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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


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 More 

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You never know. Your book might end up in an artistic book mobile, like this one at Storybook Cafe in Glen Rose, Texas.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings." -- Lewis Carroll, excerpt from “The Walrus and The Carpenter”

by Christine Kohler

What I am NOT going to talk about is kings, or presidents, or specifically President Donald Trump. I’d rather talk about cabbages and sealing wax and whether pigs fly than discuss politics publicly. So, if anyone posts a political comment, I’ll consider it off-topic and not approve. Sorry. My blog. My rules.

However, I am introducing this topic of how works take on a life of their own by using Steven Tyler, a musician with the rock band Aerosmith, as an example. When Tyler wrote “Dream On”—the chorus is an epic song for writers!—and Aerosmith released it in 1973, I doubt he had any idea who all would sing his song in the future. Miley Cyrus, Adam Levine, and Alicia Keys, to name just a few. He could not have foreseen that “Dream On” would sell Kia cars on 2018 Superbowl ads. Maybe he was surprised, flattered, when the cast of the tv show Glee sang it. (The royalties are nice, too.)

But in 2015, 43 years after “Dream On” was released, Steven Tyler had his lawyer send presidential candidate Donald Trump a cease-and-desist letter to stop using the song in a campaign rally. Now, Tyler has issued another legal letter to President Trump to stop using “Livin’ on the Edge” at rallies.

What I find interesting, according to an Associated Press article, is Tyler tweeted that it isn’t a political issue; he just does not let anyone use his songs without permission. This is the type of issue I used to enjoy debating in Media Law class at the University of Hawaii. A media law attorney could add to the discussion greatly by telling what case set precedence. Do we get total control of how our work is used? As writers, we do in that no one is allowed to use more than a percentage of the work without permission, and often financial compensation. This is how copyright law is supposed to protect us. However, I don’t know how this applies to music. This is a court case that would be interesting to follow, if Tyler pursues it.

Separate from the legal entanglements, the reason this news article caught my attention is because it shows how a work takes on a life of its own.

Several years ago, I typed my name into my daughter’s Google Scholar account. (Dr. Jennifer Sherman teaches at two universities.) I discovered that my first four children’s fiction books, published in 1985 by Concordia Publishing House, for ages 5-9 were mentioned in a book about working with at-risk children. I also found these books referenced in a scholarly journal. And in another article in a scholarly journal the writer had lifted a quote from an article I wrote while a political reporter. The writer used the quote to make a point very different than the topic of my article.

Children’s magazine writers often get requests to use their stories, nonfiction articles, and poems in testing materials, workbooks, and textbooks. The educational publishing companies pay nicely for these reprints.

When I wrote WORDS ALIVE! CHRISTIAN WRITERS SKILLS & PROMPTS I used examples from published novels and a humor book. In every case that the work was not in public domain, I got written permission from both the author (or heirs) and the publisher, or I wouldn’t use the selection. I’m sure when the writers wrote their books they never thought, “Gee, I hope someone uses this as an example of good writing craft in her writing book.”

Probably the most profitable spin-off a book can take is to have a tv show, or tv special, or movie made from the book.

Or, I’m sure you know of authors whose books were later produced on stage as plays.

If you are a writer, what are some ways in which your published work took on a life of its own?

We talk about birthing our work, and how books are our babies. And like our human children, it’s just possible as they age they will walk down a path we never imagined.  Read More 

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