Monday, June 16, 2008

Just The Facts?

The exacting constraints imposed on the writer of a 32 page, non-fiction picture book humbles grand ambitions. Or should. I’ve seen the sad results of those who believe otherwise: tedious biographies that shoehorn facts without context into long- winded stories that still leaves the reader ignorant of the person behind the facts.

I’ve chosen to avoid the full-blown biography and focus instead on the revealing chapters in a person's life.

Nevertheless, the trick still is to winnow a meaningful story to about 1500 words–I don’t’ believe kids will sit still for more–without sacrificing narrative drive and in a manner that doesn’t substitute fluff for meat.

Reducing the scope of the book is strewn with pitfalls. For example, in Uncommon Traveler, I followed the adventures of 19th Century Englishwoman, Mary Kingsley. Kingsley traveled to equatorial east Africa, displaying more than a dash of pluck for a woman who’d spent most of her life sequestered at home tending to her family. The book portrayed an epic trek through the jungle. Garbed in a thick skirt and long sleeved shirt buttoned at the neck, Mary survived rapids, swam with hippos, and even battled a crocodile who tried to join her in her canoe.

But the incidents are drawn from Mary’s two trips to Africa. The number of visits notwithstanding, I decided that the underlying tale of her courage and curiosity was of one piece, and I wrote it that way. Doing otherwise, I was convinced, would have destroyed the narrative arc for no foreseeable profit. I was careful to clarify the reality in the afterword.

The incident goes to the heart of the problem of writing history: It is not a simple chronological recounting of “true facts,” but a reflection of the historian’s point of view. When the history writer includes one bit of information while discarding another, or emphasize one episode at the expense of others, the reader must decide: Did the writer egregiously injure the truth?

I start each new project with the readers’ ultimate verdict weighing on me.

As it should.


Linda Salzman said...

This is such an interesting topic, Don. I've seen way too many of those tedious biographies in classrooms, too.

Point of view is absolutely key to any biography. I just read a book called, "Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill" which brilliantly illustrates how, even with the basic set of facts, people will view and interpret a subject differently.

But the issue of actually changing facts, like the number of trips, is a much more difficult one for me. The chronology of events is a stickler for me since I hate reading something and finding out later that's not how it actually happened. It sounds like this comes up frequently and you've learned how to balance it in your own mind. Now I'm really curious to read how you handled it in the afterword. Back to the library for me.

Linda Salzman said...

I just read Uncommon Traveler and now I have a much better understanding of how and why you manipulated the facts. It's a wonderful story, rich in detail and meaning. The reader definitely feels satisfied that you told us what we needed to know.

I just love the picture of little Mary reading in the big chair. Is that available in poster size?