On the heals of Jan Greenberg’s post contrasting fabricated memoirs with the tireless research she’s putting into her book on artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, comes the news, in yesterday’s New York Times, that Esquire plans to run a fictitious first-person diary titled, “The Last Days of Heath Ledger” in its April issue. The “diary,” written in fact by Lisa Taddeo, follows the late actor from
I was trained to believe the line between truth and fiction should not be blurred. I’m not saying people shouldn’t write historical novels or produce movies and TV shows that are “inspired” by real events. The public usually knows what it’s getting into with those creations. But including a fictionalized piece in an environment where people expect truth and accuracy undermines a publication’s credibility. Years ago, when I was a contributor to Scholastic Search, a fantastic American history magazine for middle school students, the editor proposed a series of “interviews” between notables from different eras. Ben Franklin might sit down with Theodore Roosevelt, for example, or Rosa Parks might speak with Pocahontas. It’s an intriguing idea, and a good writer who did a lot of research might pull it off. But it made me uneasy to think of a fictional piece running in a kids’ non-fiction magazine.
Similarly, it drives me nuts when I see bookstores shelving installments from the Dear America series and its descendants and imitators in the non-fiction section. If store personnel can’t distinguish those fictionalized diaries from the real thing, how can kids? I vastly prefer the original American Girl books, where the historical fiction is followed by an engaging essay exploring the true events that inspired the novel. Those books give you the best of both worlds: compelling fiction and historical context under one cover.
In recent years, the trend in kids’ nonfiction has been toward more attribution and accountability. When my editors first told me they would require footnotes for quotations and statistics, I balked, flashing back to those long ago days of writing college papers. But now I embrace the chance to hold the veracity of my work up to public scrutiny by including footnotes and inviting readers to e-mail me with questions about sources. And when those sources conflict with no clear consensus, as in the spelling of Annie Oakley’s real last name (Moses or Mozee), I do my best to report the disagreement and explain why I chose the option I did. In kids’ nonfiction, honesty is the best policy and accuracy always matters.