Just the Facts?

Help! I need some advice from those of you who are children’s book review experts. I sat down this morning to review two books about ants. After reading them, I was disturbed by the number of factual errors and I felt like I couldn’t give either a positive review.

Some of the errors are big, glaring ones. For example, one book defined honeydew as the feces of aphids, and then in the glossary defined feces as the solid waste of animals. If you have ever had aphids on your plants, you know that honeydew is a sticky liquid. The sentence reads “Honeydew is the feces of aphids and some caterpillars and is a much-prized feast for several species of ants.” Knowing a bit about this, the liquid “honeydew” from caterpillars is actually a glandular secretion, not a form of excrement at all.

A number of the errors are smaller. For example, the other book says there are about 8,000 species of ants, whereas the website that keeps track of actual species names now has well over 12,000 listed.

Those are just two examples. Frankly, all these errors turned me off, but I am hesitant to write negative reviews. I know how much time and effort goes into writing a book. On the other hand, these errors are perpetuated as others read these books as references, and take them at face value. I once read a reviewer that suggested the reader not buy a book because it contained a few misplaced commas! What do you do when you come across something like this? Do you ever write negative reviews based on the number of errors you found in a book?

While I’m at it, some of the Cybils judges have been discussing what constitutes a nonfiction work these days. What do you do with a book like the Magic School Bus series, which mixes fiction to create a story, with great information? It’s a hard question to answer, but I wanted to take the question even further.

I don’t have any problem with books that mix fact and fiction when the fiction is clear. We all know that buses don’t really fly. But what about an author who uses creative nonfiction techniques in a book that “feels” like straight nonfiction? Let me give you an example. I was reading a book that was a compilation of biographies of several famous individuals. One was a figure I know a lot about from my own research. In the chapter about that figure the author took two unrelated events and combined them into an event that never actually happened, using creative nonfiction techniques.

Frankly, I was distressed. The event as she described it suggested that the figure had a different personality/temperament than shown in the two separate events that actually occurred. Knowing what I did about that chapter made me doubt the information in all the chapters. What do you think of all this? Does it bother you when nonfiction authors make things up? Do you think it would help if authors revealed their use of creative nonfiction at the outset? Should nonfiction books stick to just the facts? What do you do when the facts are debatable?

I would really love to hear what you think.


Nonfiction Monday is a blogging celebration of nonfiction books for kids. For more information, stop by Picture Book of the Day. This week’s post is at Jean Little Library.

4 Replies to “Just the Facts?”

  1. Hmm. I know when I pointed out several typos in Serial Garden, a new collection of Joan Aiken stories, the publisher actually e-mailed me wanting specifics so they could fix it in a new edition. But that was a small press. When I noted even more irritating errors in the Bill Martin Big Book of Poetry, not a cheep – and that had tons of happy reviews. Guess I’m just a frustrated proofreader.

    As a librarian, if word gets around that a particular author, imprint, or publisher is prone to factual errors, I cross them off my buying list. I have some that I check carefully and one publisher at least I never ever buy from. I’d like to say I’d withdraw books with factual errors, but….it was a real struggle for me to get my nonfiction section weeded up to the 90s and b/c of our state standards I can only weed so much.

    If you have the time and interest, contacting the author and/or publisher is probably your best bet.

  2. Roberta, you ask some really thought-provoking questions. I don’t think there’s one right way to present nonfiction topics to kids, but it can get tricky deciding whether a book is really fiction or nonfiction. Let’s say there’s a picture book with a made-up storyline that has references to time of day throughout and includes illustrations of clocks on every page. It’s a great way to teach kids about telling time, but I’d say it’s still fiction. My library seems to shelve the Magic School Bus books in the fiction section, but I’m not sure whether the Library of Congress classifies them as fiction. I don’t think there’s any problem with works of fiction that contain nonfiction elements or can be used in a classroom in conjunction with a nonfiction lesson. But for something like the Cybils, my sense is that they’d have to be evaluated in the fiction category.

    I truly welcome the creativity authors are bringing to kids’ nonfiction. For works that contain a blend of fact and fiction, I do think that the book should include info somewhere, perhaps in an afterword, that clearly indicates when an author imagined scenes for which we lack documentation or condensed two events into a single scene. But combining events in a way that misleads readers about a person’s personality is worrisome.

    As far as errors in published books go, it’s up to you whether to review the books, but I definitely agree with the advice to let the publisher know. That way any reprints, paperbacks, and electronic editions can be corrected.

  3. I write to encourage you to write those reviews. This is just the kind of thing that we science-likers want to know about in children’s books! I like the idea of a scientist’s evaluation. Don’t think of such review as negative, more along the lines of a corrective to incorrect information getting out. Definitely mention the errors.

    An author combining events in a nonfiction kids’ book? Not good, to me. And it would raise questions about the veracity of other parts of the book, too. When the facts are debatable, the author has to tip his or her hand and indicate that.

    All interesting questions to ponder. One aspect of the Cybils that I enjoy is the continuing conversation about all aspects of children’s books.

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