by Christine Kohler
I was preparing a presentation for an international SCBWI conference in LA in 2014 on “Real World Facts: The Foundation for Narrative Nonfiction, Historical Fiction, and Fiction” when I became aware of the problem of mis-classification. Classification between nonfiction and fiction should be a concern of not just librarians.
When I taught writing for ICL for nearly a decade I used to be generous, calling a hybrid of nonfiction being forced into a story arc “fictionalized nonfiction.” However, I became alarmed when this classification confusion crept into professional children’s publishing under the guise of “creative nonfiction” or “narrative nonfiction.” It was especially troubling when authors made up dialogue and internal monologue and classified their works as nonfiction, under the guise of narrative nonfiction.
For an example of classification confusion, look at AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE (Scholastic) by Pam Munoz Ryan. Is this book nonfiction or historical fiction? Pam and her publisher Scholastic give a disclaimer in the front of this picture book, “Based on a true story.” In the author’s note, Pam admits that to make this a more compelling story she “fictionalized” it. Then she elaborates what is fact and what is fiction. I love Pam Munoz Ryan’s writing and admire her dedication to research, but in my opinion, AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE should be classified as fiction, not “a fictionalized true story.” Even if the author and publisher were trying to say this picture book is fiction based on facts, it gets hazy as to what classification it is in the way they danced around that the story is fiction.
THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills) by Alexis O’Neill is historical fiction written in first person. Alexis said she included back matter because readers will often accept historical fiction as fact and she wanted to help readers separate fact from fiction. Alexis said, “The more they are aware of the difference, the more they will keep their antenna up when they read other works of historical fiction. I hope they might begin to ask, ‘How could this be verified? Is there proof that this person really said or did that? Is the source of that information reliable?’”
When School Library Journal reviewed THE KITE THAT BRIDGED TWO NATIONS, it placed the picture book in the nonfiction section. In an interview, Alexis called this misclassification embarrassing and said, “If a writer makes up even one teeny, tiny thing that can’t be verified-- a piece of dialogue, a neighbor’s name, an emotional reaction--the piece becomes fiction. Nonfiction means that everything is verifiable. But librarians struggle with this, especially if the book has biographical information in it. They want to place the book where readers are most likely to search for it.”
Compare these two picture books VOICES OF PEARL HARBOR (Pelican) by Sherry Garland and REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR (National Geo) by Thomas Allen. Why is Tom’s book classified nonfiction and Sherry’s fiction when both are in first person? Sherry used different invented characters to represent Every native Hawaiian, Every US citizen, and Every Japanese mother and wife. Tom begins in first person as the narrator of his own story and memories of that day as if in a memoir to create a framing to the factual information about the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II. Notice that Tom put all dialogue in direct quotes in his book.
What are some no-nos in narrative nonfiction? Made-up quotes. People who never existed or interacted with the biography subject.
Even in FINDING MANANA: A MEMOIR OF A CUBAN EXODUS (Penquin), author Marta Ojito, a journalist, writes in her author’s note, “I won’t put dialogue that cannot be verified as exact.” This is not true for all memoirs. I admire Ojito for holding herself to a higher standard.
What does this mean for us as authors? I believe we should hold ourselves to higher standards. We should figure out in the course of our writing whether a piece is fiction or nonfiction. Do not be wishy-washy in using terms such as fictionalized nonfiction or creative nonfiction. Pitch it according to the correct classification--nonfiction or fiction. Even in author notes, jacket flap copy, blurbs, and publicity, the author should make the classification clear, and if it’s not, correct it.
Once the book is released to the world, though, it is out of our hands. It’s like I wrote in my October 2018 blog post about how books take on a life of their own after publication. Once your baby grows up and leaves the nest, you no longer have control over it. If someone misclassifies it after being published, an author has to swallow it like a bad review. *Sing “Let it go. Let it go.”* Take solace in that you, the author, did the best you could to make the classification clear.
Until next time, Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian and U,S. readers! Stay tuned, everyone, for my next blog article about creative and narrative nonfiction.
READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog
by Christine Kohler