Documention has evolved–perhaps is still evolving–in nonfiction books for children and young adults, and as such, it is a bit of a moving target. Jim Murphy said as much on a recent thread.
About the sourcing for The Great Fire. That book was done a long time ago (as far as publishing goes) and sourcing wasn’t as rigorously demanded as it is today. But I listened carefully to the people who asked for more and better sourcing and now I make sure that everything is as thoroughly documented as possible, which includes specific page numbers (My aim is to make it as easy — and fun — for a kid to do such a search as possible).
Documention makes an author’s research process more transparent, and that transparency leads to trust in the writer as a source of authority. It is hard for us to fathom a well researched nonfiction book in this day and age without proper documentation, but the Newbery criteria completely sidestep the issue of documentation, merely requiring a presentation of information that is accurate, clear, and organized. Certainly documentation can help a book achieve each of these ends, but is it essential? Let’s take a look at two of our favorite nonfiction books–TEMPLE GRANDIN and BOMB–and see how documentation affects–or does not affect–the presentation of information.
In the foreword to TEMPLE GRANDIN, Grandin mentions that several of her childhood friends were interviewed for the book, but was she herself interviewed? That’s not as clear since it’s never explicitly mentioned anywhere in the book. In the acknowledgements, Montgomery writes, “Most of all I thank Temple Grandin, for welcoming me to her home and workplace with patience, kindness, openness, and friendship.” And that’s about as close as we get. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Montgomery interviewed Grandin–at the very least she observed her at work in chapter 2. Did Grandin vet this book? This, too, seems likely, but it’s never explicitly addressed. Not that a subject vetting her own biography is necessarily a guarantee of accuracy. AMELIA LOST, anyone?
Do all of the quotes in the book come from interviews and observations? Or do some of them come from Grandin’s other books? How can I find which quotes are in which sources? I can’t source them because Montgomery only provides a bibliography and no source notes or author’s note. Contrast this book with MOONBIRD and WE’VE GOT A JOB, both of which also rely heavily on personal interviews. Take a look at their respective source notes and you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that TEMPLE GRANDIN leaves a lot to be desired in terms of documentation.
But, in spite of the fact that the documentation is not quite up to par with the best practices in the field, I still believe that the presentation of information in TEMPLE GRANDIN is accurate, clear, and organized.
On to BOMB. If you haven’t read Nina’s reservations about the book, then you can find them here. I’ve yet to do my second reading of this book, and I’ve been waiting for my holds on some of Sheinkin’s sources to come through, but in the meantime I had noticed that Horn Book did a brief interview with Sheinkin, and one of the questions seemed to reference our discussion here.
MVP: Bomb has been described as a “nonfiction thriller.” How do you create the feel of fiction without crossing the line into making stuff up?
SS: I was well trained in my many years in the textbook world, where I learned to obsessively back up every quote and fact. With books like Bomb, I try to track down several sources for each event, hoping to find tiny details that can help make things more compelling and visual. Sometimes you get lucky — like the scene with the Hungarian physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner searching for Einstein on Long Island. In that case, both Szilard and Wigner wrote their own versions of what happened. More often you end up wishing you knew more — I’d pay big money to listen in on one of the Los Alamos dorm room conversations between Klaus Fuchs and Richard Feynman! Either way, I put quote sources in the back of the book, but not sources for each fact — standard procedure for narrative nonfiction. If anyone wants to know where I got something, they’re more than welcome to email me.
If I were on the real committee, I would probably feel that it is inappropriate for me to e-mail Sheinkin directly, but since I’m not, I felt no such ethical dilemma. I e-mailed, introduced myself and our blog discussion, and asked about his sources for the chapter, “Finding Einstein.” He graciously responded.
I picked two of the small details that seemed to be in question, Szilard leaning his head out the window of the car, and FDR smiling to Sachs at the start of their meeting. Here are a couple of sources for these details:
Pg. 20: “Szilard leaned his sweaty head out the car window.”
Leo Szilard, His Version of the Facts, p. 83: “I leaned out of the window.”
William Lanouette, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, p. 198-199 says it was a “clear and hot day” and describes Szilard and Wigner as “hot, tired, and impatient” by the time they found Einstein.
Kati Marton, The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, pg. 1, describes Szilard as “sweaty in his gray wool suit.”
Pg. 21: “Alex,” Roosevelt said, flashing his famously big smile, “what are you up to?”
Joseph Persico, Roosevelt’s Secret War, p. 177: “Watson ushered Sachs in to see the President, where he was greeted with arms flung up and a grinning welcome, ‘Alex, what are you up to?’”
Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, p. 476: “The President greeted him jovially. ‘Alex, What are you up to?’”
These examples are typical of how I work – I read lots of versions of the same scene, and pick tiny details from each, and try to put it all together in a way that will hold young readers’ attention. I may take the liberty of saying FDR “smiled” when that exact word isn’t used in the sources, but that seems in bounds to me. Of course, I’m perfectly capable of making mistakes when it comes to taking notes or recalling facts, but I really do work hard to stay true to the source material.
I don’t include sources for all of these details in the book, mainly because the publisher doesn’t want me to! We follow the format of the best popular nonfiction for adults, books like Seabiscuit or Guns, Germs, and Steel – that is to say, list all major sources, and tell readers where you got the quotes.
Thanks for giving me a chance to explain this.
Sheinkin is absolutely correct that the common practice is to provide a bibliography of major sources with citations for quotes. Clearly, his bibliography does not list every single book consulted for this work–Lanouette, Marton, and Isaacson are not listed. Those books were probably only consulted for these specific scenes so I can easily see why they were not included.
The documentation that Sheinkin does provide, then, is merely the tip of the iceberg. And I think this is probably true of most nonfiction books–to document everything it would often exceed the length of the main narrative.
Since Sheinkin’s process is to read multiple accounts–both primary sources and secondary sources–and synthesize them, drawing out vivid details, I really don’t believe that he has fictionalized the narrative as Nina has suggested that he has.
I’m still disappointed that not every quote is sourced–and sourced with page numbers–but this is really the only thing that I can fault in his documentation, and as I said before, that falls on the peccadillo side of the fence for me. So, again, perhaps not the best practice in terms of documentation, but I believe that the presentation of information in BOMB, too, is accurate, clear, and organized. It remains a very strong Newbery contender for me as well.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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