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A Fuse #8 Production
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Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

Maybe it’s Common Core.  Maybe not.  I’m not always quite certain how far to place the blame in these cases.  However you look at it, children’s nonfiction bios are getting weird these days.  In some ways it’s quite remarkable.  I’m the first one to say that nonfiction for kids is better now than it has ever been.  I mean, when I was a young ‘un the only nonfiction I ever enjoyed was the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Not that it was actually nonfiction.  I mean, it made these interesting suppositions about the youth of various famous people, complete with fake dialogue (I am the strictest anti-fake dialogue person you’ll ever meet).  I enjoyed them the way I enjoyed fiction because, for the most part, they were fiction.  Boy, you just couldn’t get away with that kind of thing today, right?

Right?

Meet three new “nonfiction” series of varying degrees of fictionalization and authenticity that caught my eye recently.  I can’t exactly call them a trend.  Rather, they’re simply interesting examples of how publishers are struggling to figure out how to tackle the notion of “nonfiction” and “high-interest” for kids.  And it’s now our job to determine how successful they’ve become.

First up, let’s go back old Childhood of Famous Americans.  They remain beloved, but they’re problematic.  So what do you do when you have a product that slots into that category?  You rebrand, baby!

Introducing History’s All-Stars from Aladdin (an imprint of Simon & Schuster).  Observe the following covers:

Sacagawea Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

JackieRobinson Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

Look vaguely familiar?  Pick up the book and you may find the words “Childhood of Famous American” in there individually, but never strung together in that particular order. The publication page only mentions that the books were previously published as far back as the 1950s (little wonder I’m worried about that Sacagawea title, yes).  Yet the design, as you can see, isn’t far off so we had to wonder.  Is it just the same series?  A side-by-side comparison:

BetsyRoss2 Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?BetsyRoss Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

The publisher description calls this “a narrative biography” which is technically the accepted term for this kind of book.  But there is no way you could use this for a report.  They’re fiction, baby.  A kind of fiction that doesn’t really have a designated place in a library collection at this time, though that could change.  Which brings us to . . .

Ordinary People Change the World – A series by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

AmeliaEarhart Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

AbrahamLincoln Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

It’s the series bound to wreck havoc with catalogers everywhere!  They look like Charles Schulz characters.  They read like nonfiction . . . sorta?  Kinda?  Kirkus said of I Am Rosa Parks that it was, “A barely serviceable introduction with far more child appeal than substance.”  Yet they’re bestsellers and visually incredibly appealing.  Published by Dial (a Penguin imprint), the books were a risk that appears to have paid off in terms of dollars.  In terms of sparking interest in these historical figures it’s also a success.  But is it factual?  Is it accurate?  Does it stand up to scrutiny?  Does it matter?  Why shouldn’t it matter?  You see the conundrum.

Finally, there’s a series coming out from Scholastic that looks like it might be along similar lines to these, but that I haven’t seen firsthand quite yet:

BenjaminFranklin Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

SallyRide Historical Kids: What the HECK is Going On With Nonfiction Bios These Days?

Called the When I Grow Up series, again we’re seeing historical figures as children.  But maybe these are entirely accurate in their retellings?  They’re Scholastic Readers, made to meet the needs of early readers.  It’s the title “When I Grow Up” that raises the red flag for me.  Because, you see, they’re written in the first person.  And as a librarian who has had to field reference questions from first graders asking for “autobiographies”, this is problematic.  If a book is entirely accurate but seems to come from the lips of its biographical subject, what is it worth in the pantheon of nonfiction?

People will always say that worrying along these lines is ridiculous.  If the books are good and spark an interest, isn’t that enough?  Why do you have to require strict accuracy at all times?  My argument would be that when biographies are written for adults, people are meticulous (hopefully) about maintaining authenticity.  Why should we hold our kids to different standards?

It’s a debate.  These books just crack it open wide.

Along the same lines (WARNING: Shameless plug looming on the horizon!) I’ve gotten out the jumper cables and restarted the old Children’s Literary Salon at NYPL.  Babies have been born and it is time to get back in the swing of things.  On that note, on Saturday, September 6th I’ll be hosting one of children’s nonfiction all-stars in a conversation that might very well touch on this topic.  Behold!

Personal Passions and Changes in Nonfiction for Children and Teens: A Conversation with Marc Aronson

Author, professor, speaker, editor and publisher by turns, Marc Aronson’s love of nonfiction and his conviction that young people can read carefully, examine evidence, and engage with new and challenging ideas informs everything he does.  Join us for a conversation about the changing role of nonfiction for youth, and the special challenges and advantages of this one-of-a-kind genre.

See you there, yes?

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. 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 NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Kathleen says:

    Why is Sacagewa wearing a feather in her hair? Aren’t we past stereotypical imagery yet?

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Note that the same feather appears in her hair, except doubled, when she’s an adult.

  2. Oh boy, don’t even get me started. Why are we having a resurgence of this problem? I thought we were making such good headway. On the upside, I’m sure your conversation with Marc will be fab.

  3. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I find both these recycled and new fictionalized biographies problematic–very problematic! How are we supposed to teach historical thinking with this material? Kids do not require fictionalized material to think about the past. They simply require well written nonfiction.

  4. What time on Saturday, September 6th ?

  5. How are these series catalogued by the Library of Congress? Are they shelved in the nonfiction section of the library? I know I’ve seen them on the nonfiction section in bookstores, but would hope libraries would be more strict (or not purchase them in the first place!).

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Each and every one has a Dewey Decimal Number that places it in the nonfiction section of the library. Not sure about LCC. And Worldcat will tell you which libraries have purchased them.

  6. Rachel Reinwald says:

    On the other hand, narrative nonfiction “picture book” biographies like The Boy Who Loved Math are quite amazing. Thoughts?

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Absolutely it is. But there wasn’t any fictionalized dialogue in that book. All the information was well cited in the back. It was, in fact, the very antithesis of the books featured here. Proof positive that nonfiction is interesting on its own merits alone.

      • I cringed when I received an email from a major kids’ publisher promising a new line of books that would “Make nonfiction FUN!” Implying of course, that it isn’t. Strange…because my students adore nonfiction.

        The fakey-biographies remind me of lots of the books which offer narratives that supposedly teach a concept–how to use fractions or what it’s like in the rainforest. They’re often didactic and joyless; a list of facts in a fancy costume. (“Golly, dad, please tell me more about the three branches of government!”) I loved it when one of my kids turned down a “storified” nonfiction book, calling it “one of those pretend real books.”

  7. Elaine Weischedel says:

    Looks like they are all trying to get on board the bandwagon Grosset & Dunlap’s “Who Was….” series has created. Teachers in the school district my public library is in got wind of these and got the kids hooked. We had to start buying them, and now it’s hard to get the kids to look at anything else. Too bad. Of course I remember reading the early editions of “Childhood….” although I soon got bored with them and ended just reading the last chapter to see what these people actually did to become famous. For my nonfiction fix I looked for Random House’s “Landmark” series. Looks like today’s kids will get G&D’s “What was….” which just doesn’t compare.

    • But at least the “Who Was…” and “Who Is…” books don’t have fake dialogue. I wish they had photos, and indexes, but other than that I think they’re pretty solid. The kids eat ‘em up like candy.

  8. Very intriguing discussion. At National Geographic, we are also engaging with how to merge high-interest with nonfiction, and have so far tackled Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, George Washington, and Thomas Edison in our National Geographic Reader biographies. Sacagawea, Cleopatra, Alexander Graham Bell, Rosa Parks, and Pope Francis are yet to come, among many others. We work with experts who comment on the accuracy of the artwork, down to Cleopatra’s nail polish. We always include primary source quotes: “In Their Own Words”, along with context timelines, cool facts, maps, and other text features.

    Nonfiction certainly doesn’t have to be fictionalized to guard against boredom. What’s authentic actually is cool.

  9. Jane Kohuth says:

    When I wrote Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree for Random House’s Step Into Reading, I was very careful that everything was accurate, including illustrations. There was absolutely no made up dialog. This was a challenge, but I am definitely of the opinion that biography for kids need not be fictionalized to make it moving or exciting.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      There is also a lot to be said for writing bios of famous people who were famous when they were children in the first place. Whole lot of extrapolating to be done when their accomplishments were made in the adult sphere, after all.

  10. Betsy says:

    Well said! These series drive me nuts!

  11. Stacey says:

    As a mom and former reading specialist, this is such an interesting subject. Neither of my children like non-fiction and would shy away from the books above regardless of the ‘fun’ aspects of them. That said, when I have introduced well written and illustrated non-fiction like Balloons Over Broadway or as Rachel said above, The Boy Who Loved Math, they were intrigued. I worry so much about the push for non-fiction that comes with the Common Core and hope that teachers, librarians and parents will seek out the good stuff. Not to sound dramatic, but I worry if we don’t, we will turn off potential lovers of books.

  12. Cindy says:

    I echo the above sentiment. Being a parent of tweens who love fiction, but aren’t crazy about non-fiction I need to get creative with book selection. I also happen to work in a library and have seen some fun (yet informative/accurate) picture book biographies come through my workplace. There’s been some great titles we’ve read recently: Dare the Wind by Tracey Fern, The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock, Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh and Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Myra Kalman. One of my daughter’s is also enjoying the Thinking Girls Treasury of Dasterdly Dames put out by Goosebottom Books (love that name!)

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