Monday, March 2, 2020

The Author Presence Spectrum: A Way to Understand Nonfiction’s Expansion

Today’s post, written by author Tracy Nelson Maurer, presents the Author Presence Spectrum that Tracy and Ann Henkens Matzke developed to explore the range of fiction and nonfiction children’s books available today. What do you think?

Full disclosure from an author of more than 100 children’s nonfiction books: I didn’t like nonfiction when I was a kid. I thought it was boring. 

That was a (very) long time ago—and nonfiction has evolved and expanded, especially since the 1990s, to become truly engaging, compelling, and memorable for readers. 

Why do I think nonfiction books are better now? Because they reveal more author presence—apparent author influence or subjective creativity—in presenting information. 

The Author Presence Spectrum, which author Ann Henkens Matzke and I developed in 2013, provides a way to analyze books to gain an understanding of how the author’s presentation of facts as well as the reader’s expectations work together to support a higher level of creativity.
The far-left side of the nonfiction spectrum (yellow) reflects minimal author presence. The books here might include dictionaries, encyclopedias, or other reference materials. The nonfiction authors behind these books strive to project objectivity. They’re arguably creative, but their creativity is not readily apparent, and readers do not expect it. 

By contrast, at the right side of the nonfiction spectrum, readers anticipate true stories and welcome the storyteller’s creativity. These nonfiction authors play with voice, point of view, narrative arc, and other elements.

Notably, the Author Presence Spectrum exists in fiction, too (orange). Because writers and readers generally approach fiction and nonfiction differently, our tool includes two spectrums. The fiction spectrum nudges up to nonfiction, beginning with fact-based fiction—stories built from the real world (e.g., Gary Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and Alicia Williams’ Genesis Begins Again). The fiction-end of the spectrum flows toward fantasy and science-fiction where authors invent entire worlds (e.g. M.T. Anderson’s Feed).

The space between fiction and nonfiction spectrums ripples with controversy where fact blends with fiction. 


Think about this: In the author’s note for Island: A Story of the Galapagos, Jason Chin writes that the “specifics of the story are educated guesses and should not be taken as fact.” Yet, readers will find the book shelved among the 508.866 Science and Natural History books in the nonfiction section.

Lee Gutkind, author of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, advises that nonfiction should contain nothing imaginary—no fudging on dialog, setting, chronology, etc. He explains, “The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.” 

To him, narrative nonfiction books—those with a high degree of author presence—are “true stories well told.” And that’s where nonfiction ends. Anything else is simply not true and, therefore, fiction. 

But John D’Agata, known for his essays and books about writing essays, claims that truth alone matters—how you reach the truth can be less than historically accurate or precisely factual.


One of my biographies falls in that questionable space between nonfiction and fiction. In Noah Webster’s Fighting Words, I wrote about Noah Webster’s first American dictionary in third-person with a light tone that reflects some author presence. 


Then, based on biographical facts and a psychological analysis, I added fun but fictional first-person comments from Noah Webster’s ghost. The book gained humor and playfulness, making it much more interesting for young readers and still true to Webster’s story.

Nodding slightly to Lee Gutkind, I think informational fiction children’s books like mine should not hide what’s made up. Young readers lack the skills, experience, and knowledge necessary to critically evaluate these texts. For example, in my book, the ghost’s comments appear in red and in a different font from the main text.

Incorporating signals so the reader knows to expect fictionalized elements helps ensure understanding. Without those signals, readers might misinterpret facts or blindly accept misinformation. Children’s authors can even use their author presence to illuminate how they’re blending fact and fiction. 

Certainly, the idea of author presence isn’t new and this spectrum concept has its faults. However, analyzing books using the spectrum has shown me that most nonfiction books that I love to read now (and I do love to read them!) reveal a lot of author presence. The spectrum also helps to confirm for writers of nonfiction that readers may welcome our presence as we present facts in engaging, compelling, and memorable ways.

Tracy Nelson Maurer has written more than 100 books for children and young adults, including the picture-book biographies John Deere, That's Who! and Samuel Morse, That’s Who! Both books are Junior Library Guild selections and received the National Science Teaching Association’s “Best STEM Book” award. Tracy holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University, and she continues to study children’s books when she’s not writing them.

2 comments:

  1. The graphic showing the author presence spectrum is a terrific visual way to describe this. And I think the idea of giving the reader clues about what is true and what is fiction is a valid way to address having a nonfiction book contain elements of fiction. Great post, thanks!

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  2. A very interesting article! I experienced a jolt when my book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations won a nonfiction Eureka Award in California. I chose to tell this historical event in the voice of my main subject, so of course it's not nonfiction according to Lee Gutkind's (and my) definition. In the back matter however, I do tell what we know for sure and what we don't know as I wanted readers to be clear about the facts. Your Author Presence Spectrum helps illuminate the classification conundrum.

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