Commenting on my recent post about the qualities considered by the Cybils nonfiction picture book shortlist committee, Loree Griffin Burns wrote:

Regarding your criteria, I was thrilled to see “Fictionalizing” as one of your criteria. This is a facet of the NF picture book that is important to me (as in DO NOT FICTIONALIZE), but more and more I am coming across well-received NF books that do it.

A look at the nonfiction titles on the Horn Book Fanfare List for last year proves Loree’s point. Moses, Mama, Marvelous Mattie, and John, Paul, George, and Ben all have a lot going for them, but they also have at least some degree of fictionalizing, be it in the form of invented dialogue or in the illustration of two people carrying a 600-pound baby hippo in a net. Carole Boston Weatherford’s author’s note for Moses begins with the words, “This fictional story,” and John, Paul, George, and Ben creator Lane Smith says as much in his recent comment on Boston 1775.

Fictionalizing is a perfectly acceptable artistic and editorial option, and it’s one that may well make for a stronger narrative. But the tradeoff is that the book is less factual, less true. Part of the motivation for inventing a story that’s “based on” or “inspired by” true events may be a desire to make a historical figure more accessible to young readers by zeroing in on the subject’s childhood, but I think this assumes that young readers have to be catered to in this way. Personally, instead of inventing part of a subject’s childhood, I’d rather tell the truth about what’s known about it, as Laurence Pringle does in American Slave, American Hero:

Little is known about some times in his life, so you will find the word “probably” used occasionally in this, the true story of York.

What I find especially interesting about the fictionalization issue is the double standard, depending on whether one is talking about nonfiction for children or for adults. In the past month or so, while honors went to children’s nonfiction that is less than entirely fact-based, a couple of adult titles got some unflattering (though likely sales-boosting) attention over their blending of fact and fiction.

Have you heard about 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel? Now, it could be argued that fictionalizing is the only way to write insightfully about Mickey Mantle, but regardless of the insight that this approach brings, what the author has produced is fiction. The thing is, the author knows it — hence the word “novel” in the title. Frankly, I don’t see a problem, but then, the Mick’s not a hero of mine. (In fact, the only former New York Yankees I hold a soft spot for in my heart are Sparky Lyle and Mickey Rivers, and them only because they later became Texas Rangers.)

Then there’s the lingering matter of Running with Scissors, as explored in Vanity Fair:

It is the fact that these stories are presented as true, which Burroughs has confirmed over and over in interviews, that has made the book so hugely successful. … In interviews, the six Turcotte children stated that it was not an electroshock machine that was kept under the stairs but, rather, an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner that was missing a wheel.

Electroshock, Electrolux. This sort of puts the baby-hippo thing into perspective, doesn’t it?