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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Of Roles and Models

First, Read Nancy’s Comment on "Tell All"

She argues the LGBT kids need to read about the suicides of HM’s lovers because suicide is such a problem/concern for them. She says that they need role models, but they also need a place to read about this issue. That makes sense, but it forces us to go back and question a basic term: what is a "role model" in nonfiction? How does a book serve the function of depicting a person that way? We’ve discussed this endlessly in fiction — the old didactic version: be a "good child" like saintly Johnny and you will please your parents and go to heaven; be bad and Struwwelpater will slice off your thumbs, has gone out of style. We agree in fiction that a three dimensional character teenagers can believe in, not a cardboard cutout, is best. But what exactly is a role model in nonfiction — where the life is the life? That is, the person’s life exists independently of how we want to shape it on the page. Aren’t we guilt of the same forced didacticism that we abjure in fiction if we pick and choose what we say about a person so that they become more of a "role model"?

I think this goes back to what I asked at first — the place of public and private. A person may well be a role model in his or her public acts — taking a stand, speaking out, writing eloquently, etc. There the person chooses to act in ways that we can clearly model to our readers: X took a risk, organized, learned from his/her setbacks, made the world a better place. But in private human beings are, well, human — weak, greedy, lustful, egotistical. I have to say I disagree with Kathleen/JFK — history is not gossip at all. History is causes, ideas, movements, change — with a sprinkling of gossip along the way.

So then the question becomes how to use the salacious appeal of gossip (Oneida), the depth of human tragedy (the deaths of HM’s lovers), so that it enhances our ability to portray public accomplishment. And, at what point do these cross — at what point is private life so entangled with, or at odds with, public accomplishment that they cannot be separated? I don’t think we as an adult society have a clear answer, and so we as authors writing for teenagers have to forge our own paths.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    When we make political decisions, such as who we’ll vote for, we grapple with some of these personal/political issues, since very few of us find candidates we agree with one hundred percent, and sometimes we admire the record of someone who we don’t feel personally drawn to. Say if there’s a tragic accident or an affair is revealed mid campaign, Teddy Kennedy and Jonanthan Edwards get swept out of the spotlight long enough for most people to forgive or forget enough to move on. As writers, we don’t want readers to forget from page to page, but tone and space can do a lot. I think nformation should be included, but we have a lot of power in what we highlight. I liked a quote from Tonya Bolden in this month’s Book Links. She wrote: I mean no disrespect by calling him M. L. It’s about recognizing that I grew up regarding the Reverend Dr. Martlin Luther King Jr. as more statue than man: someone I revered but to whom I couldn’t relate, and so I did not truly appreciate.

  2. Susanna Reich says:

    As a biographer, the only way to see my subject is through the lens of my own experience. The story I choose to construct about that person’s life is shaped by who I am. One of the reasons I write is to explore the limits of that lens–maybe even to smash it to bits. We do have a responsiblity to give kids the “truth,” and I feel that responsibility acutely, while recognizing that the truth is always limited by my own perception and understanding. So I bend over backward to uncover the facts, and when it’s time to shape a narrative, I make thousands of little decisions about which of those facts are relevant, interesting, and important to the overall story.

    I’m not a big fan of psychological speculation, or psychobiography, but in instances where the subject’s behavior is particularly surprising (or appalling, or potentially offensive to a reader’s sensibilities), I do feel that some kind of comment is called for. For example, in Painting the Wild Frontier, when George Catlin fled to South American in the 1850’s and didn’t communicate with his family for seven years, I struggled to understand why. I tried to write about it evenhandedly and without making a judgment about whether or not he was a good person or a good father, and yet feedback from readers indicates that others are more quick to judge.

    I choose to write about people I admire, but I don’t think a role model has to be someone on a pedestal. How much more inspiring to realize that people are complex, and how much easier it is for us–kids and adults–to relate to a role model whose complexities are revealed. Biographies can show kids that no one’s perfect, and at the same time that imperfect people can do all kinds of extraordinary things.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Susanna: I love that line, “imperfect people can do extraordinary things” — it feels like the best summary of this issue, on the writing side. But then reviewers, parents, librarians, teachers concerned about “messages” and “role models” need to agree to that standard.

  4. Gary Golio says:

    As a newbie author (with three books upcoming on Hendrix, Dylan, and Coltrane), I have seen editors take their stands on my subjects. Several questioned the “appropriateness” (role model) of a picture book about Hendrix, and one even told me, “you can’t DO a picture book on Jimi Hendrix.” That said, we authors don’t always share particular details of our subjects’ lives with an audience of a particular age, and yet we are in the messy business of presenting the beauty of imperfect beings. Martin Luther King was not exemplary in at least one area of his life, and lovable Louis Armstrong enjoyed his marijuana, daily, for many years. But I am still youthful enough (in spirit) to remembering being consoled by–and compassionate about–the human foibles and “failings” of those musical, artistic, and literary heroes I read about (and was inspired by) as a kid. In my most recently-sold book (to Clarion) about the jazz great John Coltrane, I highlight his struggle with alcohol and drugs as part of his life (a 48-page story for middle graders, to-be illustrated with original art), yet position it as the bridge between the sadness (arising from many family deaths) of his childhood and the miracle of his physical/spiritual recovery and subsequent greatness (A Love Supreme). He was certainly not a “role model” when using heroin, but rather became an inspiring figure through his recovery and dedication to music as a spiritual path. Unfortunately, it seems that as much resistance to questionable role models in children’s books comes from the editors as from (supposedly) the public or reading audience. I am presently hawking a picture book about the themes of war and peace in the life of Picasso, and several (female) editors have already cited their distaste for the man (as a philanderer, womanizer) as the reason for rejecting the manuscript. So is this gauging or shaping public taste for particular non-fic subjects, or is it simple censorship, and resistance to the complicated humanity of our subjects and ourselves?

  5. I’ve absolutely loved reading this conversation, especially since I just had a very similar one with a parent this week.

    My question is: Why does biography have to equal a book about a role model? I know there are kids out there looking for people to emulate, but there are lots of kids out there just looking for truth. What was this person really like? What was life like when they were alive? What’s it like being a musician, politician, scientist, etc? Not every child is looking for a hero.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    To Gary’s post, I wonder if the case of Picasso has something to do with our time, where Guernica and the S Civil War are simply less known than they once were. If we were all talking about Picasso and art and war and the power of that painting I suspect resistance based on his affairs would be muted. Anyone else have Lori’s experience, of parents wanting ”

  7. Gary Golio says:

    For the record (and in reply to your reply), the heart of the Picasso ms. is the story of “Guernica”–its inception as an artistic statement, and the events in P’s life that led up to it (and beyond). The book was meant to be a timely response to modern-day themes of war and peace, but again, comments were most often about the man himself. That said, I forgot to praise those bold editors–like Lynne Polvino, of Clarion (my editor for the Hendrix and Coltrane books)–who take a stand for the more “difficult” material and role models, and who provide our readers with more complex stories, and PEOPLE.

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    Gary: if editors were rejecting a strong ms. based on that, that is ridiculous. I know and admire Lynne, too. Ashley Bryant served in the war and after it ended went to France to listen to Pablo Casals, who had moved there in protest of Franco. Ashely still has some sketches he made of the Casals orchestra.

  9. Just to clarify, the parent I spoke with was looking for non-traditional biographies, Sally Hemings in particular. This got us talking about the necessity of complexity and honesty in biographies for kids.

  10. Truth with mercy works for me. As long as there is a sense of balance, and the author seeks to educate not titillate, I think children deserve the truth. There is a Japanese concept of the perfection of imperfection. Perhaps this idea could be embraced by authors, librarians, teachers, parents, and students. Allow the children to read balanced biographies, and let them learn about the perfection in the imperfect lives of others.

  11. Rene:

    Nicely put — I will have more to say about this later in the week.

  12. Rene:

    Nicely put — I will have more to say about this later in the week.