Mar 8, 2016

Navigating Tough Turf: Fiction/Nonfiction

At a recent school visit I worked with sixth graders on the craft of writing historical fiction. In that genre a writer's goal is to know and share facts through storytelling that SEEMS as real as history. Only then can a story achieve its goals of entertaining, educating, and stimulating curiosity while not misleading or confusing readers. Most historical fiction books offer back matter resources to verify sources, indicate points of accuracy/divergence from facts, and suggest further explorations. 
That requires research. 
Extensive research.
Chronicle Books, 2016

This challenge is even important in picture books. 
Perhaps especially important. 
The youngest readers have limited background knowledge and are, developmentally, less able to sort out reality from imagination. Both the author and the illustrator must apply their best talents in order to bring to life the time, place, and social forces of history within a powerful and appealing story. 
This challenge was well-met in the recent picture book written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison, THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE.  
In a recent interview with TIME FOR KIDS, Pat indicated she did extensive research on her subject  even though the only direct text references to Wilma Rudolph involved just a couple of lines in the book.

I encourage young readers to "reverse engineer" the writing process by reading this recent book, then other nonfiction titles on the subject. Insights can be found into comparing sources, sorting details, and decision making about what is the "just-right" amount of factual content within historical storytelling to enrich but not overwhelm.


Harcourt Children's Books, 1996
On this subject, the book I'd recommend above all others is WILMA UNLIMITED: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's fastest Woman, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz. During the 2012 summer Olympics I wrote about this book (and others, here) and will undoubtedly do so again at some point. 
The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin have been the focus of literary and film attention in recent years. In 1936 the Olympics were politicized and orchestrated by Hitler in an attempt to prove his theories of white supremacy. The talent and dedication of Jesse Owens and others denied Hitler his national sweep and false claims. The movie trailer for Jesse Owens's story, RACE, is here.

Wilma's story in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome played out in high drama, too. Even so, her first-time-ever triple GOLD MEDAL for a woman can't outshine the drama of the personal story revealing how she reached that international stage. WILMA UNLIMITED captures that perfectly. This narrative and  fully illustrated picture book makes Wilma's story seem as if it could be entirely fiction, a tall tale, or a superhero story. That's why comparison to more traditional sources allow young readers to verify and answer questions.

Teacher Created Materials, 2010

 WILMA RUDOLPH: Against All Odds, by Stephanie E. Macceca is, is an excellent example in traditional nonfiction-information text format. This easy-to-read biography sets Wilma's life in context of the times, incorporating information about polio and politics. Its design includes the expected elements of photography, archival images, picture captions, simple illustrations, table of contents, index, and direct-to-reader back matter.
Readers could easily compare the books point-for-point with very kid-friendly text.


Capstone Press, 2006
Graphic text provides another approach to nonfiction for young readers. WILMA RUDOLPH: Olympic Track Star (Graphic Biographies) written by Lee Engfer, illustrated by Cynthia Martin is an excellent example. The accessibility of paneled text and illustration format has been proven successful with the youngest readers and with older, established readers. 
Dismissive attitudes toward "comic book" content has been receding among teachers, librarians, and parents as the quality of information and literary prose in this format steadily rises.

Opportunities to read and discuss a variety of research materials like these examples offers readers a digestible version of the process writers use to make history come to life. This exploration might lead to writing a fictional story incorporating  historical characters and events. In the realm of nonfiction, athletes have been the subject of a wide variety of books in various formats. A project like this just might hook some otherwise reluctant writers.
Why not give it a try?

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