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Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: Ethics in Nonfiction on January 5, 2013


He who speaks the truth should have one foot in the stirrup., Digital ID 1524809, New York Public LibraryI love nonfiction books since I have learned so much from them in my years as a reader. Whenever I get voraciously curious about a topic, I inevitably turn to the Internet and books to learn more about the subject, whether it be Celiac disease, criminal justice, issues, animals, or something else. I have seen at least one other panel about nonfiction works for children, and I am impressed with the authors who strive to make this topics come alive for children in a fun, interesting novel manner. I looked at the panelists' web sites prior to the lit salon. I was impressed, particularly by the wealth of information on Deborah Heiligman's site regarding becoming an author and how she conceptualizes her career.

Betsy Bird, NYPL's Youth Materials Specialist, introduced the authors for the panel discussion at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building ("the library with the lions") that she moderated. Deborah Heiligman was an editor for Scholastic News and she is a National Book Award Finalist. She recently published The Boy Who Loved Math. Sue Macy worked as a research coordinator for Scholastic, and she is also an author. Susan Kuklin is a photographer and writer. She was a New York City schoolteacher, and she has written books such as After a Suicide: Young People Speak Up. Meghan McCarthy is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and she is one of the best author/illustrators that Bird has ever read. She wrote Seabiscuit: the Wonder Horse, among other books for children.

The Research Process: Bird then commenced the panel discussion. She said that since the topic of discussion was ethics in nonfiction for children that she would like to know more about the research process that the authors completed for their books. She mentioned that they wrote books about topics that were not even in books for adults.

Macy said that she likes to do her own research and photographic image research, and that they tend to drive each other. She needs to know what the sports instruments looked like in order to write her books. For example, in her research for Wheels of Change, she was able to locate collectors of women's bicycles and memorabilia. She also attended auctions where bicycles sold for thousands of dollars. She also used the typical research methods of visiting libraries and reading diaries. She learns much from reading newspapers, which is a great way to get back to the time period to determine how people were talking. In fact, a lot of newspapers are available online now.

Primary Sources: Heiligman mentioned that is a primary source junkie. When she talks about nonfiction, the title of her talk is "You Can't Make This Stuff Up" because there are great stories out there, and authors of nonfiction are not allowed to include fallacious material in their works. She could have read many pages about Charles Darwin (meaning secondary sources) but she preferred to read diaries, Darwin's notebooks, letters, and scientific notes. She read his letters about work and his life, because she wanted to learn more about Emily, his wife, since people's spouses influence their lives very much.

Interviews: Kuklin stated that her books are based on interviews with people who have expertise on a particular subject. When she was writing a book about capital punishment, she learned from talking with lawyers that she did not know much about the topic. She took audit courses in law school about capital punishment so that she could learn more. She prefers to be a blank slate when working on a book, but she needed to have more background information in this case. She also searches for organizations whose backgrounds she respects who are involved in the subjects of her works. The research process for a book takes at least a year. She meets people through the organization whom she can interview for her books. She rewrites her tapes, there is a lot of back-and-forth, and then comes the book. 

Google: McCarthy said that she thanks God for Google. She also does research at Columbia University, and she finds many old magazines at antique shops. She was able to set up shop at the Smithsonian Institution for awhile to look at news clippings.

Enough to Write a Story?: Heiligman mentioned that there are times when she has to abandon book ideas because she cannot obtain the information that she needs for them. She told a story of a time when someone told her that the info she needed was in municipal archives. She could not make it happen because she tracked down some records, which were in a room in an old jail. However, she would need to climb through a trap door to get there, and the room had been closed to humans for three decades, so it was inaccessible to her.

Bird asked if any of the other panelists had been unable to complete books because of thwarted research efforts.

McCarthy said that she was working on a project; however, the information was in Europe and she would have had to go there in order to get it.

Macy said that authors have to use the facts to get a story. However, she knows what the story is for one of her works, but the facts do not support it. The thing about writing nonfiction works is that things have to fall in place. Otherwise, there is no story.

Inaccuracies in Nonfiction: Kuklin said that authors can take a particular subject and try to fit the research material into their stories, or they can let the material lead them and tell the story through the authors. Those are two different schools of thought, and she prefers to let the material lead her to stories.

McCarthy mentioned that she is amazed by the amount of inaccuracies that she has found in newspapers.

Heiligman stated that depending upon the time period, you can discover inaccuracies. She was researching a man whose autobiography was published in the 1940s who died in 1950. He inflated stories about all of the people in the book and used pseudonyms. He also made up a case. There is a book about what nonfiction is called Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata, 2012, that she read. The definition of what is nonfiction has changed over the years, and it may be changing now.

McCarthy was in the process of researching a potential biography of a guy who claimed to have invented the 50-star flag. He toured around the United States and he died recently. He was found in a children's book about flags, and McCarthy's editor and she started to think that there was something fishy about the story. He claimed to have been photographed with Eisenhower and the flag. She contacted the Eisenhower Library, which had no knowledge of the event ever having taken place. It turned out that the entire story was bogus. That was the end of that project. The entire experience reminded her of Quiz Show, a movie that depicts a story of cheating that occurred on a televised game show in the 1950s.

Bird mentioned that everyone was pulled in by the flag man's trickery, but he did not get a picture book published about him. She mentioned that the panelists are rigorous in their research efforts. She wanted to talk about unethical people: authors who get a little bit loose about the facts. She mentioned a book about the childhoods of famous Americans that she would consult when she was a kid. She also wanted to discuss a book called Mousetronaut, which was written by an astronaut and contained some inaccuracies. She did not want to mention names, but there are books out there that are labeled nonfiction which do not appear to be such. She asked the panelists to discuss how they deal with the inaccuracies that they find.

Macy uses three sources to corroborate facts to determine if they really happened. For example, she saw it written somewhere that women did not play team sports until the 1970s; however, she knows that women's volleyball was happening in 1968. She wants stories to be exciting but accurate. She did a picture biography about women's basketball; the story could have been more exciting, but it was accurate. She also wrote a book about New York roller derby that occurred in 1948 that was more exciting. She included a questionable scene of one of the women going over the rail; she was not sure if the women went over the rail at that particular point in the game, but she included the scene anyway. She did not have verification of that fact; it could have happened that way, but she was not sure that it did.

Kuklin wrote a work about a child who was enslaved in Pakistan for 10 years and then was killed as a 12-year-old. It was ambiguous whether his death was a hit (murder for hire) or an accident. Since she could not determine the truth through research, she included both versions, which turned out to be a very good thing since it inspired discussion and debate among her young readers.

McCarthy wants her books to be accurate but read like works of fiction. She does not want to confuse kids, and she thinks that inaccuracies can confuse them.

Heiligman had not seen the book Mousetronaut so she could not comment on it.

McCarthy mentioned that the book stated that it was a true story on the cover.

An audience member corrected her, saying that it said "an almost true story" on the cover.

McCarthy said that she is not sure that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb; she says that there are many misconceptions about that particular scientist.

Authors Choose Which Information to Include: Heiligman mentioned that one of her most recent books is The Boy Who Loved Math, which is about a guy who died in the 1990s. Everything in the book is true. However, she could not determine through her research what the babysitter looked like, so the illustrator made something up. It is difficult to figure out what to include in a picture biography, which is 32 pages long. It is important to make the story move and portray his life as exciting. However, much is on the chopping block because there is only so much space. Authors, working with editors, must make choices about what to include and what to leave out. In that particular book, she chose to exclude the fact that the man's two older sisters died of Scarlet Fever when he was born because she did not know if first-graders would be overwhelmed by that fact and consequently become unable to digest the remainder of the story. She did include the fact that he was addicted to coffee, but not amphetamines. There is much in the end notes. Writers have to craft stories, but she personally would not put in stuff about roller derby games that did not happen if she were writing the story. She cautioned authors to not make stuff up. There is too much good stuff out there to include fallacies in "nonfiction" works.

The Philosophical Nature of Truth: Heiligman made a very good point. Every writer brings their perspectives and life experiences to their work. Everyone had their own interpretations of events. For example, readers would get a different impression from reading someone else's blog about this event that they get from reading mine. Also, the what we term "nonfiction" in the public library under the Dewey Decimal System is loosely nonfiction. The 800s include poetry, plays, etc.

We are seeing the world through the lens of particular authors when we read books. I almost felt as though it would have been nice to launch into a philosophical discussion about the nature of truth and whether there is an absolute truth in the world. What is reality? Everyone experiences life differently, but there is some consensus on certain things, such as whether particular events have occurred in history.

I make a diligent effort to ensure that the information that I write in my blogs is true. I check facts and spellings on the Internet prior to including them in my blogs. I do not want to disseminate misinformation; there is already more than enough of that on the World Wide Web.

Do Editors Contribute to Inaccuracies? Bird wondered if any of the panelists had been asked to change something in their stories that was true to a falsehood or remove factual information.

Kuklin mentioned that an editor for one of her books expressed that she experienced an overload of women's water breakage in one of her stories. She agreed to limit the water breaking episodes in her story to a couple of people. She has also, on occasion, deleted the F-bomb from some of her books for young adults. She writes stories about such issues as gay sexuality, teenage pregnancy, and suicide. However, in No Choirboy, many of the boys were from the South, and they acted very proper with a white lady. There was no cursing in that book. She has been asked to change profanity and water breakage, but some of her books have profanity and no one asked her to change it.

Macy has not been asked to remove true information, but she has been asked to put in things. Sometimes editors know best.

Heiligman has not been asked to remove true info, but maybe she has just blocked it out, like you sometimes do with bad memories. One editor wanted her to put in information about what the Darwin kids' experiences were like. She fought that a lot, as authors sometimes do fight things. She worked on a beautiful book called Honeybees with National Geographic, and she looked at the sketches. At the final stage, when you pretty much cannot change anything, she noticed that the illustrator had the bees flying in curlicues in the margins of the pages. Bees do not fly that way. They fly in a straight line; hence the term beeline. The editor instructed her to go straight to the art director if she had a problem since she was on maternity leave. She thinks that there are good reasons sometimes that authors are separated from illustrators. Perhaps she was being a Nervous Nelly, but she went to the illustrator, who said that she could not change it. Luckily, no one has said anything about that particular error.

Bird then opened the floor for audience questions.

I asked Heiligman to give us the name of the nonfiction book she was referring to that discussed what nonfiction is and what it is not.

She said that it was Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata, 2012. The book is comprised of two authors' correspondence with each other while John D'Agata is struggling to get his essay accepted to a magazine after it was rejected for inaccuracies.

An audience member asked McCarthy how she knew that she wanted to illustrate books.

McCarthy stated that she won a contest when she was 8 years old, and she also took some college course in illustration. 

Nonfiction Books that Ignore Important Facts: Another audience member asked if the panelists worried about nonfiction books that gloss over more interesting truths. For example, he mentioned that some books about Rosa Parks ignore her activist accomplishments after the bus incident.

Heiligman responded that she discovered an affair between Mary and Louis Leakey while she was writing Mary Leakey: In Search of Human Beginnings. She consulted with her editor about whether to include the affair. Her editor responded that anyone who was offended by infidelity would probably not read a book about evolution anyway. She decided not to include information about womanizing behavior since it would not be relevant to the age group that she was writing for. However, she did include information about the fact that the man covered up his illness, which kids in her target age group would be able to relate to.

Macy is working on a biography of Sally Ride, who is gay. After a discussion with her editor, she was told that she could include the fact that Ride left her female partner, but the work was not a coming-out biography. She wants to deal with the issue in a manner that honors Ride's life. She spoke with the female astronaut, who mentioned that prior to 1980, people did not live their lives publicly. She liked to live her life privately as much as she could being a female astronaut.

An audience member asked which age group the book about Ride was for.

One of the panelists mentioned that there is a Wikipedia discussion with arguments from all sides, some claiming that Ride should have been more forthcoming about her life.

One of the audience members thanked the panelists for sharing their stories and illuminating the topic of ethics in nonfiction for children.

I appreciate the authors sharing their stories; it gave me insight into the particulars of book research that I was previously unaware of. Their perspectives were enlightening and this was a particular fantastic Lit Salon. It was a very fun and informative look into the work of creating children's literature in the United States.


Future Children's Literary Salons

The next Kid Lit Salon is on Saturday, February 2 from 2 p.m.-3 p.m. in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The topic is "Middle Grade Fiction: Surviving the YA Onslaught."






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Thank you!

Thanks for this detailed summary of what sounds like a fabulous panel discussion. I wish I could've been there, but since I wasn't, I really appreciate your thorough notes!

kid lit salons

Hi Laurie: Thanks for the feedback. If you'd like to be on the mailing list for my kid lit blogs, call me at the Grand Concourse branch 718-583-6611. Sincerely, Miranda

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