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?
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.
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.
do I think nonfiction books are better now? Because they reveal more author
presence—apparent author influence or subjective creativity—in presenting
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.
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.
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.
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).
space between fiction and nonfiction spectrums ripples with controversy where fact
blends with fiction.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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