Fictional POV Characters to Introduce a True Story

This post published in 2012

If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m that grown up kid who disassembles gizmos to figure out how they work-all because I want to learn how to build my own. But, in my case, the gizmos are books. This blog thread is about sharing my observations as I dissect nonfiction and historical fiction picture books that work well.

Last week, I blogged about a few fictionalized first person picture book biographies where the authors utilized thorough research to step into the shoes and the voices of their subjects. The post created a slew of discussions about whether invented dialog or monolog qualify as fiction or nonfiction. Though that’s a fascinating debate, I’d like to stay on track with my observations about the creative, clever, unique approaches authors employ. If you’re a writer,  I hope you find something of value here.

This week, I’m zeroing in on a few titles with fictionalized point-of-view characters. There are a number of reasons why authors choose to add a fictional character to an otherwise true story. Sometimes, it’s because of a lack of available research sources. Sometimes, it’s just a creative storytelling decision. When done well, as the following are, the stories are both entertaining and informative.

by Robert Burleigh. Illustrated by Barry Blitt (Atheneum, 2012)
The fictional Huckleberry Finn narrates this clever biographical introduction to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Told as only Huck Finn would, and with a strong nod to Clemens’ most famous literary work, the character-narrator point of view is heavy on folksy, backwood twang that lends itself to a fun read-aloud. Huck remains an active participant in this childhood-to-death account, grounded by solid research.

Excerpt from jacket flap:  “I’m Huck Finn, and maybe you know me, or maybe you ain’t never heard of me. No matter. Mr. Mark Twain put pen to paper to tell my story, so it seemed only right fair that I return the favor. Now, I ain’t no scholar boy, but I know some things, most not worth knowin’ at all, except this: the life of Mark Twain.” 

Interesting to note:
*A double page spread “Warning to the Reader” acts as an intro and mini-glossary to the unconventional backwoods dialect ahead. It is an entertaining prelude to the story.
*Character-Narrator point of view
*Present tense (with generous flashback through Clemens’ life)
*Library of Congress (LOC) classification: Biography
*Back Matter: “Editor’s Note” provides a factual timeline.

 MINETTE’S FEAST: THE DELICIOUS STORY OF JULIA CHILD AND HER CAT by Susanna Reich. Illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams, 2012)
Julia Child’s cat, Minette, is our hostess in this whimsical slice of life story of Childs’ time in Paris, though the story is not narrated by the cat. Through Minette’s finicky ways and general catness, we are introduced to Childs’ passion for cooking which led to her enrollment at Le Cordon Bleu. The storytelling is enhanced with fun alliteration, clever refrains, and French terms that heighten the sense of setting.

Excerpt: Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child was a very lucky cat, perhaps the luckiest cat in all of Paris.
     She lived upstairs in an old gray house, one block from the River Seine.
     Day and night she could hear the bells of Sainte-Clotilde tolling the hour.
     And day and night she could smell the delicious smells of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, cheese souffles, and duck pates wafting from the pots and pans of her owner, Julia Child.     
     Bon appetit, Minette!

Interesting to note
*Third person pov. Past tense
*Time span: a few months while Julia and Paul Child lived in Paris.
*LOC classification: Fiction
*Back matter: Afterword, offers fuller biographical info. about Julia Child
Notes: citations for book’s dialog, all drawn from primary sources.
List of Sources
Glossary of french terms
Author’s Note

THE SECRET OF THE GREAT HOUDINI by Robert Burleigh. illustrated by Leonid Gore (Atheneum, 2002)
Two fictional characters, young Sam and his Uncle Ezra, watch the handcuffed Great Houdini be lowered into a trunk that is then locked and plummeted into the icy river.  With a tension filled present tense approach, covering approx three minutes, dialog between Sam and his uncle reveal the factual events of Houdini’s life leading up to this feat. Sam learns that Houdini’s secret goes far beyond his illusion, to something all people can attain-if only they believe they can.
Interspersed throughout the pages are a hand full of first person sentiments, ostensibly the voice of Houdini.

Excerpt from early page: 
“Is he afraid? Going-in there-in a locked trunk?”
“Everyone’s afraid sometimes,” Uncle Ezra answers.
“The Great Houdini goes where he has to go.”
Behind his uncle, Sam sees people arriving. Then suddenly, every head turns. The crowd opens a narrow pathway. A bubble of voices rises up and pops into words: 
“He’s coming!” “There he is!” “Look, look! Houdini! Houdini! The Great Houdini!

Interesting to note:

*Third person primary story with interspersed first person (I)sentiments from Houdini (presumably all fictionalized)
*Present tense
*Includes invented point-of-view characters
*L.O.C. classification: Fiction
*Back matter: Afterword-one page biographical info. about Houdini
*No bibliography (not necessary in historical fiction)

THE HALLELUJAH FLIGHT by Phil Bildner. Illustrated by John Holyfield  (G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2010)
From jacket flap: “In 1932, James Banning had a dream: to fly across the country and inspire people brought low by the Great Depression. But for an African-American pilot-even an ace like Banning-this was no easy feat!”
Told through the eyes of Banning’s mechanic, Thomas Allen, we are taken on a transcontinental flight, the first such flight by an African American. To finance the journey, which would require repairs and fuel for the plane, plus food, supplies, and lodging at various stops, Banning banked on an unusual idea that paid off. But, their greatest obstacle may have been racial prejudice.
*Note: Thomas Allen is not a fictional character. He really was Banning’s mechanic. As Bildner’s Author’s Note indicates, research sources were limited and the strongest source included personal recollections of Thomas Allen. Introducing Banning and his historic flight through Allen’s eyes is both a logical and a creative decision.

Excerpt: The day I first met James Banning, he said, “Mr. Allen, my dream is to fly a plane from sea to shining sea, and this here OXX6 Eagle Rock is our plane. But first I’ll need you to overhaul the engine.”
     I just about coughed up my coffee. “Replace the entire engine? How will we pay for that?” Times were hard, and most folks didn’t have a nickel to spare.
     “I’ve got an idea,” Banning replied. “Whenever people give us food, fuel and supplies along the way, they can write their names on the tip of the wing. They’ll fly into history books right along with us!”

Interesting to note:
*First person POV- with invented dialog
*Past tense
*Time span: About a month
*Author’s Note includes mention of specific sources
Author specifically states that, while based on actual events, the story is fiction.
*LOC classification: Fiction

There are oodles of picture books utilizing fictional POV characters to introduce a slice of history. Here are just a few more worth looking at:

LOOKING AT LINCOLN by Maira Kalman (Penguin, 2012)- I would have featured this book but I returned my library copy before making all of my notes. It was quickly snagged.
THE LEGEND OF THE CURSE OF THE BAMBINO by Dan Shaughnessy. Illustrated by C.F. Payne (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
ABRAHAM LINCOLN COMES HOME by Robert Burleigh. Illustrated by Wendell Minor (Henry Holt, 2008)