Monday, August 23, 2010

Fact or Fiction or Somewhere in Between?

A few recent comments about The Extraordinary Mark Twain (according to Susy) have got me thinking about the fine line between fact and fiction, particularly in many of the books that we'll be looking at for this year's Mock Sibert Award.

The Sibert Award is given annually for the most distinguished informational book for children.  The Sibert manual defines informational books as "those written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material."

Even with this specific definition, it is not always easy to determine whether a book is indeed informational and therefore eligible for the Sibert Award.  

For instance, there seems to be a trend in picture book biographies for authors to present the information from the subject's point of view.  Summer Birds and Stand Straight, Ella Kate are both written in first person from the perspective of a historical figure (Maria Sibylla Meridian and Ella Kate Ewing, respectively). Does this preclude them from the Sibert definition of informational?

Does the answer change if the author makes it clear that he has taken liberties with the story as Joseph D'Agnese does in Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci?  Jonah Winter, author of Here Comes the Garbage Barge also explains that he has based his "fictionalized version" on the real deal, but has "taken some liberties with the facts."  Could this be an example of a book that is written and illustrated to interpret documentable facts?

I often look closely at the dialogue in picture book biographies for a clue as to whether they can be considered informational.  Some, such as Mama Miti, include dialogue that seems to be more general representation than specific, cited quotes.  Others include direct quotes and their specific citations among more general dialogue (Black Elk's Vision is one example).

Interestingly, the book that led me to write this blog post is (in my opinion) the most "informational" of all those I've mentioned.  While The Extraordinary Mark Twain (according to Susy) reads like fiction and is even classified as fiction in its subject headings, its author, Barbara Kerley provides evidence of her careful research including citations for all quotations included in the text.

What do you think?  How do you delineate between fact and fiction?  Which titles meet the Sibert definition of informational and should be considered for our mock award?


Teresa said...

I imagine the discussion happens within the committee each year. For the Sibert Award, I think the key word is "interpret" when it comes to informational picture books.

Kerley has written an incredibly interesting and documented look at Mark Twain's personality as shared by a member of his family. I believe it to be eligible for the Sibert. It seems less imagined than Action Jackson (by Greenberg and Jordan) which received the Sibert Honor several years ago. And that book states in the beginning, "Some of this account is imagined. We don't know if the sequence of events during the months of May and June 1950 (...) was exactly as we described it. But we do have many firsthand reports about the summer when he made so many of his great paintings (...) and on those we have based our story."

I think Kerley's book could be cataloged as a biography, just as Action Jackson is. At the time, I questioned whether Greenberg and Jordan's "imagined" look should be in biography, but the cataloger must have decided the end notes about Jackson Pollock were enough. The cataloger assigned to Kerley's book, apparently, was a different person with a different view about the line between fiction and nonfiction.

Kerley's book is informational and documented. That's enough for me to consider it for the Mock Sibert.

I look forward to hearing the thoughts of others.

Barbara Kerley said...

Hi all,

Thank you for your thoughtful reading and discussion of my book, THE EXTRAORDINARY MARK TWAIN (ACCORDING TO SUSY.)

The book is nonfiction. All the quotes are sourced in the backmatter and the entire text was fact-checked by a wonderful Mark Twain expert (and university professor).

We only recently discovered the error in the CIP information, which describes the book as fiction. The error will be corrected when the book is reprinted, and it will be correctly listed as a nonfiction biography.

Feel free to email me if you'd like more information :)

Barbara Kerley (the author of the book)
barbara (at)

Joseph D'Agnese said...

Hi all,

Thanks for the gracious mention of my book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. This is an interesting post because it's something I struggled with during the writing. Since the real Fibonacci did not know of the significance of the famous number sequence, my book would have been painfully brief if I did not imagine that he did. All we know of him comes from a one-paragraph autobiography he wrote. I stuck as closely to those facts as possible, then imagined the rest. It was more important to me to engage kids with the math, to get them thinking about where our numerals came from, than to stick to historical truth. Literal truth would have meant a 3-page picture book, no picture book, or a picture book I didn't want to write. I consider the book historical fiction, or even historical fantasy.

Thank you,
Joe D'Agnese

PS: John O'Brien has authored and illustrated other books, but I was sole author on this one.

Mandy said...

Ms. Kerley: Thanks for the clarification about your book. In writing this blog post, I took a close look at each book mentioned, and I was most impressed with the documentation and backmatter that I found in The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). Thank you for creating such a well-researched (and well-written) biography for young readers.

Mr.D'Agnese: First of all, let me apologize for failing to credit you with authorship of Blockhead. This was a mistake on my part, and I've changed that information in the original post.

Thanks for giving us an inside look at what went into creating your book. I appreciate the approach you took in writing Blockhead as well as the additional information and explanation that was shared in your author’s note. You mentioned that your aim was "to engage kids with the math, to get them thinking about where our numerals came from." At that, I think you truly succeeded.

Mandy (ACPL)

Pamela S. Turner said...

As a writer I have been on either side of this divide. My first book, HACHIKO, was subtitled “The True Story of a Loyal Dog”, and labeled as nonfiction by the Library of Congress. I was quite surprised by this because some of my characters were fictional and I had clearly noted the fictionalizations in my afterword. When I was writing HACHIKO I certainly imagined it would be shelved as fiction. As a newbie author I didn’t protest the nonfiction designation, but I certainly would today.

There are things you can do using a fictionalized narrative that you can’t do any other way, which is why I wrote HACHIKO the way I did, and why I support Mr. D’Agnese’s way of approaching Fibonacci in BLOCKHEAD. But BLOCKHEAD, as Mr. D’Agnese notes, is more properly labeled “historical fiction.” So is HACHIKO.

I also write nonfiction in the very strict sense of the term. If it didn’t happen, if there’s a scientific fact I can’t document, then I can’t use it. Very often pesky reality gets in the way of a very nice, satisfying story.

Does “informational book” equal “completely factual book”? If it does, then fictionalization should be an instant DQ for the Sibert.