The penultimate offering of this year’s BookFest @ Bank Street was “Creativity Meets True Stories: Nonfiction YA,” a panel featuring Joseph Bruchac (One Real American: The Life of Ely S. Parker, Abrams), Candace Fleming (The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, Schwartz & Wade), Deborah Heiligman (Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of the “Children’s Ship,” Holt), Marilyn Nelson (A Wreath for Emmett Till, illus. by Philippe Lardy, HMH), and Carole Boston Weatherford (Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe, Candlewick).
Newbery Honoree Steve Sheinkin (Born to Fly, Roaring Brook) served as moderator, opening the panel by posing a hypothetical question: if we all were given a page of facts and sat down to write about them, do you think we’d all come up with a significantly different version?
“I certainly think we would,” Bruchac asserted. “I think everybody’s point of view is affected by who they are, where they’ve been, who they know, and what they intend, and the result is that fact becomes ‘faction’—part fact, part fiction, certainly part imagination.”
“We all synthesize information differently,” Weatherford said in agreement.
“Right, and so much depends on where you enter the story,” Heiligman added.
“You know that saying: ‘You learn more about the biographer than you do about the subject,’ ” Fleming said. “Everything comes through who you are.”
Next, Sheinkin asked whether each author knew right away how they would relay their respective subject’s story.
“I absolutely never know what it is I want to say about a subject,” Fleming admitted. “It’s the research that ends up informing the story I end up wanting to tell.” She explained how she centers her work around her “Vital Idea”—what she has to say specifically to readers “besides just a piece of history.”
“I knew that I was going to give Marilyn [Monroe] the Becoming Billie Holiday treatment,” Weatherford answered, referencing her 2008 YA debut. “I wanted to explore and develop character through voice. The story belongs to the subject, and for the time that I’m writing it, I belong to the subject as well—I view myself as just a vessel for that person to speak to and through me, when writing from the first-person perspective.”
“I think that’s what we’re each doing—[leaving] our thumbprints or fingerprints on each of our books,” Heiligman mused. While she got the idea for Torpedoed from editor Laura Godwin, she decided she had to write it when she recognized that the theme that flows through her oeuvre—“all of my books are about connection”—could be applied to this event as well. Heiligman mentioned that she couldn’t help but think that Sheinkin would have written Torpedoed differently; while she learned how to add suspense and create pageturners from Sheinkin’s works, she wanted to focus on the people and the connections between them for her own.
“One thing I often do is give voice to people whose voices who have not been heard. Very often there is this racist perception of Native Americans as being locked in the past, unable to adapt to civilization, ‘lo, the poor Indian,’ ” Bruchac observed. “I love the character of Ely Parker for a number of reasons: for one, he was a superb writer, probably the best writer in the whole Union Army… He walked successfully in two worlds, which is something I’m always trying to do—to remain with one foot in the Indigenous community yet also stepping out to provide a connection to the wider world outside of it.” Bruchac said he knew exactly where he wanted to start his book: the meeting between Parker and Robert E. Lee and their exchange about being American. He also decided to begin each chapter with some of Parker’s own writing.
“I was asked to write a book about lynching for children,” Nelson reported. “Well, I thought it seemed obvious that the book should be about a child or an almost child who had been lynched, so the subject immediately announced itself. It seemed that the only real decision I needed to make after that was whether just to tell the story—so horrifying and shocking that I knew the audience would be horrified and shocked—and I thought it needed to go beyond that. I wanted the gasp of the reader to come not only from the subject but also from the aesthetic experience.” She outlined the process of deciding the “tight and demanding” form and rhyme scheme for her book. “I was so deeply involved in the form that I was not able to incorporate a lot of research information into the poem.”
Sheinkin then transitioned the discussion to craft and technique, as he figured that readers who knew each author’s style could likely differentiate between them, though he wasn’t quite clear on why or how.
“I want to talk about form,” Heiligman said, referencing her 2017 book Vincent and Theo. “I wanted the reading of the book to be the same kind of experience as being with [Van Gogh’s] art.” Though she didn’t know how she would achieve that “lofty goal,” Van Gogh’s varied techniques informed her shifting form throughout. “Each book teaches you to write that book.”
Sheinkin also requested advice or craft suggestions that young writers could use.
“I think clarity is one of the most important things we can strive for,” Bruchac said, “letting the story tell itself and not letting our voice overcome the story. I start off with something and often make it simpler and simpler as I go along.”
“Sara Paretsky in a podcast said, ‘Your job is not to show off your research. Your job is to tell a story.’ For those of us who spend a lot of years doing years of research, that’s hard,” Heiligman said. “I find myself, as I revise, cutting out more facts that are getting in the way of the momentum, for example, or cutting away details like dates or place names that get in the way of telling the story. I think that’s one easily correctable thing in your revision.”
Nelson built upon that point, sharing experiences from when she had led a workshop for middle school children. One eighth grade girl was distressed, as she had accidentally left her extensive notes in another classroom. Nelson told her, “You’ve done the research, so you probably have a pretty good idea of the period—why don’t you put yourself into this historical period and give yourself a problem to solve?” That girl’s account ended up being one of the most moving poems in the group. “What we learned is that young writers have the ability to discover their own capacity for empathy. And if you have them doing research about history and you teach them something about their ability to empathize with historical people, they can do it. They can carry it.”
“None of us sit there with all of our notes, right?” Fleming asked. “I do something I call ‘dumping down’—I’m using my own emotions, everything that I’ve learned about the subject, filtered through me, using that voice that’s right for that story. I’m not a fact teller, I’m a storyteller.”
“I actually don’t take a lot of notes,” Weatherford revealed. “And one of the things I like to share with kids is how point of view and verb tense can really change a piece of writing.”
Sheinkin was curious about whether each of the authors had been tempted to add fictional elements to their nonfiction works.
“I’m always tempted,” Fleming said. “And if I can’t tell the story without it, I’ve been known to turn it into historical fiction. We haven’t talked about how nonfiction is an imaginative process.”
“One of my most popular books is a novel, Code Talker, about the Navajo code talkers in World War II,” Bruchac said. “Quite literally, everything except the narrator and a couple of his friends is absolutely based closely on nonfiction, but I felt I needed a fictional narrator to be first-person, telling the story. But the events are so close to what really happened, when I was on a panel with code talkers, one of them, Samuel Holiday, began telling an event that happened to him word-from-word as I had it in my book.” Bruchac added, “The difference between fact and fiction is often very blurred, and we find ways of telling the truth sometimes by not sticking literally to the truth.”
Heiligman shared that she’s “a stickler”—when she’s writing nonfiction, she’s writing nonfiction—“but there’s a way to finesse it. If you don’t know the particular, you pull back and do the universal [lens].”
“I give myself that liberty and leave it to librarians and reviewers” to decide where my verse novels fit, Weatherford disclosed.
The authors then answered what they do when they encounter unsavory or uncomfortable details about their subjects. Fleming said the flaws of Lindbergh actually became her book. Bruchac said he’s not drawn to writing about reprehensible characters in his middle grade nonfiction, since Native American representation is already so sparse; that being said, he does not try to whitewash, leave out, or change any distasteful details. Heiligman confessed that her frustration with Vincent Van Gogh informed her book about the love between Vincent and his brother Theo. Weatherford said that YA allows her to explore the very human aspects of her subjects. Nelson said, “We are born into the products of our histories.”
The program concluded with a keynote and supplementary screen-shared presentation by Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park, who spoke about her most recent novel, Prairie Lotus (Clarion).
“A single story is almost always unfair,” Park declared, referencing novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and analyzing how Western history often erases the contributions of people of color.
Park also discussed the author’s note in Prairie Lotus and how much the Little House books meant to her as a child. She laughed as she revealed that she used to imagine self-insert narratives featuring Laura of the Little House books, essentially writing her own fanfiction, before recognizing that Laura’s mother held ingrained prejudices that would have turned her against Park.
“Apartheid applies here in the U.S. too, and yet that’s not something that’s taught in our schools,” Park asserted. “If you don’t learn about and deal with and teach human trafficking and slavery—there are echoes, ramifications, resonances, real effects in our lives this minute. Educating our kids on the honest truth of our past is the key to our future.”