Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Bomb: Nina’s Take

Fatal flaws, whether real or perceived, are so hard to handle at the Newbery table. Inevitably it’s not the flaw that’s in question, but whether or not it’s fatal, and it’s so hard to persuade those that feel fatalistic.

I need that preamble before I talk about Sheinkin’s book, because so far I’ve not found anyone who feels as strongly as I do about this flaw, but neither has anyone given me any argument to feel less strongly about it.

Shenkin is an engaging writer, and artful at crafting pieces of research into a narrative that is electrifying.  He does this with a crutch; a crutch he doesn’t need: he seems to invent “you are there” moments.  I say “seems to” because it’s hard to backtrack on his research: this, a not-necessarily-fatal, but notable flaw.

I’d had the same frustrating reaction with THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD, so this time, I flagged everything I came across, and made an attempt to look back at Sheinkin’s sources, to see if the material he was using was a direct quote from another source.   Sheinkin provided references for most direct quotes, but not all, and did not provide page numbers, only bibliographic citations for the sources they came from.  If there was any particular scene I was curious about, I had to guess–from the sources used for nearby quotes–which source(s) described the scene, and browse read through them until I found the source material.

Let me show you what I’m talking about.  You can find examples on most pages, but here’s:  p.19-20  “Szilard sighed…Winger shook his head….Szilard leaned his sweaty head out the car window.” I’ve just pulled out, from a scene, certain gestures that help to set it; but which, frankly, don’t add much, and also are highly suspect to me.  Did Szilard or Winger describe this event in such detail that it could be reported that way?  Their first-hand accounts are the sources for quote material in that chapter, and I read through them, and they provide no details like this.

A similar situation in the same chapter happens with Roosevelt: p.20  “Rooselvelt said, flashing his famously big smile,”….”He banged his desk,” Sheinkin cites Richard Rhodes’ “Dark Sun” for the quote that issues from Roosevelt’s mouth; and that compares exactly, but without the famously big smile or the banging of the desk.

Meanwhile, in the “Norweigan” chapters as we’re referring to them in comments on Jonathan’s Take…there are many of these sorts of scenes.  The two sources cited for these chapters in general are Knut Haukelid’s “Skis Against the Atom,” a highly dramatic and detail-oriented first-hand account, and Thomas Gallagher’s “Assault in Norway,” which is a secondary account from 1975, using the same highly dramatic style of narrative nonfiction as Sheinkin.  Since the scenes I was interested in were not cited directly, and these are long narrative sources, I had to just go hunting. I did spend a week of evenings browsing through these two books looking for the scenes mentioned, and found many of them, but not all.  They’re probably all there, is my sense, not having read the books cover to cover.  But I can’t tell the difference  between the scenes above in which it appears that Sheinkin has fictionalized gesture, and, for instance, the one on p.53 “Poulsson tapped ashes from his pipe into the palm of his hand. ‘Interesting,’ he said.”…which, if it was in either of these books (I didn’t find it myself), could be a remembered first-hand account. And if it was there, could have been cited directly with a page number…or a description given by Sheinkin of how he developed the material in this chapter, from which accounts.

We know he can avoid this trap, because  in other places he uses the simple technique of  quoting a first hand account and citing it.  For instance: p.32 ” ‘ After breakfast, I headed for the bus stop to wait for the 8:05 bus to take me to Honolulu where I was to play golf,’ he said.” This quote from Pesek is sourced in the back.  We know who said it, and in what context.   It is, therefore, a reliable part of the narrative.

So: is this a problem, and if so, why and how big?  I know this sort of narrative does not bother many readers.  And it’s not as if Sheinkin is the only author that ever develops a narrative with techniques of fiction to accentuate the setting or drama.  For instance, Hoose sets up some “imaginary” scenes from the point of view of B95 in MOONBIRD…but he gives them the context of being imagined.   In TEMPLE GRANDIN, there are some very detailed scenes…but the reader knows that Montgomery interviewed Grandin, so the intimation is that Grandin reported these scenes.

Why does it bother me in Sheinkin?  I don’t see where these gestures add to the narrative, which is already riveting.   And because they stand out to me the reader as unlikely to have been witnessed and reported in such detail, and because the citations for these scenes seems arbitrary and almost deliberately unhelpful,  it undercuts for me the effect of the rest of his narrative.  It makes me distrustful of the narrative, which is probably unnecessary, and gets in the way of his delivery.  He makes himself an unreliable narrator.   I think this is not being respectful of the intended audience: who want to be gripped by history, and not have to wonder at the show.

share save 171 16 Bomb: Ninas Take
Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I just want to emphasize that Nina has actually noted two different problems with the sourcing. First, it is difficult to track the source of Sheinkin’s quotations because he does not provide page numbers for them, and further not every quote is sourced (although the general pattern is that all quotes thereafter in the main text come from the same source until the next source is noted in the back). The reader who wants to track them down, then has to go to the index and do a bit of work to pinpoint the scene in question. The source notes then are not very accurate, clear, or organized. This kind of laziness is very annoying, but I don’t see it as any worse than some of the things we’ve let slide in recently recognized books (see Peccadillo vs. Fatal Flaw thread).

    The second problem Nina noted is the sourcing of gestures. This is a more insiduous problem because it threatens to erode the authority of the author, and when that happens the reader becomes hostile and suspicious, and no book can survive a reading in that mindset. I’m trying to track down some of Sheinkin’s sources so I can check them. I’ve only gotten a couple–Rhodes and Wigner–but I’ve left them at work. I’ll make some observations from them tomorrow–and probably down the road, too. For now, I think it’s best to work from two different perspectivies.

    THE BEST CASE SCENARIO: Sheinkin’s gestures are accurate, but not sourced very well. We have a hard time finding them all, but we eventually do. In this scenario, the sourcing is lazy and this remains a peccadillo.

    THE WORSE CASE SCENARIO: Sheinkin has completely embellished the gestures–not words, thoughts, or facts. Just the gestures. Still a peccadillo? Fatal flaw? Something in between? It’s a question that I’ll be pondering as I check these sources, listen to our discussion, reflect, and reread.

    In the meantime, I’d like to respond to Nina’s last sentence–”I think this is not being respectful of the intended audience: who want to be gripped by history, and not have to wonder at the show”–with a comparison. No pair of books make me feel that way as much as WE ARE THE SHIP and HEART AND SOUL (and I was never brave enough to admit that in our discussion of the latter title). Of course, the biggest difference there is that what Nelson is doing is transparent to the reader, but I still feel that by choosing to tell history in this format, he is pandering to the same kind of impulse: to embellish history, reinvent it, make it come alive for the reader. I do think these books reach an audience of people who don’t like to read nonfiction, but what’s wrong with converting them to the genre with a “real” nonfiction text?

    I have some more things I wanted to say about primary sources in general and Sheinkin’s sources in particular, but having left my books at work, and wanting to knock off some more pages in THE UNFORTUNATE SON, I’ll have to save that for tomorrow.

  2. Wendy says:

    This is a fascinating post, Nina, because I’d forgotten it, but there WERE multiple times in my reading of BOMB where part of my mind paused to say “Wow, people kept some hella detailed notes on all this stuff!” about the things you mention, tone and gestures. I just assumed that if it was in the book, Sheinkin must have had a source specifying it. You’ve done the legwork I didn’t bother to do. And apparently I am very credulous.

    I’m of two minds. I think the you-are-there moments have a greater impact on the reader than you seem to, in a way that’s positive for the book. I can see this being put forth as an authorial choice, to use context clues in order to create scenarios that seem logical. Also, our current culture of bibliography and exact sourcing has not been around for all that long. Is it possible we’re making it a bigger issue than it really needs to be? Is it fair to deny authors today the freedom they had fifty years ago to write creative non-fiction?

    On the other hand, I think the current demand for sources and paper trails was borne out of too many instances of misinformation, in some cases quite damaging.

    Jonathan has wondered at times why an author chose to write this or that book as fiction-inspired-by instead of non-fiction, and I think this is a large part of why–writing fiction gives an author that freedom.

    I wouldn’t say, myself, that books like Kadir Nelson’s, or even this one which is less transparent, are embellishing or reinventing history [with possible exception of the Norwegian issue, and others that are similar that we may not know about]; these little moments and nuances aren’t History, and we have had too many problems with actual events of history being reinvented in a self-serving way; I don’t want to trivialize that issue. And I think it’s important to look at a book for what it is and not what it isn’t, especially in the case of the two Nelson titles. I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of books in which “real” non-fiction is better than… I don’t know, not-real?

    Some of this is an issue for the Sibert committee to wrestle with. But we don’t have a lot of guidelines in the Newbery materials to help us determine what standard we need to hold a book to in order to consider a work of non-fiction a distinguished contribution to children’s literature. It’s got to be more than just “well, that was a rollicking good story”–which it was. Right?

  3. Nina, I am glad you raised this issue of possible fictionalized scenes. I didn’t think about it when reading BOMB because I just assumed that it was all documented even if it wasn’t in the back matter. Just because there is so much material on the topic. But now I want to go back to look at it again because I did have a response like yours when I began to read Sheinkin’s forthcoming book on the Lincoln’s grave robbers. The very first scene is dramatic and exciting and I wondered how on earth he’d gotten all the information about it and so am eager to see the source notes in the finished work (as there are none in the ARC).

    I don’t agree that this is a case of disrespect because I do like the way he ramps up the action and writes this as a thriller and I think that is pretty brilliant. I was sitting with a 6th grader yesterday who was completely absorbed in the book, finding it unputdownable. But, as with the Lincoln book, I’d like to know where Sheinkin embellished and where it is straight firsthand accounting.

    I don’t have a problem with this sort of thing as long as it is acknowledged by the author. I’ve seen other imagined scenes in works of nonfiction and the authors will indicate that they used the actual words of the individual. But often the scene is still imagined. That is, they take material from somewhere (letter, diary, or something) and then and then imagine a scene with the dialogue coming from those sources. As far as I’m concerned those scenes are completely made-up even if the dialogue is not. More like collage than anything else. That is, the author takes actual quotes from somewhere and then uses it to create a scene. The opening scene in the Lincoln book had a bit of that feel (although I still have no idea where the dialogue came from).

    I think great nonfiction often tends to be imaginative. That is, deciding what to put in and what to leave out, how to put it together, the vocabulary, and so forth. And so the line between it being purely all true and purely all made up seems pretty porous. As someone who has spent over a decade working on a true story that started as nonfiction and slipped across the boarder to fiction it is something I’m highly aware of.

    I think this is a tough issue indeed. Does Sheinkin have to source every scene? Perhaps he is doing more innovative nonfiction, a sort like Nelson’s that is closer to fiction, but not quite.

  4. I do now remember wondering who noticed Einstein’s windswept hair after a morning of sailing:)

  5. mslibrarian says:

    The pendulum of opinions on whether nonfiction has to be absolutely, 100% according to recorded history has swung back and forth for a long time. I remember a time when ANY invented scenes would have discredited the author and the book, and now, we are here, discussing whether these potentially invented gestures and visuals (and sometimes internal and emotional reactions) are to be accepted as products of the author’s creative license. Nina, I read the first scene of BOMB and told myself, hmm… it feels like this author is inventing some details that might not have been already recorded and that feeling stayed with me throughout the book. It definitely gave me pause but I also believe that he didn’t misinterpret major events or reactions of the players and thus wasn’t finding this a fatal flaw. I need to re-read the book and keep in mind your comments regarding these invented nuances: do they really not add to the excitement and immediacy of the “stories”?

  6. Eric says:

    It sounds to me that some of you want BOMB to be a certain type of nonfiction and it is an all together different type.
    Would we fault one genre of fiction for not being another genre? Are there rules about nonfiction that I’m unaware of? This might be the same thing I said regarding No Crystal Stairs but why do we demand our nonfiction to fit into such a rigid definition of what we think nonfiction ought to be? Who is to say how well a nonfiction book must be sourced, or whether or not an author can add a hand gesture or facial expression to the characters in order to heighten the sense of being there with them as history unfolds?
    As a reader you may very well prefer the nonfiction of Murphy or Freeman but that doesn’t mean that their styles are the only acceptable forms of nonfiction. Sheinkin has shown he has a certain style of nonfiction (one I think makes for an incredibly exciting reading experience). I’m not one for creating a hierarchy of nonfiction where certain styles (of writing or sourcing) are held to a higher esteem than others.
    The newbery is not an award for best citing of sources or most accurate depiction of historical events, therefore I’m not sure any of this matters in terms of whether or not this is a distinguished contribution to american literature for children.

  7. Eric, for me it isn’t a question of reading preference as much as a broadening or reconsideration of the sort of nonfiction that contains elements that are completely made-up. I adored BOMB and am now wanting to figure out if these are indeed small nuances, do they need sources, do they matter? I appreciated mslibrarian’s take on it as it helped me to consider even moreso how significant these all are.

    Fascinating discussion!

  8. laurel says:

    I wonder if people would watch a documentary with reenacted scenes and ask the same questions of an actor interpreting historic moments. “Did Darwin really hold a fountain pen in his hand and stare at it, while thinking about evolution?” “Did Adolf Hitler really sip his tea that slowly?” In order to give narrative life to a historic moment, I think there has to be a little room for invention, because there’s so much left out of the historical record. And I guess I expect readers to know that. Not all readers like books that do this, and I respect that. But if I pick one up, I assume some level of wiggle room.

    For me there’s not really a problem if the “imaginative” moments aren’t especially manipulative, and if they don’t contradict something that’s in the historical record.

    What if someone were writing a memoir, and they added bits of dialogue or detail that they couldn’t possibly remember? That happens all the time…

    That said, I’m really appreciative of this conversation. It’s a really good question. For me, the important thing is that authors be considering the issue. But I don’t mind these moments myself.

  9. laurel says:

    (except when I do)

    :)

  10. Laurel, I was just talking to a colleague about this thread and also brought up those reenacted scenes in documentaries! And also the acting that goes into those who read aloud letters and other primary sources.

  11. mslibrarian says:

    To answer Laurel’s question regarding video viewing from a personal perspective:

    I think there are differences in the viewers’ minds regarding stylistic choices of “Documentary” vs. “Docudrama” — If a film or TV segment is proposing to be a “documentary,” then, I as a viewer do want as much authentic scenes/dialogs, etc. as possible. If I find out that words are taken out of context to “make a point” or too much camera angle manipulation, etc., I become suspicious. I WANT my documentary to be as true to reality as possible. But, if I know I’m watching a docudrama peppered with creative licenses from the film makers, my mind switches gear and I stop demanding total accuracy. However, I am unsure whether I absorb the essence of the facts the same way or not due to the different formats. I wonder how others feel.

    As to the question Eric poses: the issue really is that “of degree” — if there is room for inventiveness in telling nonfiction, how FAR can a historian or scientist “invent” scenes, dialogues, internal intentions, etc. before we say, “Hey, wait a minute, this author is not reporting or recording any more, he/she is just re-inventing history/science, etc.”? And, we are all lovers of words and believe in the power of words — sometimes, a few inaccurately or inventively inserted words can change the whole perception of an event and thus interpretation of the historical events.

    Still thinking hard about this book and others. And Nina and Jonathan, have you thought of comparing the sourcing styles of BOMB with Master of Deceit?

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But Monica! Einstein’s windswept hair after a morning of sailing *is* documented in the Rhodes! :-P

  13. Very pleased to know that, Jonathan!

  14. Nina says:

    Waking up here… I realize that the effecto of the writing style IS respectful of audience, and that there is a whole spectrum of ways to document history, and a pendulum of preferences over time. But it’s really Sheinkin’s lack of tranparency with what he’s done that makes me feel distrustful, and I think is disrepectful of his audience. We have so many great examples in children’s nonfiction of authors describing their process, describing how they are telling their story, and that is what’s lacking here to me.

  15. Sandy D. says:

    I figured Einstein’s windswept hair was documented by the photograph in the book!

  16. Wendy says:

    On the other side, I don’t like it when authors describe their process. I generally find it kind of self-important–and also, why should they need to?

    After some thought, I’m becoming more comfortable with much of this being acceptable authorial choice. Every non-fiction book is going to have a slant based on the author’s preferences or beliefs or research findings. The “Norwegian issue” is still the one I’m hung up on, because it gets into the kind of philosophical manipulation of fact that I’ve mentioned before as bothering me more than individual facts that may be inaccurate.

    Of course, I’m very likely to change my mind by tomorrow.

  17. Wendy says:

    Hmm, I probably overstated that; I should have said “sometimes find it self-important”. Sometimes it’s really interesting. But I don’t think it’s a necessary part of the book, and also, I think it can come across as being defensive–perhaps in reaction to, or in anticipation of, questions of integrity.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sheinkin has used an omniscient narrator here, but the difficulty is that there is no omniscient witness to any of the events in this narrative. The next best alternative is gather eyewitness testimony from all of the participants in a given event. There will be differences between these accounts.

    For example, Rhodes and Sheinkin both describe the person Szilard and Wigner ask directions from as a young boy of seven or eight years old, but Wigner describes him as a young man. These are not necessarily incongruous, but you can see the difficulty fraught with synthesizing all of these viewpoints to emerge with The Truth or at least some reasonable facsimile thereof.

    Since many of these people were young at the time they gave many accounts of these actions. Rhodes, for example, says that Szilard gave many accounts of a meeting with Teller and Wigner, but that he chose to use the one closest to the event. So there are even discrepancies within a single person’s testimony over several retellings. Then you add all the historical scholarship done that quotes these various sources.

    When I look at Nina’s five instances of exaggerated gestures in the chapter, “Finding Einstein,” I find that I can dismiss three of them with a good conscience. The easiest one is the sigh which is used in the book as a dialogue tag (e.g. “I wish I didn’t have to work today,” I sighed.) Sheinkin has simply used his thesaurus to substitute the word “sighed” for “said” for storytelling purposes. I think even Nina would concede this point.

    Wigner’s headshake and Roosevelt’s smile are, to me, things that can be reasonably inferred from the dialogue and the situation, but they are also things that are subject to interpretation. Was it a headshake or merely a nod? A smile or merely a smirk? Again, to me, these seem like piddling things.

    I am more concerned about Szilard leaning his sweaty head out the window and Roosevelt banging his fist on the table. These are more egregious for me and if I can’t source them then I will have to decide how much of a problem it is. The thing is, though, that I’m trying to check all of the sources in the quotation notes for this given chapter, “Finding Einstein,” and all the quotes *are* sourced there (even if they are lazily sourced), but should I have any expectation of finding the gestures in these books?

    And that’s the conundrum with this whole issue. I almost feel like we have said that Sheinkin is guilty of this crime until he is proven innocent–which is unfair–but on the other hand his lack of transparency and clarity in the documentation makes it very difficult for us to acquit him.

  19. Wendy says:

    Does an author have a duty to be “transparent” about these things?

  20. Laura Canon says:

    Frankly it always makes me squirm when I run across sentences like that in non-fiction (“so and so sighed” “So and so stared out the window at the river which flowed through the heart of the city, wondering…”) It goes back to what Nina said in the post: it’s a crutch for a writer, and usually not necessary.

  21. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I want to be very clear here: Nina is not suggesting that Sheinkin has invented scenes or emotions or thoughts. She is suggesting he has invented gestures that accompany–and punctuate–the dialogue. The jury is still out on whether or not he does this. For the time being, we can ask ourselves: if he does this, how big of a problem is it?

  22. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t know that nonfiction authors necessarily have to be transparent, but we need to be able to trust them as sources of authority. One way they can do that is through their documentation. Since the criteria do not specifically state what constitutes acceptable documentation, the committee has to hash this out on a book by book basis. Personally, I do trust Sheinkin as a source of authority; I just think his sourcing is lazy. I may change my mind later. We’ll see.

  23. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, thanks for the clarification. And to mince words even further…I really *cannot* accuse Sheinkin of inventing *anything* because it’s clear he’s done a huge amount of solid research and interpretation that I can’t begin to touch…but the way he’s presented his writing makes me *suspect*. I don’t think that every nonfiction writer has to explain their process, but I do believe that if they’re going to ask a reader to take this leap with them, they should.

  24. Brandy says:

    I am really enjoying this discussion. It certainly has challenged me.

    I really don’t have a problem with gestures. The book played in my head like a docu-drama so that might explain why I’m willing to be lenient there. I don’t really feel like those additions are any reason to throw suspicion on the rest of the book. But that just mean I’m far too trusting.

    The Norwegian thing on the other hand, I will see as a major flaw if its importance can be refuted.

  25. mslibrarian says:

    This is my ignorance asking for clarification: Is there a tradition of knowing exactly how an author of nonfiction go about gathering their information and presenting them beyond the necessary source citations?

    I know that most nonfiction for children just have bibliography attached without copious notes on where the facts/quotes come from exactly and where the authors took inventive liberty. I’m reading the opening scene of Jim Murphy’s Newbery Honor title, The Great Fire — here’s the exact wording on page 13, 1. A City Ready to Burn — ”

    Sullivan ambled down the stretch of land between the O’Learys’ and their neighbor, crossed the street, and sat down on the wooden sidewalk in front of Thomas White’s house. After adjusting his wooden leg to make himself comfortable, he leaned back against White’s fence to enjoy the night.” and… “The wind coming off the prairie had been strong all day, sometimes gusting wildly, and leaves scuttled along the street; the sound of laughter and fiddle music drifted through the night.”

    Note the details of adjustment of the wooden leg, of the laughter and fiddle music drifting, of the manner of walking (ambling). This book contains no author’s note, a half-page introduction, and two pages of Bibliography and Sources without referencing specific page numbers of quotes or the “gestures” found in the passages. Murphy did make clear of the first hand account sources and within the text, it’s clear which accounts he took the quotes and emotions from. I have not checked the actual source materials to know if these were taken from the original accounts or invented by Murphy. It obviously did not bother the 1996 Newbery committee.

    I am also looking at another way that an author could present gestures and emotions, such as in Hellen Keller: Rebellious Spirit by Laurie Lawlor. On page 8, she writes, “For a moment, she rested on her hands and knees. Although she could not see the other beachgoers, she must have felt the ground shake and tremble through her calves and up through her arms…. the unmistakable rumbling of footsteps hurring past.” Some readers could be bothered by this “second guessing” but at least we cannot fault the author of presumption or taking too much liberty with facts.

  26. mslibrarian says:

    And I have to agree with Nina’s sentiment about wanting to be able to trust the author as the reliable source in an informational book — it’s my tendency to always ask, “Where did they get their data? Who were polled? What questions were asked and how the choices of answers were presented?” whenever I hear anyone throwing statistics at me. (One can always tailor a survey where the results can be “pre-designed.” Yup, I am THAT distrusting…

  27. Jonathan Hunt says:

    mslibrarian, I think the three general features are (a) a bibliography of books read and consulted that informed the present work, (b) footnotes and/or endnotes that cite the source of specific quotes and claims (often with explanations and digressions–more common in scholarly literature), and (c) an author’s note which may address methodology. If an author tried to document everything, however, it would become unwieldy. At some point, it’s about trust. Do we trust that Murphy and Sheinkin did right by us–or not?

  28. Cecilia says:

    I think that I do trust them–but it would be nice to see an author’s note or source notes explaining their process and acknowledging the choices made in adding those gestures or emotions, if they were added. Then again, I’m the reader who LOVES source notes and will read the acknowledgments even in fiction books for the fun of finding the little clues to the writing process that they give. So it may be my own bias. I feel like a lot of non-fiction writers use those kind of novelistic scene setting paragraphs as chapter openers a lot and then go into more of a straight lecture style for telling the rest of the information, whereas Sheinkin uses the novelistic style all the way through. I think I was bothered more by his ‘narrative with techniques of fiction’ as Nina puts it, in NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD than in either BOMB or the ARC of LINCOLN’S GRAVE ROBBERS but maybe I’m just more used to his style now.

  29. Mark Flowers says:

    Cecilia said this: “I feel like a lot of non-fiction writers use those kind of novelistic scene setting paragraphs as chapter openers a lot and then go into more of a straight lecture style for telling the rest of the information, whereas Sheinkin uses the novelistic style all the way through”

    This is definitely my impression as well. I just opened up Jim Murphy’s new book INVINCIBLE MICROBE to the first page and it has him recounting in a completely novelistic way an event about which the truth cannot ever be known – the last day in the life of a prehistoric man with TB. My memory is that the rest of the book does not ever go back to this sort of novelistic writing, but I suppose I should flip through it again to check.

    In any case, I guess the question is: if this kind of thing is all right as a chapter-opening scene-setter, why not in a mid-chapter scene-setter? I’m not saying I have the answer to that question, but I think it has to be asked.

  30. Mark Flowers says:

    Some food for thought:

    Looking for an example from an adult book, I picked up the most similar book I happen to have on my bookshelves at home: TRIANGLE: THE FIRE THAT CHANGED AMERICA by David Von Drehle. This was a very well reviewed book by library journals as well as mainstream outlets like the NY Times.

    Here’s a couple of random examples of Von Drehle’s style:

    1) “Normally a soft-spoken man, Kline screwed up his nerve and caught the attention of Samuel Bernstein, the factory manager and a relative of the bosses. . . . He demanded more money.” (p. 35)

    2) “Even their veteran employees, many of whom were relatives of the owners, greeted [the bosses] formally: ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Blanck,’ or ‘Please look here, Mr. Harris.’ But most of the workers only stole glances as the bosses passed. It would not have occurred to the young women at the machines to address such Olympian figures.” (p. 37)

    Here’s what Von Drehle’s notes say on these two pieces:

    1) Von Drehle refers us to p. 162 of a previous book on the fire by Stein. So I go to Google Books and find this: “About a year and a half before that walkout . . . Jake Kline and Morris Elzufin, ‘two soft-spoken group leaders, found they had little left from their pay for themselves after paying off their teams. They got a curt answer when they went to appeal to Bernstein, the manager.”

    2)The formality of address is evident throughout the [trial] testimony of defense witnesses.

    I think we can all agree that Von Drehle is up to something very similar to Sheinkin. We get Kline “screwing up his nerve”, speaking “loudly” and “demand[ing] more money” where none of those is explicitly in Stein’s version. Similarly, we have two entirely invented quotations as examples of the kinds of things the workers would say, plus how they would have thought about their jobs, all based on how they spoke during a court trial where they were presumably coached by attorneys.

    I don’t intend us to get off on a tangent about a completely different book from a decade ago. My point is that I was able to pick up a book basically at random which 1) I know to have been very well received in many quarters, and 2) uses the same or similar techniques to what we’re talking about with BOMB. Should that change anyone’s mind about Sheinkin? I dunno. It makes me a bit more willing to believe that this is at least one somewhat standard way of presenting narrative history these days. And it makes me want to look for more examples.

  31. Nina says:

    Mark, I’m sure there are several examples of this kind of writing of nonfiction. I find Sheinkin’s examples a little more blatant that Von Drehle, but yes, in the same vein. I know I’ve read this style before. But I just think some context is due…especially looking at this book from within the Newbery criteria. I find “Presentation of information, including accuracy, clarity…” lacking, if we can’t tell what scenes are emphasized for dramatic purposes and which are not. I think this is a great book and I’ll recommend it to readers. But despite the fact that I think many *elements* of it are distinguished, because of what to me is a big fault in one very “pertinent” element, I can’t call it distinguished.

  32. mslibrarian says:

    Nina, I wonder if it is true that the readers cannot tell which parts are embellished and which are reported. I think perhaps most readers will understand that the direct quotes and the majority or all of the events are taken from recorded history, also the players. And that most readers will understand also that the little gestures of sighing, widening eyes, nervous laughs (not quoted from the book since I have it at work) are the author’s narrative embellishments. If that is the case, I believe, at this point, that there is no huge sacrificing of clarity or accuracy in BOMB. Still thinking…

  33. Sandy D. says:

    Aren’t “most readers” kids, though (or intended to be kids? I *hope* these books are actually aimed at kids and not just adults-who-read-kid’s-literature)? I’m not sure that they can differentiate the actually recorded from the embellished passages.

    On the other hand, I’m not convinced this is a fatal flaw, so much as a stylistic choice in this kind of book. Maybe it should be explained more transparently. I’ll have to think about this, especially when it comes to middle grade/teen fiction.

    Wendy, I just finished “Bomb” last night and have to say I didn’t hate the epilogue, though it did strike me as jarringly different from the rest of the book.

  34. Mark Flowers says:

    Nina – I’m actually not convinced one way or the other right now, I’m just trying to map out the territory, so I can see where this book stands.

    The thing is, for me, the Newbery criteria are far too vague for us to be able to say that this book is “not distinguished.” I think first we have to make a lot of decisions about how we (as a fake committee) define “accuracy” “clarity” etc. And I just don’t believe that the criteria are a big enough help. (BTW – I think this is true of fiction as well – all of our attempts to find the most distinguished book of the year are underpinned by a set of shared – or not shared – assumptions about the definitions of various words in the criteria).

    So that’s why I want to look at more books that I and others have found to be distinguished and see how BOMB compares to them. Right now, I am tentatively of the opinion that the “gesture” stuff is a more or less common stylistic choice (one that I’m not sure I agree with, but which exists in the world of nonfiction), while the poor (or confusing, or clumsy, or whatever) sourcing is a real issue of clarity that detracts from the overall book, but possibly only as a pecadillo. But, as I say, this is all very tentative, and as I poke around in more adult nonfiction I may find myself forming a different opinion.

    Also, I should say that all of this is making me more and more impressed by TITANIC which is very scrupulously sourced, as well as being almost as well written as BOMB.

  35. Rachel says:

    I’ve always found there to be a big difference between the source notes in popular and academic non-fiction. To me, the level of detail in BOMB’s source notes seems pretty standard for popular narrative non-fiction, for adults or kids. To try (and convict) Sheinkin of embellishing fact on the basis of those notes and a couple of individual’s “smell tests” seems hasty.

  36. mslibrarian says:

    Sandy, I hope you are right that most readers of BOMB are kids! And you are probably right that they cannot distinguish the facts from embellishment: so, then perhaps the question for us adults is how much do we think these embellishments “damage” the overall value of the book FOR its intended audience, if at all. If we are bothered as readers ourselves due to our own sets of requirements, or if we are bothered because we believe that we are responsible for “safeguarding” the standards FOR the kids. (I just imagine having a 5th grader reading over our conversation here, and shaking her head, thinking, “Grown ups can be very silly sometimes…”) This somehow reminds me of older arguments over the authorial attribution (the lack of) of the Dear America books and how “hurt” some young readers feel when they find out that those “true” diaries are fake. I don’t think that any young reader will feel indignant that a few gestures are inserted or a few scenes are dramatized.

  37. leda says:

    I have not had a chance to read BOMB yet. But the term “creative nonfiction” is not meant to imply leeway with facts, such as they are. It’s still nonfiction. If the author develops fictional scenes out of such facts, then it’s not nonfiction, in my opinion. It’s something else, and the author should be clear about his or her intention.

    It’s a fairly recent (if you’ve been around a long time) and very welcome development to include source notes in nonfiction. Look back at the great Russell Freedman’s earlier books, for example, and you won’t find documented quotations. I believe publishers received some pressure from educators to begin including source notes, but I could be wrong on this.

    None of what I’m saying is a criticism of BOMB, since I haven’t read it. But the discussion is important.

  38. Jonathan Hunt says:
  39. Wendy says:

    I find the review kind of puzzling (I’m not sure what’s anachronistic about the language cited). And it’s a little bold to say that Sheinkin is “uninterested” in “historical interpretation”–that felt to me both like an assumption and another plug for a certain style of nonfiction.

    Incidentally, had a good talk with my dad over the weekend about this book (he’s one of those men who “knows something about everything”). His point of view, based on my recounting of the gist of the book and the thrust of the Norwegian question, was that any small thing has the potential to disrupt the creation and success of an atomic bomb, and that it sounded like the author chose to focus on one of those small things that prevented the German bomb, which sounded okay to him.

  40. Barb Gogan says:

    I just wanted to point out The Horn Book’s interview with Sheinkin about BOMB including this quote: “I put quote sources in the back of the book, but not sources for each fact — standard procedure for narrative nonfiction. If anyone wants to know where I got something, they’re more than welcome to email me.”
    http://www.hbook.com/2012/11/authors-illustrators/interviews/five-questions-for-steve-sheinkin/

  41. Jim Murphy says:

    It’s taken me a long time to find this interesting discussion and to respond (broken bones, a torn tendon and an operation are my only excuse). First, about the sourcing for The Great Fire. That book was done a long time ago (as far as publishing goes) and sourcing wasn’t as rigorously demanded as it is today. But I listened carefully to the people who asked for more and better sourcing and now I make sure that everything is as thoroughly documented as possible, which includes specific page numbers (My aim is to make it as easy — and fun — for a kid to do such a search as possible). Second, about the sources for some of the quotes used here. Again, this was a long time ago, but my recollection is that Sullivan’s specific movements were part of his court testimony on how the fire started as well as newspaper accounts. Third, about INVINCIBLE MICROBE, that opening scene is sourced and was where Alison Blank and I learned the sex, approximate ago, location and description of where he died, and the form of TB he had (and was confirmed by a member of the research team as well as reading the more scholarly report). There are other nonfiction scenes in IM, though we did not attempt to make this a continuous start to finish “story.” The book looks at the long history of TB from three distinct angles, and a story line approach would have required simplifying the history in an unacceptable way. The scenes are, in many ways, stage setters, but they do provide real information and are in no way made up out of whole cloth. THE GIANT is much more of a continuous nonfiction story, though even here I let readers in on the “inside” story of the fraud after a few chapters to let them view and evaluate the people and situation from a variety of angles. Finally, I have always felt that there are many valid ways to approach a topic in a nonfiction book (both Steve and I did books on Benedict Arnold, for instance). And different approaches will have their champions (and, I suppose detractors). How much sourcing plays in the final judging process is hard to know, though I think the demand for more information on how our books are assembled makes this a crucial issue to consider.

  42. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to chime in! I know that the rigors of sourcing go in and out of fashion; and while in some cases I think the detailed page numbering is important, I don’t see it warranted in every case. How do you feel about “the demand for more information on how our books are assembled”? I feel like in the children’s lit world, where most of us aren’t historians, we may be asking for different kinds of information than in that field. To me, “making it easy–and fun” for kids to understand the way a book is assembled, and do further research if they want to, is the key…and I’m always interested in seeing authors’ different takes at going about this.

  43. Jim Murphy says:

    I have a feeling that the demand for sourcing isn’t going to go out of fashion anytime soon, especially for some reviewers. Once I got into the flow of it, I was very comfortable with providing this information as clearly as possible, but I also change the way I approach it depending on the topic. I am not a fan of the academic, formal source notes (what kid knows what to make of an ibid here and an id there?), so I play with how I describe/detail this info. As for documenting how an idea was transformed into a text, well, that’s a more recent notion and I try to let readers know what this journey was like so they can see not only why I did the book, but why I thought it might be of interest. THE GIANT (about the Cardiff Giant hoax of 1869) began with me thinking about how Bernie Madoff fooled very intelligent people for years, though I didn’t want to do a “ripped from the headlines” book because all of the facts weren’t/aren’t in yet, and because BM’s scheme was really a boring bookkeeping game. A naked ten-and-a-half feet tall stone giant is much more visually, um, gripping.

  44. I just wanted to comment about the reference to a book by Leon Stein, which is, of course The Triangle Fire. Popular adult nonfiction of the mid-20th century (including Stein and Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember) did not typically include any source notes or bibliography (unlike, say, Seabiscuit). This limits their usefulness to a modern researcher. Lord’s book was apparently based on letters and interviews from survivors, but none of the quotes can be checked unless one travels to work with his papers.

    Something interesting happened when I was writing Shutting out the Sky, Life in the Tenements of New York. I accessed microfilm of newspapers and realized that while Stein called it the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (as most people still do), the actual name of the company was the Triangle Waist Company.

    I wrote to the folks at Cornell’s Kheel Center, who maintain a fantastic online exhibition about the disaster. They were listing it as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company also. However, based on my query, they did more research, and were able to find a photograph of the factory sign. They subsequently changed the name of the factory on THEIR website and I often send students there who are doing a report on the topic.

    The Common Core seeks to prepare students for college in an age when information literacy is more complex than ever, where they will soon be scurrying to Purdue’s Owl site to figure out how to cite sources for themselves, and where will be reminded, as my son’s college professor just told his students in the instructions for a paper: Wikipedia is not an academic source. Hopefully that won’t come as a surprise;)

  45. Deborah, I just read Michelle Markel’s BRAVE GIRL: CLARA AND THE SHIRTWAIST MAKERS’ STRIKE OF 1909 (out this spring) and noticed that she called it the Triangle Waist Company so figured some how it had mistakenly become known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and now you’ve confirmed my guess. So interesting.

  46. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thank you for sharing this Deborah because I think it brings up another pitfall in terms of evaluating nonfiction. When reasonably informed readers comes across a reference to The Triangle Waist Company in SHUTTING OUT THE SKY do they assume that it should be Triangle Shirtwaist Company because that’s what every other book–including those by grown-up historians–call it, and thus assume that you, the children’s author, are in error? I think some of us might and it’s clearly a dangerous assumption to make.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] been some interesting discussion about this title over at Heavy Medal, but my opinion is still that this is one of the most distinguished non-fiction titles of the year, [...]

  2. [...] nonfiction.  One of my favorite books of this year, Steve Sheinkin‘s Bomb, has been getting quite a bit of scrutiny as to how well the author explains and documents aspects of his writing, especially the bits that [...]

Speak Your Mind

*