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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Documentation

Documention has evolved–perhaps is still evolving–in nonfiction books for children and young adults, and as such, it is a bit of a moving target.  Jim Murphy said as much on a recent thread.

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).

Documention makes an author’s research process more transparent, and that transparency leads to trust in the writer as a source of authority.  It is hard for us to fathom a well researched nonfiction book in this day and age without proper documentation, but the Newbery criteria completely sidestep the issue of documentation, merely requiring a presentation of information that is accurate, clear, and organized.  Certainly documentation can help a book achieve each of these ends, but is it essential?  Let’s take a look at two of our favorite nonfiction books–TEMPLE GRANDIN and BOMB–and see how documentation affects–or does not affect–the presentation of information.

In the foreword to TEMPLE GRANDIN, Grandin mentions that several of her childhood friends were interviewed for the book, but was she herself interviewed?  That’s not as clear since it’s never explicitly mentioned anywhere in the book.  In the acknowledgements, Montgomery writes, “Most of all I thank Temple Grandin, for welcoming me to her home and workplace with patience, kindness, openness, and friendship.”  And that’s about as close as we get.  I think it’s reasonable to assume that Montgomery interviewed Grandin–at the very least she observed her at work in chapter 2. Did Grandin vet this book?  This, too, seems likely, but it’s never explicitly addressed.  Not that a subject vetting her own biography is necessarily a guarantee of accuracy.  AMELIA LOST, anyone?

Do all of the quotes in the book come from interviews and observations?  Or do some of them come from Grandin’s other books?  How can I find which quotes are in which sources?  I can’t source them because Montgomery only provides a bibliography and no source notes or author’s note.  Contrast this book with MOONBIRD and WE’VE GOT A JOB, both of which also rely heavily on personal interviews.  Take a look at their respective source notes and you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that TEMPLE GRANDIN leaves a lot to be desired in terms of documentation.

But, in spite of the fact that the documentation is not quite up to par with the best practices in the field, I still believe that the presentation of information in TEMPLE GRANDIN is accurate, clear, and organized.

On to BOMB. If you haven’t read Nina’s reservations about the book, then you can find them here.  I’ve yet to do my second reading of this book, and I’ve been waiting for my holds on some of Sheinkin’s sources to come through, but in the meantime I had noticed that Horn Book did a brief interview with Sheinkin, and one of the questions seemed to reference our discussion here.

MVP: Bomb has been described as a “nonfiction thriller.” How do you create the feel of fiction without crossing the line into making stuff up?

SS: I was well trained in my many years in the textbook world, where I learned to obsessively back up every quote and fact. With books like Bomb, I try to track down several sources for each event, hoping to find tiny details that can help make things more compelling and visual. Sometimes you get lucky — like the scene with the Hungarian physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner searching for Einstein on Long Island. In that case, both Szilard and Wigner wrote their own versions of what happened. More often you end up wishing you knew more — I’d pay big money to listen in on one of the Los Alamos dorm room conversations between Klaus Fuchs and Richard Feynman! Either way, 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.

If I were on the real committee, I would probably feel that it is inappropriate for me to e-mail Sheinkin directly, but since I’m not, I felt no such ethical dilemma.  I e-mailed, introduced myself and our blog discussion, and asked about his sources for the chapter, “Finding Einstein.”  He graciously responded.

I picked two of the small details that seemed to be in question, Szilard leaning his head out the window of the car, and FDR smiling to Sachs at the start of their meeting. Here are a couple of sources for these details:

Pg. 20: “Szilard leaned his sweaty head out the car window.”

Leo Szilard, His Version of the Facts, p. 83: “I leaned out of the window.”

William Lanouette, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, p. 198-199 says it was a “clear and hot day” and describes Szilard and Wigner as “hot, tired, and impatient” by the time they found Einstein.

Kati Marton, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, pg. 1, describes Szilard as “sweaty in his gray wool suit.”

Pg. 21: “Alex,” Roosevelt said, flashing his famously big smile, “what are you up to?”

Joseph Persico, Roosevelt’s Secret War, p. 177: “Watson ushered Sachs in to see the President, where he was greeted with arms flung up and a grinning welcome, ‘Alex, what are you up to?’”

Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, p. 476: “The President greeted him jovially. ‘Alex, What are you up to?’”

These examples are typical of how I work – I read lots of versions of the same scene, and pick tiny details from each, and try to put it all together in a way that will hold young readers’ attention. I may take the liberty of saying FDR “smiled” when that exact word isn’t used in the sources, but that seems in bounds to me. Of course, I’m perfectly capable of making mistakes when it comes to taking notes or recalling facts, but I really do work hard to stay true to the source material.

I don’t include sources for all of these details in the book, mainly because the publisher doesn’t want me to! We follow the format of the best popular nonfiction for adults, books like Seabiscuit or Guns, Germs, and Steel – that is to say, list all major sources, and tell readers where you got the quotes.

Thanks for giving me a chance to explain this.

Sheinkin is absolutely correct that the common practice is to provide a bibliography of major sources with citations for quotes.  Clearly, his bibliography does not list every single book consulted for this work–Lanouette, Marton, and Isaacson are not listed.  Those books were probably only consulted for these specific scenes so I can easily see why they were not included.

The documentation that Sheinkin does provide, then, is merely the tip of the iceberg.  And I think this is probably true of most nonfiction books–to document everything it would often exceed the length of the main narrative.

Since Sheinkin’s process is to read multiple accounts–both primary sources and secondary sources–and synthesize them, drawing out vivid details, I really don’t believe that he has fictionalized the narrative as Nina has suggested that he has.

I’m still disappointed that not every quote is sourced–and sourced with page numbers–but this is really the only thing that I can fault in his documentation, and as I said before, that falls on the peccadillo side of the fence for me.  So, again, perhaps not the best practice in terms of documentation, but I believe that the presentation of information in BOMB, too, is accurate, clear, and organized.  It remains a very strong Newbery contender for me as well.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Mark Flowers says:

    Thank you Jonathan – that is really enlightening. What Sheinkin says about the “best popular nonfiction” was something I was trying (unsuccessfully) to get at with some of my comparisons to books like Von Drehle’s Triangle. This exchange goes a long way towards clearing him of any charges of “fictionalizing,” in my book at least.

  2. Martha says:

    I thank you as well, Jonathan.

  3. David Ziegler says:

    I add my thanks as well. Jonathon. I’ve been struggling with writing a reiview for Bomb, being very concerned about documentation. Your e-meail exchange clears up the uncertainty for me, although I wish he had a website attached to the book where he did document sources for the curious, persnickety, and history-loving folks like me.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    It’s great to hear, here, from Sheinkin about how he’s pieced together a detailed, “you are there” narrative by triangulating documentation. I wish he’d presented a better picture of his process, for young readers, in his backmatter. I think that providing unpaginated sources for some quotes is probably misleading, given what we now know (above), since it suggests that that’s all that need citing. I appreciate that there’s too much here to directly cite everything, and I understand pressures from editors. My intention is not to rake Sheinkin through the coals or question his scholarship, though I know people will read my comments that way. I am really looking at a book that I think is very very good, putting it under the Newbery lens, and asking: is this distinguished in all aspects pertinent to it? And my answer, even more solidly now, is no: because the presentation of the backmatter does not address the audience with “clarity”…is not the most “appropriate style” for the intended child audience. I think the audience would have been better served by narrative backmatter describing how and from what sources he pieced together the major threads of his story, maybe saying, explicitly, as Sheinkin has done to his defense, why you can’t cite everything, what his research process it like, etc. Maybe a couple of “typical examples” of how he works, as described above: this is fascinating and SO informative for his audience, and would make the narrative even richer for them. We get a little of this through his source notes, but not quite enough…then the Quotation Notes suggest exhaustiveness, but are not.

    Sheinkin has written a brilliant narrative, adequately documented for an older audience that understands how this is done. For the type of narrative he chooses to employ, I think his younger readers are not fully served by his backmatter, and this is a significant flaw under Newbery criteria.

    Is this making sense? …

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    In a separate reply, so I can give it in it’s own clear context, I do want to echo thanks: to Jonathan and especially to Steve Sheinkin for sharing this.

  6. DaNae says:

    I’d like to meet the child reader who painstakingly checks the back-matter in a non-fiction books. Or in fact the reader who reads on after the end of the narrative. I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t run across them. I understand the need for documented accuracy, but to pinpoint each drop of sweat on a players face would possibly double the page count.

    Thank you, Jonathan for bringing this delicious bit of authorial insight.

    For what it is worth, there will mushroom clouds of revolution from a goodly number of my male student-body if this book does not get it’s due recognition come January. Of course I will be out of the range of the fallout, because for the first time ever I get to actually be right in the room when the award is announced.

  7. Nina Lindsay says:

    DaNae, I’m not asking for painstaking or pinpoints of sweat. I’m fully aware I’m the only one at this station at this point, but I keep feeling like I keep getting responses to a question I’m not asking. If you’re sure “those readers” exist, even if you haven’t met them yourself, what kind of backmatter do you feel would best serve/interest them here?

  8. Wendy says:

    I just flat-out don’t understand why explanation of process is at all necessary in a book for it to be Newbery-quality. I don’t expect this from non-fiction books. I don’t necessarily object to it (the way I often do in fiction) unless I think it is poorly written, but it seems to me that downgrading a book for not including something like that is akin to criticizing a book for what it isn’t rather than what it is.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    We probably have irreconcilible differences on this one, Nina, because I’m heading more and more in the opposite direction: that this is very distinguished in presentation of information: accurate, clear, and organized. And, yes, for children.

    Why does Sheinkin bear a greater responsibility to document the too-good-to-be-true details? Isn’t it just as important to document the mundane details, the ones nobody would question? Can’t those undermine a book just as much as the other kind? I think I can pick any book at random, go to the quote sources, and not find random details that are in the main narrative. Wouldn’t they all be inappropriate, then?

    I’ll go beyond what DaNae said: the child who painstakingly checks back matter in nonfiction books DOES NOT exist. I have NEVER seen that kind of behavior in children, not even after having taught them the research process myself. I don’t think back matter is really for children at all. I think it’s for the adults who evaluate nonfiction for children. I know that’s not very politically correct, but it’s the truth. However, I don’t think that absolves any nonfiction writer from striving for the best practices in the field.

  10. Mark Flowers says:

    I agree with everything Wendy and Jonathan said, but I want to look at it from a slightly different angle. Let’s look at a fictional work like SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS. I doubt anyone would disagree with me that the fullest understanding of how and why S&G works as a novel is only available to people who have some understanding of the Victorian period, Victorian novels, especially Dickens, and maybe even puppetry. Does that mean that Schlitz is required to provide that information to the reader in the back matter? Of course not – as Wendy says, many times those sorts of author’s notes are more distracting than helpful. Why then are we requiring something different from Sheinkin? Because it is nonfiction? But the criteria only ask that the book be accurate and clear – which both of these books are.

    Finally, I want to just add that I think Nina is asking something of Sheinkin that is not by any means the “standard” in the field. Looking at Jonathan’s thoughts on TEMPLE GRANDIN, looking at adult nonfiction, and looking at Jim Murphy’s thoughts on how quickly the tides change for nonfiction source notes, I just don’t think it is a reasonable request to ask Sheinkin to fall into one particular method of describing his sources.

    If you read what he actually writes in his source notes, I think there is no question that a child can read and understand it. The question Nina is asking is whether it could in some perfect world have been better presented. Sure, but just don’t see how this is enough to deny the rest of the book.

  11. Having had some backroom chats with other nonfiction writers about this topic, I can tell you that some of the comments on this blog have caused some dropped jaws.

    Speaking only for myself, my thinking has evolved toward more detailed documentation. I think a little bit about “how the book was written” can be put in for child readers and interested adults, even if those are a small minority of readers. But I can tell you that when I compile my sources I’m not thinking about the child reader or the librarian/reviewer or the interested parent. I’m thinking about an expert who knows my sources intimately and can pass judgment on their validity. After all, just because you can source something doesn’t mean it’s true.

    For example, right now I’m working on a book about Japanese history — so my daily mantra is “What would Professor Friday think?” (Karl Friday is a professor of history at the University of Georgia who has a particular expertise in the time period I’m writing about.)

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Pamela, thanks for your insights. I would welcome more feedback from nonfiction authors. Are we off base here–and if so, how? Are we being too hard? Too easy? Asking the wrong questions altogether?

  13. DaNae says:

    Thank you, Jonathan for saying what I was too chicken to say. Sometimes, after reading this blog, I thing I must have the stupidest students in the country. I’ve never had a student even glance a the source material let alone ask for more. And like my students I’d rather assume the vetters of the publication have done their job and made sure the sources are accurate.

    I fully understand that the Newbery committee, would be remiss in passing over the source notes, but I would agree with Jonathan that BOMB meets the Newbery criteria of “accurate, clear, and organized.”

    It’s ironic that I found the reverse of this a problem for the fictional NO CRYSTAL STAIR. I didn’t feel like there was enough historical content for the child audience of my acquaintance to fully appreciated the context of much of the material. Nina assured me that she knew plenty of young readers who would know Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey and would fully comprehend all that was said and left unsaid in the book. Again I felt that my students were severely lacking in their education.

  14. Nina Lindsay says:

    (Danae, no one thinks your students are stupid. I find your comments about your students particularly valuable. I’m rereading NO CRYSTAL STAIR now, and am reading for your point. I think it’s a very different book and presentation than this one, and also your concern about it different from my concern about Sheinkin’s.)

    I would like to hear more…not in regards to BOMB, but in general…from those who work with students about back-matter. Not the painstaking-checking-of-citations (this is not what I was trying to get at, but my shorthand may have mislead). Just how/if/when they do, and why, and for what. Some kids out there read the fine print, for interest.

  15. Wendy says:

    I would have been that kid, I think. I read every bit of a book that interested me. I used to read the LOC subject information, for goodness’s sake, and I suppose I still do it now out of habit–on the copyright page where it lists all the subject classifications that a book fits into, which are sometimes sort of funny. (“Conspiracies–America–Fiction” and that kind of thing.) I read the “About the Author” and the appendices. I’m trying to dig up an example of an author saying something about his/her “process” in a non-fiction book from my era or earlier, and as a somewhat weak example, I was among a surprising number of readers who read with interest that Garth Williams “actually followed the path of the Ingalls family from 1871-1885″ (or something like that) in order to draw the Little House books’ illustrations with accuracy, and misunderstood that completely–we thought he was somehow there at the time. (That information is on the back of every Little House paperback of a certain era; I don’t know if it still is.)

    So yes, I read the information and I agree there are kids who would. But if that information was never there to begin with, how does that make a book less distinguished?

  16. Nina Lindsay says:

    Well, in all the nonfiction we are looking at, including Sheinkin, the authors include something about their process in their backmatter…now I’m sitting here without any of them on hand, but Sheinkin talks about the resources he gathered at the beginning of his bibliography, Montgomery talks about interviewing Grandin, etc. So there’s something there, usually, in every nonfiction book, usually in back, giving some context to the narrative that the author felt was important to give, but not in the narrative itself. That is part of the book, and should be considered as part of the “text,” shouldn’t it?

    Wendy, in a most general way you ask: if this information isn’t there, how does it make a book less distinguished? Well, if the narrative needs the additional context in order to be distinguished (as, for instance, Danae asserts NO CRYSTAL STAIR does), and the author doesn’t provide it…doesn’t it make the narrative less distinguished?

    I not quite on board with the parallels to fiction, btw. NO CRYSTAL STAIR treads a close enough line to nonficiton, but SPLENDORS & GLOOMS? Sure, there’s a context discussion there, but it’s pretty different.

  17. Wendy says:

    Of course it should be considered as part of the text. But what you seem to be saying is that there’s something missing, that there’s an expectation for Sheinkin to provide more of his “process”, and I don’t understand where that need is coming from. What is missing that makes BOMB less distinguished? Is there something in the backmatter or the book that is really not clear to the expected audience that keeps the book from being correctly understood? Is there necessary additional context?

  18. Mark Flowers says:

    @Nina – Wendy’s last comment exactly voiced what I had in mind with my comparison to S&G. My belief is there is is nothing in that book that “keeps the book from being correctly understood” by the expected audience. But I DO think that you could just as easily say that by not providing additional context, Schlitz keeps the book from being FULLY understood. I think that argument would be wrong, but I think it is exactly parallel to the one you are making with BOMB, which I also think is wrong. You are saying that there is something you can imagine Sheinkin having done that would have made the book MORE clear and more FULLY understood by the reader. I’m saying (and I think Wendy and Jonathan are too) that he didn’t do what you wanted, but what he DID actually write makes perfect sense and is at the level of the child audience. That he COULD have done something differently doesn’t enter into it.

  19. Nina says:

    Wendy, Mark, I’m trying to argue beyond BOMB at this point b/c you have started to convince me that I’m just not the reader for this book or author. It’s the particular way that he crafts his you-are-there moments (which other authors do approach differently) that creates a distance for me with the text. For me, as a reader, it still stands that if I’d understood more about his process within the book, that could have overcome the distance. Because my difficultly with the text is explicitly about the specific constrcution of a nonfiction narrative, I didn’t see any comparison to fiction. From a very broad step back (the “I’m just not connecting” point), sure.

    (Wendy, if you really need to understand what’s missing for me, it’s still all there in my first post and subsequent comments. Don’t know how many other ways to say it, and don’t want to further distort the discussion on this book by carrying on about it any more. I appreciate the responses to my continued angling for an answer to my concerns.)

  20. Cecilia says:

    Interesting take on some of these ideas in an NYTimes piece today:

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/three-rs-of-narrative-nonfiction/?ref=opinion

  21. Check out this piece in today’s NYTimes: “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction”: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/three-rs-of-narrative-nonfiction/?hp

  22. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    BOMB is the last book I need to reread for our mock Newbery discussion, but I was thinking about this issue as I read two excellent 2013 nonfiction books: WILD BOY by Mary Losure and COURAGE HAS NO COLOR by Tanya Lee Stone. I found statements in both books that would be difficult–perhaps nigh impossible–to trace to their original source. I don’t find it sloppy or irresponsible–I just think it’s virtually impossible for an author to document every single fact. This is moving closer and closer to becoming a complete non-issue for me.

  23. Nina Lindsay says:

    It’s not the documentation of every fact that’s the issue. It’s whether the author gives us the tools to understand their process, so that the reader understands the context of such statements. Use Hoose’s source notes as just one comparison. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for young readers. Plenty of nonfiction authors manage to say something about how they used their sources, rather than just listing them.

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  1. [...] certain aspects of the historical material for drama. I’ve looked into both quite a bit as have others and feel completely satisfied that this book still is one of the best of the [...]

  2. [...] books were the sort of pseudo-factual story that wouldn’t pass muster with today’s demand for documentation of everything. Dialogue was made up, scenes from the subject’s formative years were invented entirely, and [...]

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