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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Backing the matter

Now that we’re all back at work (though, naturally, there are a LOT of librarians out there who had to work the day before and after Thanksgiving, and so a hat tip to them) we have time to ruminate on matters that are aided and abetted by ample time.  Finding myself awash in 2014 materials but determined to finish reading as many 2013 books as I can, I still can’t help but notice certain interesting trends in the coming year.  Trends that actually make me happy, that is.  We’ll have plenty of time to think about problematic trends later on down the road.

Today we’re talking about backmatter.


Okay.  So admittedly the term “backmatter” isn’t exactly a sexy term.  Not like “infographic” or “Pinterest board” or what have you.  But in this age of Common Core State Standards, it’s becoming vastly more important.  Obviously in nonfiction, yes, but in fiction as well.  I’m sure many of you have noticed the copious factual notes that are now gracing our works of fiction.  Everything from science experiment ideas to historical points of interest.

Actually, when it comes to something like a work of historical fiction, backmatter can be critical to a book’s success in the education and library market.  A kid could probably care less if their novel was stuffed full of factual importance in the last pages but for an educator working on a unit or a librarian who wants some reassurance that an author did their homework, this sort of thing becomes invaluable.

What I don’t think a lot of us consider is the role of the editor in all this.  An author might have great grand dreams of stunning, magnificent backmatter, only to be told that there simply isn’t enough space.  This all came to mind recently when I was reading Rosanne Parry’s Written in Stone.  Aside from being just a great book about a 1920s reservation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, it may honestly have more backmatter than any other work of middle grade fiction I’ve ever encountered.  19 pages worth, if we’re going to be precise, and it’s all amazing and reassuring.  Yet if editor Jim Thomas had put his foot down and reeled in this amount of work, the end result wouldn’t have the same power.

Or look at the endpapers of Deborah Heiligman’s The Boy Who Loved Math.  On the outset it’s a relatively simple picture book biography of a mathematician and his life made magnificently child-friendly.  But look at that gorgeous backmatter.  We’re not just talking additional points about the man’s life but drawn theorems and explanations about what LeUyen Pham’s art is doing.  It’s jaw-dropping, and in an entirely good way.

Now in 2014 we’re going to see even more books putting, in some cases, as much effort into what comes after as what came before.  I can’t help but think of this as a good thing.  The only question becomes whether or not the mindset of editors will change and if some of this will become more obligatory than voluntary.  Could it also be misused in certain cases?

Food for thought.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Horn Book about back matter for historical fiction (“After ‘The End’,” The Horn Book Magazine, March/April 2011) partly because, at the time, I’d found quite a split between people who liked it and people who didn’t. Those who didn’t, seem to feel it broke the magic of the fiction, that they didn’t need to know the real stuff behind the story. Of course, as someone who is a huge fan of back matter, that was not a problem for me at all. I figured, no one was making them read it, after all. Fast forward a couple of years and with Common Core, I’m guessing that back matter is going to be seen less as an option and artistic choice than before.

    That said, I do think there is tension regarding the audience for the back matter for historical fiction. I’m with you in thinking it is for the adults, not the child readers. In my experience, children do not read it unless required to. But I like to have it to be able to see just what the author did in terms of research, how she/he fictionalized, etc. The more the better, as far as I’m concerned — yay to Random House for allowing such a lengthy one for Rosanne’s book.

    I think it may be harder for illustrated works. I’ve seen complaints about the small font for the back matter for Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham’s The Boy Who Loved Math, but that is how they managed to get so much in there! At one point with my book I wanted to add something more into the body of the story and was told if I did we’d have to cut back the author note which was already getting very little space. That is, the page count was set and there was no way they could just add in a few more pages which may be more possible with a novel like Rosanne’s.

    And back to that audience thing — it is really confusing. I was asked to write my author note for kids, but it is also for adults. And sources, that is another problem. Yes, it is great to provide sources for kids who want to learn more, but also to indicate that you did use the important sources about your subject for adults to know. Since there is really nothing for kids on my topic I opted for the latter and have seen some mild criticism for that decision.

    Sorry to go on, but this has long been a topic of importance to me.

    • Monica, I just read your book and loved the back matter, which let me find out how much of the story was true and explained your reasoning for making it fiction. It added to the power of the story knowing that the whole thing was based on fact.

  2. One of my arguments has long been: how can we expect our students to learn to cite sources if the authors writing for them aren’t citing THEIR sources?? Back matter’s a must for me. Even if kids aren’t reading it (and, okay, they’re mostly probably not), it needs to be there for the gatekeepers. We need to know that authors did their homework and we need to be able to point to it as an example. We need to know where to send curious kids who are looking to learn more.

  3. Your post reminds me of Betsy Hearne’s CITE THE SOURCE article from the 90s. Though she was focused on traditional stories, much of what she said is relevant to back matter. I agree–it is important. I haven’t studied the back matter in WRITTEN IN STONE yet but will do so as soon as I can. There are two other examples that come to mind. Both add to the complexity, though I’m not sure I’d say ‘in a good way’. Karen Healey’s note in GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD is interesting because she talks about using stories from Indigenous people but in the end it isn’t quite a caution because (I don’t have the book in front of me so can’t recall specifically what she said) she gave us the caution and then did what she wanted to, seemingly regardless of that caution. Cooper did something similar in GHOST HAWK where she provides back matter info about who/what, etc., but couches the book itself in ‘fantasy’ which sort of (to me) lets her do what she wants to, too.

    Kids may not like back matter and may not choose to read it, but teachers can teach about that back matter, building it into a critical literacy lesson on sources.

  4. One of the things I’ve always loved about Ann Rinaldi are her back matter notes – she so often writes from the more obscure characters’ POV, I always want to know how much of their story was true, and I read that with as much interest as the rest of the story. But, I’m a geek that way. I have seen that, around 6-7 years old, kids hit a natural “is it real?” stage, and I think it’s great to capitalize on that rather than waving it away. The end notes can be a relief to parents who really have no idea whether the story was true or not!

  5. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I love back matter and front matter (as in LOCOMOTIVE). I want to know about the author’s sources, motivations for writing, extra information–whatever. I agree with Monica. We need to teach children to make use of this material because they usually skip it.

  6. In my recent nonfiction history book, TILLIE PIERCE: TEEN EYEWITNESS TO THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG, I had the classroom and the standards in mind when I wrote a Google Earth activity that would actually allow the students to walk the same three miles that Tillie had walked, but today seeing all the landmarks that have been left. I’ve heard from teachers that this activity made history feel REAL to the students. Just what I always want to hear!

  7. MotherLydia says:

    my 6 year old LOVES the Boy Who loved math. He read the book cover to cover three times — and that was just the first day we looked at it. I am absolutely certain he’s read the back matter at least once due to the way he pours over every page, eking every bit of information out of it. (though probably not understood it. Unfortunately, there is no other book like this one)

    he is going around asking people if they have a Erdos number.

  8. Hey thanks for the mention!
    I’ve always been a fan of back matter. Another book with great notes at the end is Nest, Nook, and Cranny by Susan Blackaby. It’s a poetry collection about animal homes organized according to habitat. The first part of the author’s note talks about the different habitats and the second covers all the different poetic forms used in the book making it maximally useful for both science and language arts teachers.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh yes! We had some tricky cataloging issues with that book, as I recall. We wanted it in poetry but it ended up in the science section. Not the worst place for it, but funny.

    • I LOVE this title. When I still taught third grade, I would pair it with Joyce Sidman’s DARK EMPEROR. I’d have my students pick one of Blackaby’s poems to research and write a non-fiction note to go with it like Sidman’s.

  9. I’ve written a young adult novel – BEFORE MY EYES – about three fragile teens at the end of a long, hot summer — one who is hearing voices and has a gun. I, too, debated about how much back matter to put in the novel but decided against it, with my publisher. We felt that it could be accomplished better on line, in a teacher’s guide. Further, since we seem to be in the middle of the on-going national debate on this topic, that the back matter is really potential research by the students on the pros and cons of this issue, if the book is used in classrooms. Perhaps it’s different with a contemporary novel aimed at high school students and above? It will be interesting to see how this novel is read — and fyi Before My Eyes coming out in February, 2014 from St. Martin’s Press. And, I’m going to look for the Boy Who Loved Math… though I wish it was there was a girl who loved math version for my eight-year old girl! Caroline

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Hmmm. We’re seeing a lot of good girls-love-science fiction books for 2014, but I haven’t encountered a good math-related bio of a woman in a while. Maybe “Look Up!” by Robert Burleigh, but that’s more astronomy . . . hm…

    • MotherLydia says:

      In this case, “The Boy who loved Math” is a picture biography of a male Mathematician, so it really does have to be “the boy”. They are not trying to be gender-specific or say only boys like math.

      • Yes, but you can’t help wishing someone had done a picture biography of a female mathematician, too, though they’re harder to come by. Caroline, you might try your daughter on some kid-friendly math books like the ones I recommended for MotherLydia’s son. She can be the Girl Who Loves Math! (I know I am!)

    • It’s older (2006), but still in print: Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by Anne Love.

  10. As an author of historical fiction I found this discussion illuminating. I had considered early on adding small bios of the real people who populate the story, to give the reader a more grounded sense that these people are more than just characters, but I opted against it. For reasons that had nothing to do with page space. I thought it would come across as fussy and I’d look too much like a smarty-pants. I think I will revise the eBook version of my historical novel, The Crystals of Yukitake, to include backmatter. I didn’t think readers would care that, to create a wholly authentic period convent, I read–in French–a history of the Carmelites of Pontoise. Or that I scoured the internet for photos of various places I could not visit so as to create a truer sense of place. I read classic texts by Zen swordmasters to thoroughly immerse my samurai hero into his culture. I went so far as to learn what the great Toshogu shrine looked like in 1624 (it was rebuilt in 1634, as it appears today). Giving literary life to a sage as great as Takuan Soho was daunting. I’m no sage, so getting inside him well enough to do him justice was an artistic and spiritual challenge. In the end I was audacious enough to write an original haiku for him to speak! Researching the Japanese tea ceremony was a pleasure. Then I juxtaposed it with the Latin Mass of the Seventeenth Century. This sort of information is backmatter? And readers really do find it interesting? I learned something new today. By applying this new knowledge I hope my readers will get a richer experience. Thanks, ladies!

  11. Just ordered the Boy Who Loved Math for holiday present for 8-year old!!

  12. Wait, wait! I have a novelist friend, Bonnie Jo Campbell, who’s also a mathematician, and learned about Hypatia from her. Interesting for a teen, maybe, but I’d hesitate to hand an 8 year old the story of someone who was attacked by a mob, stripped naked, and her flesh scraped from her bones by clamshells as a result of her erudition. Might send the wrong message? What about that nice first-computer lady instead?

  13. Yes, of course Ada Lovelace. I’m in hospital (with wi-if!) and temporarily an idiot.

  14. Ha! Ada Lovelace, only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, who had her own flings: (That said — I think she is awesome. Tom Stoppard based a character on her in his marvelous play, Arcadia.:)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I had no idea that Lovelace was the basis of the Arcadia girl! It kind of pleases me to think that girl had a basis in reality.

      Okay. So we’re doing a picture bio of Ada Lovelace. All that remains is to cast a writer and illustrator. Who wants dibs?