A family story — with a point.
My second grader came home the other day with a great in-class assignment. He’d been given a paragraph about Daniel Boone, then asked to write one of his own, using selected words. The challenge was for him to read carefully enough to get the dates and facts right, and then to write clear, informative, sentences. Sasha did all that, then added a thought of his own. After mentioning that Boone’s family were blacksmiths and farmers, he said, "but the interesting question is why, if his family had those jobs, did he decide to become a pioneer?" His teacher was thrilled, Marina and I were over the moon — this was precisely the kind of questioning and thinking that is the beginning of being a real historian, a real thinker. And yet, I hate to say it, is the kind of thinking that is often criticized in nonfiction for readers Sasha’s age all the way up through high school.
All too often reviewers criticize nonfiction when it engages in what they call "opinion," or "speculation" — as if the goal of nonfiction is to present certifiable facts — with as many flourishes of concrete details as possible (the scratchy sound of starched fabric, the scraping of a pestle against a mortar, the glint of sunlight through a small, high window). Sure, there is a danger of an author writing down whatever he or she happened to think about a topic — using non fiction as a platform for a soap box speech on something close to the author’s heart. Although, as Diane pointed out, there are those in kids books who like having a moral they approve of woven in to their non fiction, even if the events themselves are not real.
I believe that an author knowing a subject well enough that he or she can go beyond the (easily available on the internet so why waste paper printing them) facts of a person’s life, and giving you a plausible portrait of his or her motivations, character, drives, conflicts, inner life is precisely what a biographer must do. That is the step Sasha was taking by asking that question. Nonfiction is being forever attacked as dull, boring, all facts. Then critics ask for story. Story is fine. But why shouldn’t biography do what fiction does — explore character, interior emotion, psychology, the ways an individual is formed out of the nexus of conscious and unconscious family dynamics? That is what we reward novelists for telling us — why shouldn’t the skilled biographer who has done his research do the same? But once we do begin to think about why, say, Daniel Boone did something we necessarily are venturing beyond the known into the plausible. We are not recording facts, we are making an argument, creating an interpretation, arriving at a judgment.
The big issue looming here is: what is a mere opinion, some random thing an author happens to think. And what is a judgment — a view he or she arrives at? I think it is good to have judgments in books — that is what makes them personal and gives them life. So what do you all think — how do we draw a line between mere opinion, and judgment that merits consideration and debate?
How can we move past noticing that an author has made a judgment to considering whether that judgement is valid?