Friday, March 7, 2008

Truth or Fiction II

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 London to New York, imagining his thoughts and actions during the days leading to his death from an accidental overdose of prescription medicine on January 22. In today’s world of information overload, it’s not so surprising that somebody came up with yet another way to exploit the tragic death of a talented actor. What is surprising is that in the Times article, several publishing professionals, including one who teaches magazine writing at NYU, endorse and even applaud the move.

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.


Anonymous said...

We've just read historical fiction that does something similar. Katherine Paterson's "Bread and Roses, Too" has a historical note of several pages AND indicates her sources in the acknowledgements.

I also agree about putting fiction in publications people except non-fiction. We all need to be able to distinguish and children find it particularly hard. Myra Zarnowski has some good ideas for teaching about fiction and non-fiction in "Making Sense of History" to help kids make those distinctions and make good use of both fiction and non-fiction sources.

Linda Salzman said...

I think it's the adults, not the kids, who enjoy blurring the line. Adults seem convinced that kids can only appreciate things from history when they are made into an entertaining story. I'm convinced that is because the adults have no idea how interesting the real stories actually are.

And it is often the case that the adults are the ones who seem confused. When I was in a second grade classroom a few weeks ago, the teacher left me a book to read as part of their unit on nonfiction. The book is about a mouse, with an excellent vocabulary, who found his way into a museum where a new dinosaur exhibit was going up. As soon as I finished reading the book I asked, "Can this really be nonfiction?" They were surprised that I asked and really thought about it. Then they all piped up, "mice can't talk." Thanks, kids. I'm glad someone is paying attention.

Unknown said...

"In recent years, the trend in kids’ nonfiction has been toward more attribution and accountability."

It's a good trend, particularly in this age of so much questionable information on the Internet. In Messages From Mars, we were concerned about the fictional elements possibly confusing some readers. So we included some notes on the last page, which has the headline: Fact, Fiction, or Future? For example, minor alterations in the Mars photographs had been made such as extending the sky to fill the space, and some of the technology (e.g. a hoverbot) has not been invented yet, and may never be.

It’s a good idea to discuss with kids what‘s real vs. what‘s possible vs. what‘s impossible.

Kristi Holl said...

I know that we have freedom of the press and freedom of speech, but aside from the research/accuracy angle, it seems like pretty poor taste to write a fictionalized account of someone's last days before an overdose. Can you imagine having someone write such an account of your loved one--and be free to say anything he/she wants to fabricate? Sounds like a new low to me, aside from any historic accuracy issues.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

What a great discussion! Kids LOVE to learn that my picture book, Katje the Windmill Cat, is partly true and partly made up. We have good discussions about fiction and nonfiction and why and how I mixed them up.