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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Notes from The Nonfiction Dialogue Stickler of Doom

If you had told me as recently as a year ago that I was doomed to become The Nonfiction Dialogue Stickler of Doom (copyright pending) I would have said . . . . well, honestly I would have asked where you came up with that term.  Then, once you’d defined it (Nonfiction Dialogue Stickler of Doom = A person that is particularly perturbed by false dialogue appearing in works of children’s nonfiction), I would have laughed in your face.  I am hardly a born and bred nonfiction reader.  My first love is, has been, and ever will be fiction in all its myriad forms.  But that was when I was young and innocent.  Before the day of Core Curriculum and terms like “primary sources”.  I’m older now.  More gnarled about the edges.  And this year, in spite of the relative plethora of works of nonfiction for the kiddos, I am running into a very big problem.  Mainly: Fake dialogue.

But before we proceed any further, allow me to turn your attention to author Marc Tyler Nobleman.  You’ll know him best for his fantastic comic book bios Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.  Well Marc recently whipped up a piece for the Horn Book Magazine entitled Danger! Dialogue Ahead that may as well have been written just for me.  In the piece Marc tackles the challenges any author must face when attempting to make a work of nonfiction for kids interesting, vital, and accurate all at once. 

Fabricated dialogue is hardly a new occurrence in works of nonfiction for children (paging Childhood of Famous Americans), but never before has it faced this level of scrutiny.  And as Marc says in his piece “Technically, no nonfiction book is pure nonfiction. Even if every word of every quotation can be corroborated, the bugaboo is the placement of those quotations.”  As a reviewer I’ll be (to my mind anyway) quite lenient just so long as the author makes at least a passing attempt to justify why they said a character said one thing or thought another.  Too often that leniency gets pushed too far.

In 2013 there have been at least (and this is conservative) five major children’s nonfiction titles, some of which have received starred reviews, that contain dialogue that is improbable at best and downright liar-liar-pants-on-fire wrong at worst.  Books that fail to make even the vaguest effort to explain why something is fact rather than fiction.  With the rise of interest in STEM and the Core Curriculum, we’re going to have to keep an eagle eye out for titles that bend the rules so far that they break.  Believe me when I say that I am sympathetic to these authors.  Some of their subjects have the potential to make for dull as dishwater books, and you can understand the instinct to liven things up a bit.  Just . . . be careful when you do.  There are worse things in the world than playing it safe.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Anonymous says:

    When I read your column, my mind went at once to my own biography, worried that I’d invented dialogue. I realized that I hadn’t–I only used quotations from the subject’s works–but on the other hand, I’d felt free to pass on my perspectives on what and how the man thought. And I may, of course, be wrong about what and how he thought–I never met him; I’m only conveying my impressions (though of course these are based what I’ve read by and about the subject.) That made me think: is writing down down what the character may have said a greater leap of the imagination than putting down what s/he may have THOUGHT?

    I think some of this angst about non-fiction has to do with the fact that we believe (and we tell our children) that non-fiction is, or ought to be, TRUE. Thoughtless teachers and librarians drum it into children’s heads: Non-fiction is TRUE, and Fiction means NOT TRUE. (This is always a challenging construction for children; they want to put the Non and the Not together.) But in fact the truths of fiction are immutable. And the non-fiction section is full of fairy tales, mythology, psychology, poetry, and plays, as well as books on UFO’s, ghosts, witchcraft, astrology, and sea monsters. Telling children that non-fiction is true is setting them up for confusion.

    Maybe we should try to look at non-fiction in a more sophisticated way. Instead of demanding that it all be TRUE (which can be iffy) maybe we should ask: Is it well-researched? Is it balanced and broadminded? Are the indisputable facts (dates, etc) accurate? Is it thought-provoking? And is it honest about places where liberties have been taken? I am always grateful when an author or illustrator takes the time to explain his work on the last pages of the book (Nathan Hale does a great job of that in his graphic novels–though of course, those are novels, again!)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      In that same vein, fairytales are often cataloged in the nonfiction section under Dewey (398.2). So there you are.

      Thinking vs. saying is an interesting distinction in and of itself. Usually if I read that a character thought something I assume that they left behind a journal or an autobiography or an interview where they mentioned having thought one thing or another. There’s a recent picture book biography of Robert Frost coming out this year that does a good job with that. But of course, if the Frost bio had not mentioned in the back that one of their sources was Robert’s daughter’s diary (she’s the narrator of the picture book) I would have been far less pleased with it. Is thinking that different from saying then? Seems they both raise similar questions.

    • Thank you, Anonymous, for voicing my concerns about calling non-fiction “true”! As a teacher-librarian I try not to use true/not true when teaching/discussing fiction vs non-fiction. In fact, I have used the term informational to describe those books. I like your sophisticated approach – matches my philosophy.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Betsy, can you name names? I thin it would be a more productive discussion . . .

    • Joan Raphael says:

      I am glad to see someone else asked the question on my mind. Please name names Betsy. If only so I can page through and see what I think about the subject.

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        It’s tricky. I want to do some thorough research that the dialogue really is false before I do the name names thing. Gimme a week here. I want to be thorough.

  3. Myra Zarnowski says:

    As someone who served on the Orbis Pictus Award Committee for Outstanding Nonfiction for nine years, I can tell you that the committee has always been very concerned about made up dialog. We simply did not approve of “bending the facts to create a better story.” Kids need to see evidence of research. That doesn’t mean we don’t want interpretation. It means we want authentic quotes.

  4. Thanks for the kind mention, Betsy. The somewhat truthful is out there…

  5. Oh, Betsy, I love this conversation! And while I generally lurk — reading, rather than opining — I had to add my two cents (or wrench, depending). While I’m thrilled that as a community we’re committed to giving kids the truth, I’d like to step beyond those quotes (which I agree should be documentable) to content. What about when authors use the weather, or setting details or personal gestures accompanying that dialogue to create a scene, tension, mood? Those must be accurate and documented, too. Shouldn’t young readers get a chance to see where the author found all of that? Otherwise, how does one know the author didn’t invent that stuff simply to make the writing more compelling? Shouldn’t ALL sources be listed — everything that went into the author’s consideration of a particular moment in their subject’s life? I mean, let’s face it. What we write is based upon hundreds and hundreds of sources. Knowing that person, the places they lived, the emotions they struggled with, their flaws and beliefs and aspirations comes from years of intense research and deep deliberation and… yes… imagination as we bring them back to life. It’s not just about documentable quotes. Geez, sorry, can you tell I’m in the middle of a big n/f project and struggling with source note inclusion?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Deb Heiligman said something very wise in a panel I once hosted about setting, weather, and those other details. Someone suggested to her that she mention that her historical figure (Darwin, I think) lean against a lamppost in a scene. Deb knew there was no way of ascertaining for certain that Darwin had done such a thing, though. However, she contrasted that idea with the fact that he probably had to step over a lot of horse poop in the roads. EVERYONE had to do that, so it would not be inaccurate to say it was something he did. So you see, the line is there, it just has to be taken on a case by case basis. I think that there’s a very big difference between conjuring up false dialogue to make your book more exciting and making a knowing case for what someone would have done during that era. But it makes for such good discussions!

  6. Bravo. This has long been a pet peeve of mine–thank you for writing this, and for posting Marc’s piece. I raised my fist both at this issue and at the same Childhood series a few years back:
    If the Stickler of Doom expands to a posse, count me in.

  7. Lynn Van Auken says:

    As a thoughtful librarian in a K – 8 school, I address this issue by beginning the conversation with my kindergarteners, teaching that fiction is a made-up story; a product of an author’s imagination that could be based on something that really happened but doesn’t have to be. It is easy to find examples of picture books that clearly illustrate this. I use Jez Alborough’s “Some Dogs Do” and Marc Simont’s Stray Dog. I teach nonfiction as “information” – a book that teaches the reader something, and use a couple of “How to Take Care of Your Puppy” and “All About Dalmations” books to illustrate this. I focus on author’s purpose, not location in the library. Some teachers in my building are using “Informational Text” (language of the Common Core Standards) now instead of nonfiction with their students, so I add that term to my conversation with those classes, too. Overall, I place less emphasis on the term and more on the importance of recognizing reader’s and author’s purpose.
    I revisit the fiction/nonfiction question each year with my students, refining and developing definitions and studying books until they are completely confused by the end of second grade. 😉
    And then we spend time in 3rd and 4th grade learning about call numbers (can we get a new term for that, please?) and how Dewey never meant for his system to be limited to nonfiction books – see the 200s, 300s, 800s, and now the huge section of 741.5.
    My goal is for students, by the end of 4th grade, to have an understanding of the characteristics of fiction and nonfiction and an awareness that there can be truth in fiction and vice versa. I teach them it is their job, as middle school students, to be mindful of their purpose for reading and the author’s purpose for writing. Sadly, our 5th – 8th grade teachers are drowning in content and assessment and evaluations and I see very little of our middle school students. If I did, we’d continue our conversation with sources and citations and I’d put authenticity questions in their hands.
    I would hate to see authors limited or inhibited by a concern for Sticklers of Doom or directed by a new set of standards likely to be as outdated as our electronic devices in ten years. Let’s put the emphasis on teaching our students to be Critical Thinkers instead.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Excellent, of course. Looks like you’ve been teaching CCSS for years long before it became the standard. Turning students into critical thinkers is, after all, the entire purpose for the Core. All the more reason to hand them the best possible books with the best possible content, rather than books that meld their fact with their fiction without giving the reader a by-your-leave.

    • Thank you for echoing my approach. You’ve given me some wonderful ideas.

  8. In this day & age, I actually can’t imagine authors inventing dialogue in a book for children. For one thing, with any reputable publisher, an army (or so it sometimes feels) of editors, copyeditors, and fact-checkers would pounce on you during the rigorous editorial process.