Fictionalization in Nonfiction: Two Fall Books Stretch Young Readers and the Boundaries of Biography
Two new books about men who lived under slavery bring up interesting questions about the elasticity of biography, the discernment capabilities of younger audiences, and the lines between history and historical fiction.
The author of many acclaimed nonfiction books, Jonah Winter takes on a neglected part of American history with the story of the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson in My Name Is James Madison Hemings. A redheaded boy, who stares at the reader from the cover, tells his tale in a straightforward yet moving first-person narrative that begins with a terse explanation of slavery. He and his siblings are the children of the man who owns his family.
Though Jefferson remains unnamed for most of the book, he is portrayed as a writer, a violinist, a scholar. Sally Hemings is a worker, mending clothes and sweeping floors. For James, life is a series of juxtapositions. He lives and works in the house while he watches others toiling in the field. Jefferson’s granddaughter teaches him to read, but his real education will be learning woodworking. He is a slave, but his father has promised that one day he will be set free. The question James asks near the book’s beginning about his father haunts the rest of the story: “How could I be both his slave and his son?”
Terry Widener provides compelling artwork throughout, from the picture of redheaded children listening to their mother as she tries to explain their parentage to an ironically pastoral scene of heavenly colored skies and green fields; one has to look closely to see the slaves planting crops.
Heather Henson’s Lift Your Light a Little Higher, meanwhile, takes readers inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, where Stephen Bishop, also known as Guide, leads tourists through the twists and turns of the underground wonder. In a come-close first-person narrative, Bishop, a slave, describes how he came to spend his life underground, so attuned to his surroundings that he discovered a previously unknown species of eyeless crawdads. Bishop learned to write by watching folks scrawl their names on the walls, and his own name can still be seen there. Poetic and evocative, the story chronicles what it was like for Bishop to cup a deerskin moccasin in his palm or to feel pride in being Guide, “a man able to walk before other men, not behind.”
Using watercolor and collage, primarily in dark greens and browns, artist Bryan Collier provides bold, striking art on oversize pages. Children will feel the intensity of both the natural world and a man who understands his corner of it.
Both books are impressive, even as they raise the question of how far boundaries can be stretched when writing nonfiction. Winter tells us in his lengthy and informative author’s note that his book is “inspired by and partially based” on an 1873 interview with Hemings. Aside from that, Winter continues, “There is limited documentation.” Though he says he has presented Hemings’ story as “historical fiction” (“fictionalized biography” might be a better term),the Library of Congress has given the book a Dewey number of 973.4, placing it on history shelves.
In her own note, Henson gives insight and background into Bishop’s world and Mammoth Cave, yet notes, “In reality, not much is known about Stephen as a person.” This book is also classified as nonfiction.
When you visit a second- or third-grade class, the natural audience for these books, and ask children to tell you the difference between fiction and nonfiction, they will confidently report that one is a story and the other is true. These two volumes are built around the skeletons of true stories and real people, but incidents, motives, and thoughts are added. For instance, in Heming’s story, Jefferson gives James a violin, but Winter notes there is no record of who gave James an instrument, how he learned to play, and whether he ever heard his father play.
Fictionalized biography is a popular trend in picture-book nonfiction, but it’s worth noting that the target audience will see books in this genre as the truth. They aren’t discerning enough to understand that a book presented as a biography isn’t quite that—and they probably don’t read author’s notes. Although biographies for slightly older children are routinely called out for inaccuracies, the idea now seems to be that fictionalization is not a flaw if it leads to a better story or in some way serves a larger purpose.
Both My Name Is James Madison Hemings and Lift Your Light a Little Higher are stories worth telling, and told well. Still, the question lingers: How much leeway does an author have in reshaping a subject’s life to make it fit the narrative? And how do we explain to children that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are not always as clear as they think?
This review first appeared in the August 2016 issue of Booklist.