Thursday, April 17, 2008

To Quote or Not To Quote: Invented Dialogue

My goal this morning is to investigate what others think about one of my nonfiction pet peeves and hear your thoughts on the matter. This past weekend I co-taught a two-part workshop called Noteworthy Nonfiction with Charlesbridge editor Yolanda LeRoy. One of the issues that came up was invented dialogue. I happen to feel strongly that invented dialogue—by which I mean conversations based on research, however brief—has no place in nonfiction for kids, but there were those who disagreed.

Arguments in favor of invented dialogue included the idea that rooting something in conversation makes it come alive for the reader. After all, isn’t that what we’re trying to do? Make nonfiction more stimulating so kids will be enticed and excited to read it? With that, I could agree. And if the essence of what happened is based on careful research, and the words a writer puts in someone else’s mouth ring true, then what does it matter if the actual words were not actually spoken? Some nodded in agreement. I was not one of them.

It matters a tremendous amount if the words were not actually spoken. My first and gut reaction is that this is simply wrong. I wouldn’t want anyone putting posthumous words in my mouth, after all, even if they reflected the truth of something I might have said. But my indignation was not met with as much agreeable nodding as I expected. Or, as I had hoped. I was prodded to elaborate. Why does invented dialogue bother me so much?

The answer is this. If we’re talking about nonfiction for kids, it bothers me because they are amassing knowledge as they read. They are soaking things up, collecting information for the long haul, putting together the pieces of our world. The truths they read in their early years of nonfiction will be the truths upon which later insights and truths are built. And if some of those truths are indeed falsehoods, they will be planted right alongside the rest and become a permanent part of what they know to be true. How many adults have had to relearn incorrect pieces of history due to quoted material that was actually never spoken? Or have you still not yet been told that George Washington never did chop down that cherry tree?

And no, I am not against plays or movies that “bring history alive.” I am watching the John Adams series on HBO along with the rest of the country and am finding it quite fascinating. But the intention there is much different than slipping invented dialogue into otherwise factually accurate nonfiction for kids—and the intended audience is aware of those differences. So, challenge me; make me challenge myself. What are your thoughts, pro or con?


Anonymous said...

I am nodding my head vigorously, Tanya. And I'll offer up my newest passion--WHAT TO DO ABOUT ALICE? by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham--as a fine example of how to use accurate quoted material to great affect. (I blogged about this book just this morning.)

Loree Burns

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%! I can watch a miniseries BASED on real people and be ok with it because I KNOW it's still fiction. But in a non-fiction book where kids are going to take it as truth just angers me. Especially now that I have a daughter that will read oneday!

Anonymous said...

I agree and I think you are returning to the importance of maintaining a distinction between non-fiction and historical fiction (or other fiction based on thoroughly researched factual material).

I think there are ways we can deal with it, just as we deal with gaps and uncertainties in the facts. Putting in clear indicators that this is hypothetical can be helpful. We are currently reading about Pythagoras* and there is such a mix-up between legend and fact that the author frequently puts clear signposts that she is suggesting a plausible narrative of how something occurred.

Of course those of us who read with children and talk to them about what they read need to help them notice those signposts and talk about the uncertainty. Just as we have to help them understand how historical fiction uses factual information and how to extend their research if they are truly interested in the topic, checking what is true and what is made up.

Myra Zarnowski has a chapter on this latter subject in her book Making Sense of History (aimed at elementary school teachers).

*The history of geometry book we are reading is "String, Straightedge and Shadow".

teacherninja said...

I agree completely and this weirdly dovetails with Erroll Morris' thoughts on the use of reenactments in documetary film recently posted in the New York Times and his blog.

I remember there being a series of young American biographies that I just KNEW were full of didactic made-up hoo-ha, but I was too young to know how to research and prove it.

Anonymous said...

It makes a big difference when the kids are doing biographical research based on the (presumably nonfiction) book. We're very careful to emphasize that they need to paraphrase when they take notes, and if they copy something from the book, it needs to be in quotation marks. They are also looking for quotes from the subject, and I would hate for them to think that invented dialogue is real. When I find biographies with invented dialogue I either don't buy them or I re-classify them as historical fiction. I've heard educators say that things are different for younger kids, but I believe they need accurate nonfiction resources just as much as anyone else does.

Beth O'Connell
middle school librarian

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

I wrote a book about the creators of Superman, due out this summer. The first draft I submitted to editors had no dialogue, and one editor suggested I add it. I was conflicted about that, and polled a few other authors who write picture book nonfiction. One said he took creative license with dialogue in his picture book about a famous poet--and got slammed for it in reviews. I decided to add dialogue in the form of quotations pulled from interviews the creators gave--and I insisted that we explain that on the copyright page. My editor was not as concerned, but it's important to me to assure librarians, teachers, and parents that I'm not making this up! I did have to change verb tense in a couple of instances, and even that made me nervous!

April Pulley Sayre said...

Tanya, I agree with what you wrote. I was rather surprised to learn about invented dialogue as a common practice in biography. It is surprising how quickly these invented pieces can spread.

I, myself, was almost fooled recently by "invented" scientific papers that appear on the web. They are written so well that they sound real. When excerpts are shown in a google search, for instance, the material seems real. Only when you dive in and examine the entire page do you see a little label up top that indicates the material is made up!

Clarity is important. Endmatter and explanations of usage help tremendously.