There has been an interesting discussion going on over at Oz and Ends, a kidlit blog maintained by writer and editor J.L. Bell. Back on February 18, Bell quoted Ben Mezrich, the author of the ostensibly nonfiction book Bringing Down the House, as saying:
“The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true.”
Bell agreed with the statement, but plenty of children’s nonfiction writers (including me) had serious problems with Mr. Mezrich’s comment. It’s worth noting that this comment was made after a Boston Globe reporter confronted Mezrich about the accuracy of some parts of his book. Mezrich admitted creating composite figures and adding details that could not be confirmed by the real people involved in the situations and events supposedly chronicled in the book.
Basically, Mezrich made stuff up to create a more engaging story. Furthermore, he didn’t seem apologetic or embarrassed when his dishonesty was discovered. Apparently, he doesn’t see a problem with departing from the facts in a nonfiction book.
Well, I do have a problem with that. And I’m not alone.
If you read through the comments following Bell’s post, you can see how the discussion progressed. In his arguments, Bell kept coming back to the importance of story in a nonfiction work.
I know lots of fantastic nonfiction books for children and adults in which the authors spent years of their lives researching and interviewing to find the golden nuggets that allowed them to build scenes, flesh out their subjects, and create a narrative arc that fortified their presentation. I am the first to salute their efforts.
Books like Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone and Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Wild Trees by Richard Preston are masterpieces that were only possible thorough the persistence of writers determined to gather the facts and tell the truth as it emerged. These authors richly deserve all the acclaim they have received.
But is the power of story really SO critical that authors should consider inventing it when it either doesn’t exist or, even worse, when they are too lazy to do the research required to uncover it? J.L. Bell mentions religious tales, family lore, funny anecdotes, national myths and says “The idea that those stories are true is more important to how we experience and see meaning in them than whether we can prove them to be true."
But I disagree. In those cases, we trust the storytellers and assume they are being honest. If we disprove or even question their sincerity, the story’s power is destroyed. We feel angry and deceived.
We’ve all heard the expression “fact is stranger than fiction”, and we all love strange and wacky facts, especially kids. These facts have power because they are real and verifiable.
With this in mind, I continue to maintain that if a narrative is labeled nonfiction, readers have an absolute right to expect it to be 100 percent fact based, and yes “true” to the very best of the writer’s ability.
Still, Bell’s ideas are thought provoking. Why do we like stories so much? Are children even more enthralled by the power of story than the adult readers Mezrich targets?
I got an answer last week during a trip to Disney World with my nephew and two nieces. On the third day, after experiencing “Kilimanjaro Safari” (which features amazing views of live African animals in a setting that includes as much authentic African vegetation as is possible in South Florida), I had an interesting conversation with my 9-year-old nephew.
As our Jeep ride through the “savanna” ended, he complained, “Why do they have to add fake stories to real rides? They should have just told us more cool facts about the animals instead.”
My nephew was referring an anxious voice on the Jeep driver’s “radio” that periodically warned of poachers ahead and told us to beware. Near the end of the ride, the voice asked our help in herding the poachers so that they could be captured. We never saw these poachers, but we passed through what was supposed to be their camp. Then we passed a mechanical baby elephant swishing it’s trunk through a partially open flap in the back of a truck.
I had the same reaction as my nephew, but I thought the kids might like the action and intrigue. Needless to say, I was thrilled by his response. He cared about the animals for the amazing beasts that they are. He had no patience for the artificial storyline. Hooray!
Now I know my nephew is just one child. I can’t state with authority that all kids or even all 9-year-old boys would react as my nephew did, but I truly doubt that he’s so unique in his way of thinking.
What I do know from school visits and book signings is that many young readers, especially upper-elementary boys, love facts, and that’s why they read nonfiction. For them, being able to prove a nonfiction narrative is true is absolutely critical to their love of the literature. And that directly refutes Mezrich’s statement.