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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Fictionalizing Nonfiction II

The Background

When I visited those 5th graders a couple of weeks ago, I asked them: "is history about the past, or the present?" — as I hoped, they were confused. Some were sure history means the study of the past, some guessed that I must be up to something and hesitated. I said that history is about the present, and the future, and gave them this analogy. Long ago, they were first graders. Now, they are sophisticated fifth graders. Do they view what their first day of first grade was like exactly the same way they once did? Or, do they say, I used to think first grade was X, but now, looking back, I realize it was Y. Heads nodded all over the auditorium. Clearly we see the past differently now then we did when we experienced it. And, as adults, when we have fogotten most of the details of first grade, we will see it in yet another light. You could say, the first grader lived it, of course he knows best. Or you could say, the adult knows more, of course he knows best. Or you could say, there are many accounts of the past which reflect who is telling them, and we need to keep that in mind.

I tell you all this because one of my favorite classes in college was a seminar on historiography, on the different ways we think about history and the past. This was the late 60s, and there were two clear camps of historians. The new guys were the computer heads, the Cliometricians. To them, history was what you could study in facts, and prove: how many people of what income lived in which place and had families of what size. To them, it was a great freedom to define what history could, and could not, do. History could not talk about something fuzzy like the birth of the idea of freedom in the soul of the English people. It could tell you only what hard facts could demonstrate — and which other hard facts could challenge. History, then, was closer to economics or demography than to literature. The key phrase was "is it falsifiable" — can you test an assertion and prove it right or wrong. The other faction — followers of R. G. Collingwood, said that you needed to know every fact you could, but then you needed to invest yourself into a time, and, in effect, imaginatively reconstruct it. History was a branch of literature. The key was not whether you could prove something, but whether what you said was convincing — "rang true" — history was essentially part of the humanities, not the sciences.

The camps are not quite as split as they once were. But I mention this war of words to say that our concerns — how much fiction can you put into history — are embedded in a long, complex, and fascinating academic debate on very similar issues. One problem in children’s literature, I believe, is that we look for a ruling, a policy, from a reviewer, a teacher, a librarian — as if these were issues that could be resolved with mandates — instead of realizing that what we do for younger readers links to big questions scholars have long wrestled with. Yes we have the special challenge of being responsible to readers who do not have as many tools as adults do, but that in and of itself does not trump the fact that, as writers of history, we too need to decide what kind of truth we are telling. Do we give kids, just the facts? Do we "make history come alive"? Which is more responsible? Those are not simple questions.

More soon on the specific issues I mentioned in the last blog: faux books, and also historical fiction.


  1. James A. Owen says:

    This is probably my favorite kind of creative work; and while my novels get more of the notoriety, it’s best exemplified by the picture book I did (with my brother Jeremy), LOST TREASURES OF THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN.

    It was Simon & Schuster’s proposal: to do a pirate atlas. The content was up to me – we just had to have some linking narrative to connect the pirates and islands. So I created the silversmith Elijah McGee, and his son and grandson, Eliot and Ernest.

    They were recruited as mapmakers to the pirates, and so covered the entire Golden Age in three generations. Eliot was (I wrote) a friend of Defoe – who himself was supposed to have written the history of the Pyrates as Charles Johnson, and was assembling this atlas WITH the McGees.

    So I have period-correct maps; real history; and an educational nonfic book – but what (I hope) made it entertaining and readable was the fictional thread I wove within it.

    I guess by intention, that makes me a Collingwood man!

  2. Kelly Fineman says:

    As an author writing about the late 18th and early 19th century, I’m striving for a balance between providing the facts in a way that makes them accessible to today’s teen audience. So much has changed in that time, including the meanings of words and certain important cultural reference times.