Creative Nonfiction: Using Techniques of Fiction or Incorporating Fiction?

Sara stopped by two weeks ago to comment on the post about nonfiction versus fiction, where she asked for further discussion of creative nonfiction in children’s books. I thought exploring an example might be a good way to start a dialogue.

Creative nonfiction is still a relatively new genre. The most common definition for the term is nonfiction that takes advantage of fictional storytelling techniques. Does that mean creative nonfiction incorporates fictional details, scenes, dialogue and characterization? Let’s take a look at one example where it seemed to me that creative nonfiction crossed the line into outright fiction. (I’m not picking on this particular example for any reason other than I knew enough about the subject to realize it was not fact.)girls-who-looked-under-rocks

A few years ago, I was excited to finally get my copy the book Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Paula Conner (Dawn Publications 2000). I had been researching the life of Anna Botsford Comstock for a children’s biography and I had been told by an editor there was no market for it. Here in my hands was a book that offered a short biography of Anna – along with five other women naturalists- that was a NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for 2001.

Turning to page 16, I read:

“Leaves fluttered. Branches swayed. Balancing carefully, Anna Botsford looked down at her students. A tree was an unusual perch for a teacher, but after all, Anna was just fourteen when she was asked to fill in while the regular teacher took a few months off.”

Sounds lovely doesn’t it? There is even a two-page spread illustration showing a young girl sitting on a low tree branch, calmly reading to some younger children.


It is very nice, except the scene never happened that way. If you read Anna Botsford Comstock’s biography/autobiography The Comstocks of Cornell:  John Henry and Anna Botsford Comstock (Comstock Publishing Assoc. 1953), on page 67:

During recess I climbed a tree, one of my favorite diversions. I was coming down peacefully when the teacher exclaimed sharply:  “Anna, come out of that tree immediately. Recess is over.”

At this, I stayed my downward course and announced that I would recite my lessons from there, and I did. A few years later when I was a teacher at the same school and we were having school in the woods, one of the older girls said, “What would you do if one of us climbed a tree like you did when Susan Lee taught?” At this an older boy said, “We’d better not try it; Anna would climb right up after us.”

What do you think?

To me, the first version transforms a feisty girl who was willing to disobey her teacher into a demure nature lover, a very different character. Because of the change, I began to question the biographies of all the other women in the book. What is fact and what is made up to tell a nice story? To me, changing the facts lessened the value of the entire book without adding anything significant. After all, Anna’s own words seemed to be compelling enough to me. Or am I being too harsh? Is the scene close enough to what actually happened that it counts as factual?

Perhaps the changes to the scene was simply an error in writing down research notes. However, Glenn Hovemann, an editor at the publisher Dawn Publications, writes in his essay “The ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ Conundrum (and Opportunity)” that  books that use creative nonfiction fall between nonfiction and fiction and “encompass the best of both fiction and non-fiction worlds.” In his view, creative nonfiction is something between the two, and seems to imply that making things up is acceptable to tell a good story.

In contrast Lee Gutkind of Creative Nonfiction Magazine (for adults, not children) says creative nonfiction uses literary techniques, but does not involve making things up, exaggerating or otherwise lying. Then he says something that really resonates with me:  you can be honest, tell the facts, and still write in a highly creative way.

What do you think? Do you agree?


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Fiction versus Nonfiction: Black and White or Shades of Gray

Now it’s time to tackle the labels fiction and nonfiction in children’s books.

If you spend any time at the library at all, you know that books are shelved in two main sections:  fiction and nonfiction. Someone has to decide where any given book ends up, but it is one of those two categories.


What criteria do people use to decide where a book belongs? Usually the decision is based on whether the story is made up by the author or not. If the story is made up by the author, then it is fiction.

To generate confusion, the nonfiction section at the library includes fairytales, poetry, folklore, and mythology. How does that count as nonfiction when the stories are clearly not real?

Maybe if we think of nonfiction as “captured from real life,” it would make the distinction more clear. Mythology consists of tales that were told in ancient days. Nonfiction books record the old tales, “capturing them from real life.” The same is true of fairytales and folklore.

The distinction still isn’t always clear cut, however. Many works of fiction are based on real events, real people and/or real places. On the other hand, there has been a recent trend for certain nonfiction, like biographies, to contain some made up elements to spruce up the story. Let’s face it, even selecting which facts to present is a form of “making things up.”

In the long run, the categories may run together like this:


Does this blurring solve the problem? Not really, because fuzzy categories makes it difficult to determine what is true and what is not true.

For example, let’s say you are reading a biography that the author reports contains some fictional elements or made up dialogue. Now you have to wonder, did the subject really climb trees or did the author just throw that in to make the story more interesting to children? Does it matter? If the subject had polio as a child and was physically weak, having him or her climb a tree changes a major aspect of the subject’s life.

What do you think? Should the line between nonfiction and fiction remain sharp?

For an insightful discussion of use of dialogue in nonfiction, try Danger! Dialogue Ahead by Marc Tyler Nobleman.


Of course the very next day, here comes a really great discussion of this. See Are Dewey’s Days Numbered?: Libraries Nationwide Are Ditching the Old Classification System mentions:

“For years, we’d been trying to explain to kids why the “Magic School Bus” series was in nonfiction when it’s obvious to any five-year-old that Ms. Frizzle isn’t real. “

Their solution? Red dots placed on the book cover for “imagination” and blue dots for “information.” Although I agree with the kids, Magic School Bus should have a purple dot.

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