Friday, October 19, 2012

On the Fence between Fiction and Nonfiction

…and liking the view!

A book discussion group I follow (CCBC-net) recently had some back-and-forth on books that straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction. 

Teacher and writer Monica Edinger linked to a great list from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of titles that mix the twoAs the list's authors (Megan Schliesman and Merri V. Lindgren) make clear, sometimes it’s good for kids to see books that creatively combine approaches:

“We believe books like these present teachers and librarians with a tremendous opportunity. In today’s web-connected, social media world, children are exposed to information—and misinformation—at a younger and younger age. Teaching them to becoming [sic] critical readers and consumers of information has become more important than ever.”

I’ve written straight nonfiction like my how-to craft book Bookworks: Making Books by Hand (Carolrhoda Lerner) and made-up stories (fiction) like my historical picture book Riding to Washington (Sleeping Bear Press).

But I’ve had the most fun mixing the two. Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices (Calkins Creek Boyds Mills Press) straddles the fence. 

It mixes straight nonfiction, in the form of factual captions and chapter introductions that outline Ellis Island’s history, with creative fictional monologues, dialogues, letters, and emails all from the point of view of people at Ellis Island.

Q: Why mix fact and fiction?

A: Because sometimes the best way to reach the truth about a time or place or experience is to dive deeply into the facts we know—and then use that knowledge of history to extrapolate.

For example, in Hope and Tears, one monologue takes the point of view of a patient detained at Ellis Island’s contagious disease hospital in 1922. At the monologue’s end the girl, named Pearl, gazes onto the Statue of Liberty and reflects:

Outside the window, the Liberty Lady stands tall.
I can’t see her face yet, not from here.
But I promise you this:
I won’t stay in bed.
Soon enough, 
I’ll leave this island 
and take my place in this new land.
I won’t let Lady Liberty turn her back on me.

The monologue is a work of fiction. It’s based, however, on my study of Pearl Libow’s oral history interview, readings about the two hospital islands, and research that Ellis Island’s librarians Barry Moreno and Jeff Dosik helped me to conduct.

Background research anchors the fictional monologue in something close to the truth: Pearl’s truth, the sad truth of being a very sick girl in a strange new place and seeing the promise of freedom just out of reach, beyond your window.

Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices certainly straddles the fiction/nonfiction fence—and from my point of view, that’s one of the best vantage points to write from when your goal is to make history come alive for readers.

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