Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Behind the Books: Nonfiction Point of View, Part 1

Last week, as I was listing common characteristics of lively vs. lyrical voice in nonfiction writing, I mentioned point of view. This week I’m going to plunge more deeply into the topic.

Traditionally, first-person point of view was reserved for nonfiction books in which the author shared his/her own personal story. Examples include autobiographies like The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert or memoirs like Brown Girl Dreaming by Jackie Woodson and El Deafo by Cece Bell.

In recent years, however, authors have been experimenting. In Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, published in 2010, author Joseph D'Agnese uses first-person point of view to show us the world as Fibonacci experienced it. Brad Meltzer’s very popular Ordinary People Change the World series includes such titles as I Am Amelia Earhart, I Am Abraham Lincoln, and I Am Rosa Parks in which the historic figures seem to tell very young readers (K-2) their own stories in very simple text.
Are these books really nonfiction? The Library of Congress says yes, but I'm not sure I agree. I really think of them as historical fiction. What do you think?

Next week, I'll take a look at the incredible power of second point of view in nonfiction. Stay tuned.


  1. Melissa - I think you bring up a great point here, and one that I think could help teachers understand better the challenges of narrative vs. expository and nonfiction vs. historical fiction. I suspect they are all a bit intertwined. As nonfiction writers seek to be more engaging and their writing becomes more narrative in some ways (I use that cautiously) the boundaries blur. Also with so much back matter at the end of even a historical fiction picture book, there is an assumption that it is nonfiction. I like how Barb Rosenstock in her Ben Franklin Big Splash talks about it at the end of the book and tries to clarify it. I will keep thinking on this but I tend to agree with you.

  2. Yes, I agree there is some blurring of the lines. But I think it's important to be very clear about what is true (documented to the best of our abilities) and what is, er, embellished for effect. One of the greatest challenges of writing nonfiction is creating engaging prose without crossing the line.

  3. There's a place for both narrative nonfiction and for historical fiction, but the author has no control over how the book is shelved. I think that's why back matter is so vitally important. In notes at the end of the text, the author can talk about what research went into the book, her historical and artistic choices, and about what's known and what's not known. I love all the great back matter discussion in recent historical narratives (both nonfiction and historical fiction)--Red Bird Sings, Goldie Takes a Stand, Mumbet's Declaration of Independence, Roller Derby Rivals, Anna & Solomon, Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic, etc., etc.

  4. I like this discussion, and it's something with which all nonfiction authors wrestle. I know in PLASTIC, AHOY!--a narrative nonfiction science book--every line of dialogue and every fact is linked to a source. Alexis O'Neill describes THE KITE THAT BRIDGE TWO NATIONS as historical fiction because she had to manufacture dialogue to bring her character alive and create a mood. She did a huge amount of research, but so little primary source information was available about her subject's thoughts/words.

    Like Alexis and Melissa, I tend to be more of a purist. A book is nonfiction only if its facts and dialogue are directly attributable to sources. But, in my opinion, that doesn't mean that a historical fiction book does not have informational value. The CCSS uses the words "information text," which can be nonfiction or fiction based on fact. Sometimes the only way to make information available to a particular age group is to fictionalize it. It seems as if the blurring might begin during marketing or when the book is shelved in the library.

    Perhaps part of the classroom discussion of informational texts should be what is actually true and what is made up. I think this is an issue kids are face with in all sorts of media: websites, commercials, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. How can we (and our readers) become more media savvy?

  5. Hi,
    I agree with Patty, that this is a great issue for kids to talk about (and adults) with the proliferation of media and information sources. What is true? What is not true? With the books we write, it's imperative that we make it clear somehow, in the text or in the back matter where the line between truth and fiction falls. What marketing, or shelvers might do is of lesser importance if the book speaks for itself. A story can be nonfiction or fiction, and engage the reader, inform the reader and even influence the reader. Often when reading a novel I wonder, is this true? Did that really happen? I find this to be one of the enjoyable and thought-provoking parts of reading and I look forward to the author's note with anticipation, which usually does solve my curiosity.