Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Allure of Back Matter

I have a hunch that I read books differently from most people. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I read the acknowledgments page first. I just love snooping into someone else’s creative process – where they did their research, whom their writing buddies are…. (I also love the directors’ commentaries on DVD movies.) Then I will look for an Author’s Note that reveals the man (or woman) behind the curtain: the author’s voice that breaks the “fourth wall.”

How I'm Doing It

Right now I’m working on author’s notes for two picture book biographies to be published in 2012. One book is a birth-to-death biography of a woman who dared to enter territory considered off-limits to women of her time. My author’s note is brief, describing how women followed her lead in the decades after her death, thanks to increased educational opportunities.

My second biography tells of a slave who challenged her owner in court, and ends with her gaining her freedom. And so my author’s note is more extensive. It sketches out the rest of her life, sets the record straight about a few erroneous ‘legends’ about her, and acknowledges some unanswered questions.

Most kids probably don’t read these ‘extras,’ but back matter is valuable for teachers and those few readers who want to learn more. These days, editors insist on bibliographies, websites, and source notes for all quotes in order to establish an author’s credibility and expertise.

How Others Do It

But many of us can’t resist going beyond the basics. We can’t bear to let go of information that doesn’t quite fit into the narrative arc of our story. M.T. Anderson’s author’s note in his quirky Strange Mr. Satie includes even more quirky details about Satie’s life and music. April Pulley Sayre’s note in Home at Last: A Song of Migration, gives us more information about each of her featured animals.

In Frida, Jonah Winter focuses on Kahlo’s artistic development; his author’s note discusses her famous marriage and successful career. Ana Juan adds an artist’s note to explain her choice of art style. Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, in Action Jackson, put the author’s note in the front and explain how they structured the book.

Farmer George Plants A Nation by Peggy Thomas describes Washington as an innovative and scientific farmer. Her back matter presents a tangent: “George’s Thoughts on Slavery.” Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson includes back matter that elaborates on the setting of the book and a secondary character. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Independent Dames, chock full of information, adds even more in the back matter. She presents more heroines who didn’t make the final cut and debunks popular stories about certain women.

Steve Sheinkin’s longer biographies end with “Whatever Happened to” sections about his large cast of characters – and who can resist that? Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s middle grade biography of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Runaway Girl, has loads of back matter, including pages on “How to Look at a Sculpture” and “Where to View Artwork” by Bourgeois.

In the Old Days

My first book, The Wind at Work, a history of windmills, includes appendices on “Windmill Careers” and “Where to Find Windmills.” This book was written in the pre-internet-and-unlimited-phone-call era, and the “Where to Find” section took many days and dollars to hunt down addresses and phone numbers all around the country. Today of course, all that information is just a click or two away.

Riches and More Riches

I’ve published several stories and essays in a wonderful anthology series called Stories From Where We Live published by Milkweed Editions. Each volume focuses on a North American bioregion, its landscape, flora, and fauna. The back matter, a teacher’s dream come true, describes the climate and geology of the region, with separate sections on habitats, animals and plants, maps, and parks and preserves in the region.

All these golden nuggets enrich a story for me. But even more, they help to answer my perennial question to other writers: how do you do it?

And then there’s the most personal part of any book – the dedication. Sometimes we get a hint about this person and why they received the dedication, but usually a mystery remains. But then, authors are entitled to a few secrets.


Susan E. Goodman said...

Great post. I have been at conferences where people are doing book talks for teachers and librarians and use the back matter is proof that the author did good work--those and the acknowledgments one makes to experts who provided time and info.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Back matter can be like dessert after a good meal, but yes, perhaps more so to nonfiction authors! It's always interesting to see the author's approach - what s/he puts in the story proper vs. afterword/author's note, and why (if explained). I recently blogged about "Ain't Nothing But a Man" by Scott Reynolds Nelson (about John Henry). In a sense, the whole book is back matter, though integrated into a narrative.