If you had told me as recently as a year ago that I was doomed to become The Nonfiction Dialogue Stickler of Doom (copyright pending) I would have said . . . . well, honestly I would have asked where you came up with that term. Then, once you’d defined it (Nonfiction Dialogue Stickler of Doom = A person that is particularly perturbed by false dialogue appearing in works of children’s nonfiction), I would have laughed in your face. I am hardly a born and bred nonfiction reader. My first love is, has been, and ever will be fiction in all its myriad forms. But that was when I was young and innocent. Before the day of Core Curriculum and terms like “primary sources”. I’m older now. More gnarled about the edges. And this year, in spite of the relative plethora of works of nonfiction for the kiddos, I am running into a very big problem. Mainly: Fake dialogue.
But before we proceed any further, allow me to turn your attention to author Marc Tyler Nobleman. You’ll know him best for his fantastic comic book bios Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. Well Marc recently whipped up a piece for the Horn Book Magazine entitled Danger! Dialogue Ahead that may as well have been written just for me. In the piece Marc tackles the challenges any author must face when attempting to make a work of nonfiction for kids interesting, vital, and accurate all at once.
Fabricated dialogue is hardly a new occurrence in works of nonfiction for children (paging Childhood of Famous Americans), but never before has it faced this level of scrutiny. And as Marc says in his piece “Technically, no nonfiction book is pure nonfiction. Even if every word of every quotation can be corroborated, the bugaboo is the placement of those quotations.” As a reviewer I’ll be (to my mind anyway) quite lenient just so long as the author makes at least a passing attempt to justify why they said a character said one thing or thought another. Too often that leniency gets pushed too far.
In 2013 there have been at least (and this is conservative) five major children’s nonfiction titles, some of which have received starred reviews, that contain dialogue that is improbable at best and downright liar-liar-pants-on-fire wrong at worst. Books that fail to make even the vaguest effort to explain why something is fact rather than fiction. With the rise of interest in STEM and the Core Curriculum, we’re going to have to keep an eagle eye out for titles that bend the rules so far that they break. Believe me when I say that I am sympathetic to these authors. Some of their subjects have the potential to make for dull as dishwater books, and you can understand the instinct to liven things up a bit. Just . . . be careful when you do. There are worse things in the world than playing it safe.