Wednesday, September 25, 2019

What's a Pseudo-narrative?

In fiction, first-person narration is powerful because it allows readers to see the world from the main character’s perspective. In recent years, some authors have tried to bring this same kind of intimacy and engagement to our understanding of historic figures by writing biographies in first person.

 In books like I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer and Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor by Robert Burleigh, notable figures from the past seem to tell their own stories. But in fact, white male authors are inventing the text by putting words in the mouths of people of a different gender and, in one case, of a different race. And that makes these books informational fiction—not nonfiction.

Informational fiction is based on documented facts, but it takes creative liberties, such as made-up dialog or imagined scenes, in an effort to make the book more engaging. 

Informational fiction also includes “pseudo-narratives.” These fact-based books have an expository writing style but resemble a narrative because the information is reported by a fictional narrator, such as an animal or inanimate object or a person other than the author. Here are some examples:


Beavers: The Superpower Field Guide by Rachel Poliquin


The Deadliest Creature in the World by Brenda Z. Guiberson

Hey, Water by Antoinette Portis


I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos

One Proud Penny by Randy Siegel

Sun! One in a Billion by Stacey McAnulty


In some cases, these books are an effective way to share ideas and information with young readers, but they should not take the place of nonfiction books in your classroom or library collection. It’s critically important that students develop the skills necessary to recognize what’s real, what’s true, what’s verifiable and what’s not.


 





12 comments:

  1. This was very thought-provoking and eye-opening for me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  2. Confusing for teachers and readers as these are filed under nonfiction in (at least my) public library.

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    1. Different libraries shelve them in different ways right now. Follett has recently added an "informational fiction" category in their online database. My hope is that, if these books continue to be published in high numbers, libraries will eventually create an informational fiction section.

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  3. I like the term "informational fiction" for these kinds of books. They're usually fun and engaging and full of facts presented in clever ways. I, Fly is one of my favorites!

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  4. I’m glad you said something about the fictionalized biographies, Melissa, because that has always bothered me. I mean, it’s obvious (at least to adults doing the categorizing and sharing) that the sun and pennies don’t talk but they may not fully realize the dialogue is invented in people bios...and that, to me, is crossing a line of trust as a writer.

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    1. I agree, Teresa, these books should be considered fiction.

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  5. First and foremost, children respond to narrative, and for many historical figures from non-dominant cultures or who lived before the 20th century, there is precious little source material. If they didn't keep a diary, especially, or if the diary is lost. In that case, author has a choice: either don't tell what may be a compelling and crucial story, or fictionalize certain elements. So long as the fictionalized material is explicitly acknowledged in an introduction or Afterword, what is the harm?

    Next, female authors do this about men as much as male authors do this about women. Everyone does it about everyone. It has nothing to do with identity and everything to do with the challenge of writing about certain figures.

    Finally, there is no blurry line between non-fiction and fiction in this regard. Make up dialogue? Invent incident? It's fiction. Make assertions that can be sourced to reliable references and/or primary sources? It's nonfiction. If grownups don't know how to catalog, that's on us, not on the kids.

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    1. Thanks for leaving a comment here, Anonymous. There's a lot to unpack here. In some ways I agree with you, and in other ways I don't.

      According to a growing body of research, about 40 percent of elementary students connect more strongly with expository writing than narrative writing. Another 30 percent enjoy both narrative and expository writing equally. There a number of wonderful expository collective biographies that highlight the achievements of historic figures, including women, BIPOC, and other traditionally marginalized groups. Here is one of my favorites:
      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27405561-women-in-science

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    2. At the end of my piece, I agree with your next point. Informational fiction can be a useful way to convey information, but it's important that it young readers understand when the books they are reading are nonfiction and when they partly true and partly made up. It's also great if students understand why the author made certain choices.

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    3. Besides the large Brad Meltzer series, which as received a lot of attention, there are only a handful of books in which the author employs first-person narration in a biography, so it makes sense to use his books as an example.

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    4. I agree with you when you say "Make up dialogue? Invent incident? It's fiction." I would also say that if authors "Make assertions that can be sourced to reliable references and/or primary sources" that it is fiction. But not everyone agrees. Some editors have no problem publishing a "biography" with made up material, and if authors want their book to be published, they go along.

      Where things get blurry for me personally is picture book illustrations. Even if an illustrator does copious amounts of research, is every detail in that illustration true and documentable or does he/she have to make some educated guesses? While I'm not necessarily against calling these books nonfiction, I do think it's a conversation that we should be having with students.

      You might be interested in reading this blog posts, which curates a twitterchat about his topic. You'll see there is quite a bit of disagreement:
      http://celebratescience.blogspot.com/search?q=informational+fiction

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    5. As I mention in an earlier comment, my hope is that, if these books that mix true facts and made up material continue to be published in high numbers, libraries will eventually create informational fiction sections. I also hope that educators will make a point of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of these kinds of books with students.

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