a nonfiction children’s book without any back matter can get published without commentary of some sort—most often from reviewers. At the very least, teachers and librarians shelving such books want to see the authors’ lists of resources or “Selected Resources” and know how they did their research. You also often see such things as lists for further reading, author notes, illustrator notes, even reader activities, etc. Horn Book editor Roger Sutton wrote on Facebook just this week, “Have moved on to nonfiction reviews, whose theme seems to be ‘baby got backmatter.’ ”
Increasingly, today’s readers also want to see dialogue attribution in the back matter of biographies. That’s because invented dialogue is still a touchy subject. You have those who think that it has no place and that any sort of made-up dialogue puts the biography squarely in the category of historical fiction. Then you have those who think such dialogue is acceptable, helps bring the story to life, and can still be considered nonfiction. In 2014, Betsy Bird wrote here about her changing feelings on the subject (“In general I stand by my anti-faux dialogue stance but recently I’ve been cajoled into softening, if not abandoning, my position”), which made me nod my head a lot.
Here’s where I (and many others) draw the line: if a biographer invents dialogue or shifts around facts in any sort of way, they need to come clean about this in the back matter. A great example of this is Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, the story of con artist Robert Miller, published last year and named a Kirkus Best Book of 2015. There’s a line in the starred review of the book that states: “The truth behind Miller’s exploits is often difficult to discern, and Pizzoli notes the research challenges in an afterword.” Yep. That sums it up pretty well. Here’s how Pizzoli addressed it in the book’s back matter:
“While researching this book, the same question kept coming up in my mind: How can this be true?It’s all so incredible. And much of what I think is true about Robert Miller comes from other books, newspapers, and websites, which regularly contradict one another. In the many tellings of his life that I’ve found, the names, places, and sequence of events are often confused, so it’s hard to trust any single source as being 100 percent accurate. Robert Miller was a con artist, after all! He was adept at disguising reality and creating his own truth. As the author, I did a little of that myself.…I’m clarifying it here because I wouldn’t want you to feel as though you’ve been conned.”
So, the author changed the timeline and is upfront about it. (He felt that the development of Vic’s character in the narrative arc of the book took precedence over the muddy timeline.) Many nonfiction books probably ride this line. Does this book belong in nonfiction? Does it matter? In a comment at Betsy’s piece, a reader suggested that perhaps we should stop using “nonfiction” as a synonym for “true.” She writes, “The division of the library, between fiction and non-fiction is arbitrary and inconsistent,” noting that it contains such subjects as magic, UFOs, mythology, fairy tales, and riddles. She even writes that the more so-called factual books are sometimes subjective, citing outdated books about Christopher Columbus as an example. Educator and blogger Monica Edinger also commented that perhaps we should consider a new genre for such books. Many people, she wrote, didn’t leave the paper trails that are necessary for someone to write a detailed biography, and as a result, their stories aren’t told and readers keep reading about the same people.
In early February, readers will see Deborah Hopkinson’s wonderful Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig,illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Hopkinson explains in an Author’s Note that to tell this story, she “added some made-up bits” and changed Potter’s age. The story is about Potter as a young girl and the time she painted a picture of her neighbor’s guinea pig. (Things don’t go so well for the poor creature.) In reality, Potter was 26 years old when this occurred. It’s an inviting, well-crafted, and beautifully illustrated book, based on Potter’s own journal entries. In the backmatter, Hopkinson cites where she found her quotations in the story. She adds simply, “Other dialogue has been invented.” The starred Kirkus review states this makes the book “problematic as straight biography, but it is nevertheless a charming, delightful homage.”
The book is actually classified as fiction. In version one of the column you’re reading right now (this is take two, the edited version), posted for about a nanosecond on Friday, I wrote about this book being nonfiction and an example similar to Tricky Vic. Hopkinson saw it and emailed me a kind note to say, “It is historical fiction through and through and never intended to be a nonfiction biography.” She discusses nonfiction and historical fiction with children during school visits, making a habit of asking middle schoolers where in a book one finds quotation sources. What she calls “informational literacy and historical thinking” is important to her—and something she thinks students need to talk about more often.
Both of these books marry truth to bits of fabrication, yet one is classified as nonfiction and one as fiction. These blurry lines are fascinating. I’m still thinking about that suggestion that we have a new genre for such books, but I do know that the debate about invented dialogue is a discussion worth having. And regardless of where they get shelved or how they are classified, I think these two books are great ones worth reading. They spark good conversations about nonfiction versus historical fiction, and in each, at least the authors are there in the backmatter, tapping child readers on the shoulders to explain their research.
BEATRIX POTTER & THE UNFORTUNATE TALE OF A BORROWED GUINEA PIG. Copyright © 2016 by Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Charlotte Voake. Illustration used by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.