Friday, April 10, 2009

A Fiction Writer's View of Things

It seems like several of the I.N.K. bloggers have been hitting the road lately, and I’m one of them. I’m in Mexico so my friend and colleague David Elliott has agreed to take my place today. David considers himself a children’s fiction writer and I suppose that’s true. He’s too gracious to say it, but the novel he mentions below, Jeremy Cabbage and the Living Museum of Human Oddballs and Quadruped Delights, has been optioned by Fox 2000. But some of David’s picture books are poetry about animals and could easily be classified as nonfiction. On The Farm, for example, received many starred reviews because David used facts and great eloquence to distill common farm animals to their very essence. If you want to know more about him, check out

Here’s David:

I grew up in the 50s in a Midwestern farm town, the kind of place where on Saturdays the farmers sat on the courthouse lawn while their wives did the weekly shopping. It was a town very much like thousands of others scattered throughout the no-nonsense states of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. But it did have three distinctions. 1) It was the home of the Mills Brothers. 2) It was the site of the first concrete street in the United States. And since my friend Susan Goodman has taught me that any quirky fact can become a compelling story in the hands of the right person, I’ll give you the name: Court Street. 3) It had a Carnegie Free Library.

This library sat on a rise, directly across from the Eicholtz Funeral Home, and kitty-corner to the Lutheran Church. It was the grandest building in town, a neo-gothic affair with a sturdy column on either side of its welcoming entrance. But I didn’t need encouragement, architectural or otherwise. To a working class kid like myself, anything free was good. I spent a lot of time there.

I still remember the way that library smelled when you crossed over its oak threshold, a peculiar mixture of floor-polish, new books, and vomit (a lot of kids used that library) all permeated with the florid scent of the librarian’s eau de toilette. But it’s the library’s floor plan that I’ve been thinking about. As you entered the foyer, wide and high-ceilinged, the kids’ books were tidily shelved in low cases in a room to the right. To the left, directly opposing was the reference room, with its maps, and its histories, and its encyclopedias. Even now, that room gives me a bad feeling. There was only one reason to go in there: Homework.

Recently, I have had the good fortune to visit another Carnegie Free Library, here in New Hampshire, and to my surprise the floor plan was exactly the same. The reference room was on the left, the kids’ books on the right.

This arrangement set me thinking because it seemed to reinforce the odd idea that the world of the fiction was naturally distinct from the world of facts. (No doubt, there were some nonfiction books in that kids’ room, but not many, and I certainly didn’t know where they were shelved.) I understand the comfort of this kind of polarity. It’s clean, and we all know what cleanliness is next to. But I wonder if this kind of thinking sacrifices what is true for what is easy.

I’m now not so sure that this border between fact and fiction exists at all, or at the very least, if it isn’t more liquid than we allow it to be. After all, every scientific advancement, every cultural artifact, every technological gizmo first started in someone’s imagination. And our imaginations would be useless without some hard nouns, some facts to pin them onto.

As a fiction writer, I couldn’t get anywhere without the nonfiction world. This is also true when I’m working on a picture book. Recently, in doing some research for a book of verses about wild animals, I learned that it’s the lion’s ability to roar, along with the tiger’s, the leopard’s and the jaguar’s, that makes them Great Cats. I also discovered that lions rarely roar in the daytime. Who knew? But these two pieces of non-fiction became the basis of the verse that will open the book. And the reverse is true as well. In looking at some of the fabulous nonfiction books currently being published, it’s clear that without the engagement of their authors’ imaginations, the books would not be books at all, but simply glorified lists, the kind of thing that as a gift felt the equivalent of getting a toothbrush in your stocking at Christmas.

In my most recent novel, the protagonist is a street kid who has taken up residence in an abandoned library. In one scene, we see him in the library’s fiction section, reading to find some comfort from the sad truth of his life. I wonder now why I didn’t let him find the nonfiction shelves. Surely, there is just as much comfort to be found in learning about the lives of children, say, from Pago-Pago, the peculiar habits of the naked mole rat, the downfall of history’s biggest bullies.

Or maybe, I should have revolutionized those shelves altogether and put The Truth About Poop next to Octavian Nothing, Rocks in His Head next to From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, thereby destroying a dichotomy that may not be as clear as we sometimes think.

1 comment:

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Entertaining post; serious reply: In one way, we're in luck in our neck of the woods because most of the public libraries put kids' nonfiction books in the same general area as kids' fiction (though I'm sorry to report that this has changed recently in one gigantic new library near my neighborhood).

But except for a few terrific independent bookstores, it's extremely hard to find a good selection of first-rate nonfiction books for kids in most big-name chain bookstores around here. The chains usually buy about 2 copies of a few nonfiction titles, put them in a hard-to-find area, and hide them on a shelf with only the spines showing. The chairs and reading areas are all in the fiction section. Once their few decent nonfiction titles are sold, they almost never reorder more unless you ask them to order a personal copy for yourself, so it's just easier to get them online. The non-fiction books these stores do carry are mostly mass market series, and they don't reflect the remarkably high level of so many great nonfiction trade books available today. By the way, this is no cow town...the population here is over 6 million people.