Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

fiction non fiction

I am glad we are all discussing this issue, it crosses so many of my passions. But first all of you who were following my discussions with Monica on primary school education and content will want to read Bill Teale, Kathleen Paciga and Jessica Hoffman’s article in The Reading Teacher 61(4), pages 344-348, "Beginning Reading Instruction in Urban Schools" on how content is being removed from primary school education. A 2007 Center on Education Policy survey said 44% of districts "substantially reduced instructional time" in areas other than language arts. This is terrible — and we must not accept it. (the article comes out next month, I’ll post a link when it is available)

Let’s start with the question of why someone would turn to fiction in a history book. The obvious answer is in the hope of increasing reader interest. In nonfiction you are limited by what is known. In fiction you can add color. No one knows exactly what Toussaint L’Ouverture looked like, none of the paintings we have can be trusted. If you are writing about him, what a relief to be able to cobble together your own image of him from descriptions, those suspect paintings, your own sense. You give the readers a face to picture. You obviously also have the same freedom to imagine emotions: "as Thomas Jefferson listed those self-evident truths he felt a swell of hope, that one day, all men would be free." And finally you can ascribe motivation, "slashed by the British officer’s sword young Andy Jackson swore he would never show fear, and would always stand up for the liberty and freedom."

But as these dashed off examples show, putting thoughts and motivations into people’s minds is dangerous. I think the author has to signal when s/he leaves the known — "it would be nice to imagine that as Thomas…" "one can picture that, slashed by…young Andy might have sworn." I can see someone saying, that takes all the fun away. Fun for whom, the writer? The writer ought to be scared, s/he needs to be worried, must feel s/he is on thin ice. The problem I have with fictionalized nonfiction is when it is too confident, when it covers its traces, when it is arrogant towards the precision history requires. If an author wants total fiction s/he should write fiction. 

And there is a reverse pleasure in real history. For some readers, for me as a child, knowing that something was true was more important than picturing Toussaint’s face as a writer imagined him, or imagining what Jefferson felt, or what Jackson swore. I kind of liked those imagined scenes, but I treasured knowing what was actually so. So I caution authors not to assume that the tools of fiction are required to fill in what is missing in the historical record. For some of your readers, knowing that your book tells only, and exactly, what is known, is enough. Think of it this way — do we learn anything more about gravity by having an author imagine what it felt like to Newton to have an apple fall on his head (and did that happen, I seem to recall hearing some doubts about that). No, if you want to understand the laws of motion, you want the laws of motion, not a description of the sun glinting off of the skin of the ripe red apple. Just because we like to imagine and write, does not mean we are adding anything by doing so.  

I promise to get on to the faux books, and back to historical fiction. Betty Carter has written a nice essay on the topic, which perhaps I can get her to summarize here.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    “putting thoughts and motivations into people’s minds is dangerous…” Glad to be here agreeing for a change! (By the way, in Bill Teale et al’s article is NCLB the culprit?) I so agree that it is terribly important for the fiction and nonfiction elements to be clearly differentiated. Even then kids may think the fiction is as true as the nonfiction. I adore the faux books and want to do one myself, but I also know that kids get tripped up easily with them. After all, they simply haven’t the broad reading experience that adults (hopefully) have. And not all adults —I recall the fury around that Reagan biography where the author (can’t recall the name) put himself in the book. I thought it was a neat idea, but I seemed to be in the minority.

    I have written about this quite a lot too in my books on teaching history and in various articles for anyone wanting to know more from a classroom teachers’ POV. (I’ve a page on my blog called Stuff that has lists of my publications.)

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Bill’s piece is not mainly about culpability, but it does show that NCLB and Reading First have pushed us towards a very limited definition of literacy.

  3. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I’ve met many adults whose love of history began with reading fictionalized biographies like those in the Childhood of Famous American series, orange-covered when I was young, and I hope kids today will get chances like that, just as they deserve to enjoy local bugs, trees, and ponds before learning about how they’re endangered, or get to mess around in a kitchen before someone points out that they’re picking up some math and chemistry knowledge there.

    I choose to write fictionalized biography for many reasons, and am grateful for how gracefully many teachers and librarians handle what can be complicated. Since I write mostly about women in history, sometimes there are simply blanks or contradictions that I don’t want to point out in the limited word count I’m allotted. A girl with very limited traditional schooling, who thus left little written records, was the subject of Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon (illus Michael Dooling, FSG). There were, however, enough secondary sources for other authors to write other picture books (and great teachers often help children compare these). By focusing on and fictionalizing the scene in which eleven-year-old Mary finds an ichthyosaur fossil, I felt I could say more about passing time, wonder, and Mary’s devotion to her dead father, which seemed to ignite her life-long passion for paleontology.

    While there are plenty of records about Anne Hutchinson’s life, again I chose to write Anne Hutchinson’s Way (illus Michael Dooling, FSG) as a fictionalized biography, told from the point of view of one of Anne’s many children. In addition to adding to children’s knowledge of tensions among those who came from England to establish colonies, I could add a layer about how it might feel to have a mother who some thought heroic and who others despised.

  4. Becky at Farm School says:

    I remember when I first learned that the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder was greatly fictionalized. I still loved the books, but it was such a blow at the age of eight or nine. I kept thinking, would it have been that hard to change the little girl’s name so we didn’t think it was the “real” Laura?

    I think a lot of the problem could be easily remedied with an author’s note or historical note at the *front* of the book, rather than the back where they tend to end up, often ignored when the story is finished, and, if I had my druthers, a suggested book list of *nonfiction* titles that kids can go on to read after finishing the fiction(alized) version.

    Besides the Simon Schama book, I’d also recommend Barbara Tuchman’s essays in “Practicing History”, especially the first few, on how and why to write and research history (the later essays are about her particular books). She writes wonderfully about nonfiction and especially literary history in her essay, “The Historian as Artist”:

    “George Macaulay Trevelyan, the late professor of modern history at Cambridge and the great champion of literary as opposed to scientific history, said in a famous essay on his muse [“Clio, A Muse”] that ideally history should be the exposition of facts about the past, “in their full emotional and intellectual value to a wide public by the difficult art of literature.” Notice “wide public.” Trevelyan always stressed writing for the general reader as opposed to writing for just fellow scholars because he knew that when you write for the public you have to be *clear* and you have to be *interesting* and these are the two criteria which make for good writing. He had no patience for the idea that only imaginative writing is literature.”

    She also writes in several of the essays that one of the main points of writing history — and here of course she means writing for adults — is being able to engage the reader. In another essay, “The Historian’s Opportunity”, she writes that a history book is most successful if it communicates with the reader, and she quotes Theodore Roosevelt when he was president of the American Historical Association in 1912: “Writings are useless unless they are read, and they cannot be read unless they are readable”.

    One of the reasons Barbara Tuchman was so popular, and now David McCullough, is that their histories are so well-crafted and artfully written that they read like novels. Of course, as Tuchman herself wrote in some of her articles, there can be a fair amount of sniffing by the academics about “popular history”, but then you’re back to TR’s quote.

    All of which also makes me think that some readers and writers of histories for children think that “real history” — the academic, eye-glazing kind or the committee-written, devoid of details textbook kind — is so deadly dull that the only recourse is a fictionalized account. When really history is full of so many amazing stories. But it does take a good researcher and talented writer to put it all together in one accurate, readable package. That’s one reason I’m so glad that the pendulum seems to be swinging back to narrative histories, and to have found your books, Marc, and those of Albert Marrin and Mark Kurlansky’s for both adults and children (though I wish he would write more books for kids). I’m especially grateful that in your works, all of you have seen fit to include indexes, bibliographies, and the like.