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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Invented Dialogue and the Conundrum of the Picture Book Biography

You know, it’s not that I’m a big nonfiction reader or advocate in particular.  It’s just the nature of children’s librarianship in this day and age.  You simply cannot work in the field without encountering nonfiction and, as a result, sometimes you end up with granite hard opinions about the form.  Take me, for example.  My trajectory in matters of nonfictiony nonfictioness (why yes, I was an English major, why do you ask?) proceeded accordingly:

  1. Fear nonfiction based on the books I recall from my youth which, each and every one, would at some point ask me what the major goods and services of, say, Iowa were.
  2. Read nonfiction as part of my job with great initial reluctance.
  3. Love nonfiction and discover that not only is it fun to read but I can now supplement my tawdry elementary/middle/high school education (to say nothing of college) with facts that at the very least make for good dinner party conversation.
  4. Defend nonfiction against those that do not slot neatly into my understanding of the form since, as in any religion, it is the newest converts that are inevitably the most zealous.
  5. Take myself down a notch.

At the moment I am transitioning between #4 and #5 with feet planted firmly in both spheres.  This is exemplified in no better way than in the case of invented dialogue.  For lo, when it comes to picture book biographies in which situations and characters are fleshed out through dialogue that has no basis in fact, I am unforgiving and cruel.  Beautiful books with art that would make a blind man weep are crushed beneath my toes as I note and distain moments of verbal creativity.  In general I stand by my anti-faux dialogue stance but recently I’ve been cajoled into softening, if not abandoning, my position.

You see this Saturday past I hosted a Children’s Literary Salon at NYPL called “Personal Passions and Changes in Nonfiction for Children and Teens: A Conversation with Marc Aronson”.  During the course of his talk Mr. Aronson gave a fascinating review of the history of American children’s nonfiction over the decades.  It was absolutely engrossing.  Afterwards we had a chance to engage in a bit of a Q&A and I got to bring up the subject of invented dialogue.  Marc’s answer was to the point.  Quote, “We should be honest about saying what we do and do not know.”

Simple, right?  And yet it caused me a bit of soul-searching.  There is a new crop of picture books out this year that make up dialogue left and right with scant backmatter to boot.  I shall not name names.  They know who they are.  On the flip side, there are the books that are honest about what they do and don’t know.  These books are hardly new.  Consider a lot of Jonah Winter’s books like The 39 Apartments of Ludwig Van Beethoven or Here Comes the Garbage Barge.  But we really don’t have a separate section for them.  Heck, we don’t even have a name for them!

Consider the following books that use invented dialogue but are honest about it.  These books are all shelved in my library’s Picture Book section and not the Bios or Nonfiction.  Is that the best place for them?  Impossible to say.  Still, they represent an interesting phenomenon in the world of publishing.  Mostly they are accurate, but when they are not they confess the fact.  To wit:

The Noisy Paintbox: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock, ill. Mary GrandPre – I confess that when I first read the book I was incensed at the unnecessary family dialogue in it.  That was before I noticed the note in the back that makes plain the fact that Ms. Rosenstock felt obligated to include the section but that it’s made up.  That’s honest.  Of course if she hadn’t included it I am convinced it would have been a stronger book.  As it stands, the GrandPre illustrations do much to elevate it above the pack.

Albie’s First Word: A Tale Inspired by Albert Einstein’s Childhood by Jacqueline Tourville, ill. Wynne Evans – This one’s so honest that the subtitle itself gives away the game.  “Inspired by” is a smart way of putting it.  You can’t blame Tourville for wanting to tell this story to the best of her ability.  If Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was three then what was his first word?  That’s the kind of question that could launch a thousand picture books.  Thus far, this is the only one I know of.

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, ill. S.D. Schindler – Again with the honest subtitle.  This one veers awfully closely to the true story, but Rosenstock (sound familiar? See: The Noisy Paintbox) confesses that there are just some things out there we cannot know.  It’s an awfully engaging book too.  I should note that the three books I’ve mentioned here thus far all received stars from Kirkus.

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales – This one’s a little different than the other books here since I don’t think Morales sees this as a bio in any way, shape, or form.  Frida Kahlo merely serves as the starting point.  The real story here is one of inspiration in everyday life.  Kirkus called it an homage to Kahlo’s art.  Could be.  All I know is that it’s awfully interesting but not the sort of thing you usually run across.

By the way, in case you’re curious about attending a Children’s Literary Salon, you can see our upcoming topics here.  2014 is closing out with a bang, I do believe.

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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.

Comments

  1. Sad to have missed theSalon as this is a topic near and dear to my heart. As you know I tried for years to write the story of Sarah Margru Kinson as nonfiction and finally was convinced to fictionalize it. The result is being called historical fiction, but it hardly is a novel in the conventional sense. I think it is a lot closer to some of the titles you cite here.

    I’d love to see some sort of new genre that encompasses books like this, those that have fictional elements, but are based on true events and people. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is that I feel it will bring many more people to young readers’ attention. So many people did not leave the sort of paper trails needed to create a full work of nonfiction. As a result they are often not the subject of books for children and/or the same set of personalities get repeated attention. Additionally, the ones we need out there are may well be those who were marginalized in their time which is why the paper trail isn’t there. So if we were more open to books that stand on that fiction/nonfiction border and do so honestly and openly we’d have more diverse voices and stories. (One YA that I love is Albina and the Important Men.)

    • marc aronson says:

      Betsy:

      Thanks for inviting me, and for the mention. I wonder if there is an opportunity here — if authors/editors/gatekeepers see it. That is, a book can present what we do know, and then at a point invite readers to picture, to consider, what that historical person might have thought, or said, or felt. In other words the book takes you running to the edge of the diving board, but leaves it to the reader to leap — in the text. Chapter end. Page turn. The author offers his/her imagined version. So the very lack of information opens a door to historical empathy, engagement, question, debate for readers.

      Of course each book has its own structure and PB page length requirement may not allow this kind of ring-down-the-curtain break. Still I could see the “choose your own historical dialog” book being cool.

      As I mentioned to Betsy, Tanya Stone will be posting about this same question in Consider the Source later this month.

  2. I agree with Mr. Aronson that what matters is that we are clear with children about what is and isn’t true. In my experience, that’s what children want to know.

    I also think we should stop using nonfiction as a synonym for “true”. The division of the library, between fiction and non-fiction is arbitrary and inconsistent. The non-fiction section contains books on ghosts and UFO’s, religion and mythology, fairy tales, riddles, magic, books of etiquette, poems and plays. Even the more “factual” books are often subjective; try reading the books about Columbus published between 1950 and 2000. The truths of non-fiction are variable and often change with further investigation (unlike the poetic truth of fiction, which tends to be hold stable for longer periods of time.)

    When we tell children that “non-fiction is true, and fiction is not true” we are not only confusing them (because of the nots and the nons); we’re giving them a false guide to the library. It’s more helpful for them to know that the non-fiction section is composed of books that are organized by subject, instead of by the author’s name, so that they can find all the dog books, mythology books, et cetera, in one place.

  3. Such an interesting conversation!

    I remember thinking about this a lot a few years back, when Virginia Wolf (Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault) came out. Suddenly wondering why we so rarely categorize picture books as historical fiction.

    My kids have recently become obsessed with WWI, after reading Nathan Hale’s Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood. And while that book departs, certainly, from research-based dialogue, my younger son has started coming home from the school library with all kinds of supplemental reading about the era, more traditional nonfiction.

    I feel like these less traditional bios are gateway drugs, and I love them.

    That said, I want my kids to know what’s historically accurate, and what isn’t. When that distinction isn’t obvious, I feel like an author note is an easy fix.

  4. Hi Betsy, Marc,

    Any chance of a text version of Marc’s talk being made available? And indeed, more generally for the Salons? Or a video? That would open them up to a much wider audience…

    Fingers crossed.

  5. marc aronson says:

    i gave Betsy my ppt to pass along; I am happy to share it, though not quite sure how.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Folks can email me if they want the PowerPoint and I’m happy to pass it along. As of right now NYPL isn’t interested in recording any of my Salons [enter Yosemite Sam type swearing here] so no record was made of the talk aside from that. Fortunately I’ve a blogger who writes down everything said at my Salons so when she posts it’ll be useful.

      • I would love to have the PowerPoint as well. I’ve been steadily growing the non-fiction collection at my small library, and I really love the new picture-book biography/non-fiction-esque books that are being produced. Thanks.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        No problemo. Send me your email and to you the PowerPoint shall go

  6. This is an awesome conversation. I am in love with the new nonfiction that is being written today. The days of straight facts and black and white photos have been scaling back for years now and I am excited and elated to see this. I think the new way of writing nonfiction is needed.

    We are in a technologically driven age and have more resources available to us. I loved AFRICA IS MY HOME by Monica Edinger. I did not care that it was historical fiction. All I cared about was – at some point in time, this story happened. Someone lived this story.

    Teachers want children to question the emotions of the character and the setting. I am currently writing a manuscript about a little known American hero. I have contacted the family, listened to his story (as told by the daughter), and sat down to write. At some point, I have to create his dialogue because it is hearsay. This story is nonfiction, but I am aware that the publisher may say it is historical fiction because the daughter said he said it. There is no other proof that those were his “exact” words.

    So we can be honest. We can create back matter and tell outright that this is made up dialogue. But what do we really want to get out of the book? Information or emotion? Whenever I read PINK AND SAY by Patricia Polacco, I cry. I care more about the emotional story than the fact that her great-great-great-great grandfather shook the hands of Lincoln, nursed back to health by a the mother of a slave, and died because he was the friend of a slave. This book is classified as historical fiction even though it is based on her family.

    So for me, give me nonfiction books by Audrey Vernick, Barb Rosenstock, Don Tate, Jacqueline Woodson, Tanya Lee Stone, Barbara Kerley, Emily Arnold McCully, Katherine Applegate, Dianna Aston, etc. As you can see, I am a nonfiction connoisseur; I devour nonfiction books.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      If someone hasn’t patented the term “nonfiction connoisseur” I suggest that you do so. Or, at the very least, start a blog with that phrase as its name.

  7. Thanks Betsy and Marc. Always keen to see this topic come up. Sorry I missed this salon.

    While writing an article for HORN BOOK on the dangers of dialogue (http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2013/07/danger-dialogue-ahead-article-in-horn.html), I came to see that even accurately quoting statements can call into question how “true” nonfiction is. Example: if your text repurposes a line from an interview as dialogue, yes, it’s true that the person said it – just not necessarily at precisely the point you use it in your narrative. But that’s not fiction. I call it “nonfictionesque.”

    Here is what can happen when dialogue is NOT attributed: http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2010/09/who-said-what-and-when-part-2-of-2.html.

    And since we’re talking about Marc and nonfiction, here is my take on a particularly interesting project of his (nonfiction in which the author/researcher becomes a character in the story): http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2010/06/aint-nothing-but-manuscript.html.

  8. Elizabeth….it is done…I think this is a great idea. I already have a blog about picture books. But as I have developed a new love for these books. This is an awesome idea. So here it is…I will be blogging about…you guessed it…Nonfiction books at http://nonfictionconnoisseur.blogspot.com/

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Wow! And it’s absolutely lovely too. Well played indeed. I do honestly love that title.

  9. Jacqueline T. says:

    I appreciate the mention of ALBIE’S FIRST WORD, Betsy! In the context it’s being discussed, I am feeling like maybe just maybe we really did come up with the correct subtitle for the book — this was one of about eight or nine alternatives. And yes, the goal in adding one was transparency for readers and (hopefully) easier shelving. I will send you an email request for Marc’s PowerPoint. Thank you for making it available!

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