To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

October 1, 2012

If it’s not already obvious from my past blog posts, I’ve always been a nonfiction purist. In fact, I’ve engaged in my share of debates in defense of the genre, most specifically in terms of picture book biographies.

If dialog, characters, or events are created, the book is fiction, I’ve demanded. Maybe brilliantly, beautifully, compellingly written, but made-up stuff is fiction. I’ve even shined a light on the shelving inconsistencies in public and school libraries. Some fictionalized treatments are given a Dewey decimal number while other pure nonfiction, expertly told as a narrative, is shelved in the fiction section. The creative line between fiction and nonfiction is often blurred, even for the amazing librarians who are the stewards of our work. My inner researcher has stomped her feet when the line is crossed.

To a certain extent, the stomping will continue. But, I feel myself changing a tad. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been too hard on the gatekeepers. Too rigid in my thinking. Too tied to scholarly interests. If the goal is to introduce young readers to fascinating people and events from our history, maybe it’s okay to use a dusting, or sprinkling or dousing of fiction, depending on the particular project. As long as we’re honest with our readers at the get-go. At the end of the day, it’s about illuminating a piece of our past through story. Story.  In the short form picture book genre, we can focus on a particular angle, a slice of a subject’s life in hopes that we compel young readers to want to learn more.

Truth is, as a reader, I’ve always loved, loved, loved historical fiction, with its creative portal to our past. But, as a writer, I’m such a thorough, obsessive researcher that I’ve always felt an obligation to stick to the facts and nothing but the facts. As if I’d offend my subjects by adding embellishments. That sounds a little hypocritical, doesn’t it? Hence, this recent self-revelation.

Changing old mindsets is difficult. It helped to take a step back and ask myself the most important questions any kid-lit author can ask herself.
Why am I writing for children?
Who’s my audience?
Who am I trying to please?

My reading log is filling up again, this time with some amazingly, stupendously, fascinatingly written historical fiction picture books. I fully appreciate the intense research that went into these books and I’m bowled over by the creative vehicle through which history is being presented.Yes, I think it’s time to give myself permission to expand beyond my purist leanings. As long as I’m honest with myself and my readers from the get-go.

At the end of the day, we shouldn’t care where our books land on
library shelves, as long as they land. And are found. And read.