Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Tell All 2

We Had Such An All Star Cast of Posts Yesterday That I Am Summarizing Them Today

Roger Sutton feels that we should not speculate — about sexual orientation, or motivation; we need to stick to what we know. Chris Barton suggests we let the difference between ordinary (normal) and extraordinary (abnormal) guide us; Betsy Patridige maps a carefull tightrope between the sometimes uncomfortable facts of a person’s life and sensitivity to readers; Vicki Smith shifts the discussion a bit to make clear that s. orientation per se is not a matter of concern, and plumps for the developmental appropriateness of a 3-D view of a person in a YA biography; Jeanine Atkins urges a cool matter-of-fact clarity; and Kathleen Krull echoes Vicki in showing how a straightforward discussion of s. orientation can enrichen a biography, even in middle grade.

I was thrilled at the comments that came in, but I have say I think we started out with one issue and ended up with another. My question was not about whether to mention something like s. orientation — if, as Roger and others urge, it is known and not merely assumed or speculated — but rather how to define which of those uncomfortable facts of biography that are sometimes known for certain (Ali’s affairs), sometimes almost surely known (since Hoover was known for his dirty tricks, he could possibly have manufactured the MLK tapes, though the scholarship I have seen does not question whether the tapes were authentic, only how Hoover planned to use them), and sometimes a matter of speculation but arguably germane (the Milk issue) that belong in a YA book, and which do not. 

Again I am not sure myself. I feel open to the argument that a public figure may be such a hero that we need to focus on his or her actions that changed society, and treat private matters as more a matter of adult gossip than real value for teenagers. But if that is so, we need to be consistent in which heroes qualify. I also agree with Vicki that a 3-D, warts and all, view may give teenagers a better sense of human complexity  — which is surely what they are discovering in their own lives. But then again I would argue for consistency — 3-D for all. 

I think the role model impetus for our literature is clashing with the "be real, tell it like it is" motto which is so often used as a credo in writing for teenagers. Clearly we need to be uncomfortable about this balance together — what do you think? 

On reflection, I think Vicki is closest to what sounds right to me — no matter how much we are writing about a person because we want our readers to know, admire, perhaps emulate or be inspired by that person, we are writing for teenagers who are coming to see themselves and others more three-dimensionally. We need to borrow that old literary term, the "tragic flaw" — the idea that a person can be great, yet also flawed — and not in a "gotcha" way, but with the weight of the sense of the tragic, of us all being human and limited. So then the issue is not proof, as Roger wants, but rather a sensibility in which we are not listing "good points" and "bad points" for someone but rather exploring his or her character — we are free to speculate when that is at the service of a richer portrait and greater depth of understanding. Maybe the word is not "what" (what did he or she do) but "why" (when I told my wife about the Milk issue she at once had the same theory as Betsy — that Harvey was attracted to men who had a similar emotional makeup, and surely that is territory any YA biographer would need to weigh, consider, explore, investigate).


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Marc, I like your articulation of the tension between the values of role models and human-like-us, and how that may set a tone. My teenaged daughter was recently telling me how she and her friends love the bad characters on Gossip Girl; the few good ones are boring. So there’s that, but teens clearly want heroes, too, and each writer will find a balance. I’m personally more drawn to books that give more of the what, and let readers figure out the whys for themselves, but suppose we’ll always be pointing some fingers toward those hows and whys.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I just got off the phone with a high school teacher who was saying how she uses the steamier side of Am Hist — the Oneida Community, for example — as a way to grab her 16 year old students’s attention. So maybe the personal is the hook to get kids interested in the political.

  3. Kathleen Krull says:

    Combining the last two responses – don’t forget “All history is gossip” (JFK, who contributed significantly).