Thursday, November 20, 2008

Passionate Nonfiction and Staying True to Your Readers

I tried to post this before leaving for San Antonio this morning for the NCTE/ALAN conference, but it didn’t work. I’m hoping I can tap into the wireless during my next layover and send this off to cyberland from Newark. If you’re reading this, I have succeeded.

The topic our NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) panel will be discussing is how we, as nonfiction writers, remain a reliable source of information while sharing our passion and point of view on a topic with young readers. It’s a very good question and one that I, like my fellow panelists—Marc Aronson, Elizabeth Partridge, and Tonya Bolden—and other nonfiction writers spend a great deal of time thinking about and incorporating when we transfer our thoughts to the page.

There are many factors that come into play, especially when writing for an audience that is older than the picture book crowd. When I delve into a topic I try to learn as much as humanly possible on a subject. This means that I sometimes uncover issues that not be entirely positive or may be difficult to address with kids. But it certainly doesn’t mean that I avoid those issues. For example, while researching Ella Fitzgerald for my Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald book, I discovered that there were many half-truths or misperceptions perpetuated in books about her over the years. Figuring out that some of that information was related to the fact that Ella had a particularly rough childhood and was a homeless teenager for a time was something I felt important to disclose to young readers even though there had been historical attempts to keep this under wraps. Ella’s past speaks directly to the type of strong, tenacious woman she was and illustrates for kids that she was able to overcome adversity and follow her dreams to success. This kind of information gets us closer to our subjects; closer to the truth of who they really were. And isn’t that the point?

At other times in my research, I have uncovered what I like to call “American heroes behaving badly.” Uh-oh. What’s a writer to do? Tarnish the reputation of a well-known figure? Maybe. Gloss over it and fail to bring it to the reader’s attention? Ignore it and hope it goes away? Of course not. But to tread here, one must do so attentively. With thought and care. I feel I have a duty to my young readers to tell them the truth about the world as I see it. Of course, my way of seeing it is as unique to me as yours is to you. But that’s all any of us have to work with. That, and integrity and ethics. If I tell readers the truth as I see it, and give them as much context as I can so that they can see things for themselves as well, all the while staying as true and honest as I possibly can, I have done my job. This was my goal in my forthcoming book Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, which is about the 13 courageous women in 1961 who excelled at astronaut testing and continued to push onward even when NASA did not let them into the space program.

I can tell you right now that you will read about a few beloved American heroes behaving badly in this particular episode of history. But I can also assure you that, in addition to my deep personal feelings about this story, I have been fair and honest. I have taken multiple perspectives into account. Including my own.

Some may say that nonfiction should stick only to the facts, but I disagree. The kind of nonfiction I most enjoy reading, and that I believe young readers get the most out of, is the kind of nonfiction that is as alive as the people whose stories are being told. That’s what makes history exciting and that’s what gets kids excited about reading.

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