Expanding the Boundaries of Nonfiction
Mark hadnít found out yet what kind of non-fiction he liked, but he was still trying. Each month he would carry home his ten books and read the four good ones in the first four days, and then one page from the other six, and then gave up. Next month he would take them back and try again. The non-fiction books he tried were mostly called things like "When I Was a Boy in Greece", or "Happy Days on the Prairie"things that made them sound like stories, only they werenít. They made Mark furious.
Half Magic by Edward Eager (Harcourt, 1954)
What would Mark think of nonfiction today, in which not just the titles, but words and art invite the reader to enter a narrative world? If a reader is expecting nothing more than information, the effect can be confusing. But readers who can trust the author and set aside expectations can learn from nonfiction that tells a gripping story. Mark would be pleased to find that todayís nonfiction resembles the kind of bookfictionhe knows and loves.
Most books make a tacit promise to the reader: Read me and learn. Read me and laugh. Read me and think about the world in a new way. Appreciating nonfiction that blends fact and fantasy requires being receptive to the promise of the particular book.
Fantasy Mixed with Fact
For example, one sophisticated picture book, Tibet through the Red Box by Peter Sis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), has an actual document at its corethe diary the authorís father kept while traveling on a secret expedition to Tibet some forty or fifty years ago. Sent by his government to film a modern highway being blasted through the mountains, the father was gone from home, ostensibly lost, for years. During his absence, Peter became gravely ill, but he recovered when his father appeared at his bedside with extraordinary stories.
The sonís reflections on his fatherís diary are written in such plain, credible prose that the reader is inclined to accept its astonishing claims. The father peers at fish with human faces and remembers leaping across an abyss in the arms of kindly giant. What were these strange events? Hallucinations caused by drinking potent tea or by breathing mountain air? Consoling dreams?
From the start, the Soviet and Chinese governments lied about the purpose of the trip and kept the destination vague. Later, many things that happened in Tibet remained beyond the fatherís power to explain. The sonís interpretation, formed in middle age while reading diary pages from the red box of the title, is blurred by his own childhood longings and fears. The father really did go to Tibet and really did keep a journal, but in the end this book reflects the authorís love of inscrutable things.
There is little one can do to check on the truthfulness of any book based on unique experiences or ideas. A reference work might help to verify a name, date, or important fact, but when a book has been shaped to produce a fresh effect or has some special purpose other than informing us of facts, readers must adjust their expectations.
How does one evaluate nonfiction books that reach beyond conventional expectations? By being receptive to books as they are, discerning the promise that the author is making to the reader, and using the standards implied in the books themselves.
For instance, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, a picture book by Pam MuŮoz Ryan and Brain Selznick (Scholastic, 1999), recreates the night Amelia Earhart flew with Eleanor Roosevelt from Washington, DC, to Baltimore and back. Since impromptu flights were rare in 1933, Ryan wanted proof that this one had happened; news reports verified that it had. Though she found that someone else actually flew the plane, Ryan put Amelia Earhart in the pilotís seat for her book. "It seemed much more exciting," Ryan explains in her authorís notes, for these brave friends to travel by themselves. Many other details in the book are true. According to Ryan, most of the dialogue derives from published sources.
If Ryan hadnít clarified the boundaries for her book, its promise might not be as clear or worthy of trust. The reader would wonder, like Ryan, if this really happened. But since Ryan explains where she has changed history, the book is true to its subjects and its readers. It satisfies two kinds of readers: those who like stories and those who like facts.
Deciding how well a book has kept its promise depends on seeing it as it isnot reading with a rigid set of rules and expectations, not measuring it by standards set by other books. Sometimes books surprise us, and they should!