Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 7, 2008

Circles of Truth

In the past two days, by coincidence, I spoke at two college classes where I’d been invited to talk about writing nonfiction for children. Which I guess is what I write. Sort of. But not in a straight arrow kind of way.

I spoke of how I grew up reading biographies, often of girls in a day when there weren’t that many. So I reread (if you want to know anything about Florence Nightingale or Dolley Madison, let me know). And like many, I came as an adult to write what I loved as a child – and still love. I’ve chosen to stay somewhat with the tradition of the fictionalized biographies I adored, the main problem often being one for critics and librarians who want to know where this book belongs. I loved the approach of a librarian in Jo’s class who simply takes the time, which fortunately she has, to figure out where the book is likeliest to find its readers.

What I read and inspires me makes a circle; the libraries in my head are divided down the middle. There are magnificent facts which I can count on and often inspire me to write or reading historical fiction. I can go further and the balance shifts from more history, to less fiction. I might go further – when does history become the present? — and we’ll pretty much call it plain old fiction. And that moves me to want to find more sturdy, stalwart facts. It’s never about choosing one part of the library or the other.

For a another perhaps clearer and certainly beautiful look at the research process, please read Gail Gauthier and Susanna Reich talking about Susanna’s book Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin. (November 6) There are some fascinating thoughts about history as setting, the ways the biography of one person reflects an era’s history, and a picture of the Rose Reading Room in the New York Public Library, which in itself will make you want to be a researcher.



  1. What I’ve loved about your books is how human they are, and how they address those timeless issues that affect all humans, showing us that we’re really not all that different from our historical predecessors. We have conflicts with our parents and loved ones, we question why we’re doing what we’re doing, we’re whole and round with passions and fears. There’s such a place for this and it’s such a great way to reach younger readers–“reaching across the aisle of history,” if you can stand the cheesy metaphor.

  2. I do like your image of the yin/yang of a library. I’m always a bit taken aback when someone adheres strictly to one side or the other, although, in all honestly, if they only read non-fiction, I’m especially puzzled.

  3. Yes, yes, yes. As I think about my historical YA (a few seconds every now and then!), both parts have to be there. I’m reading a book right now that has gotten huge literary kudos (which always puts my antennae out–not good!), and I’m feeling like they could have put the story anywhere & anywhen, and I’m not really getting the connection between the SPECIFIC history and the story that I want. Not saying this very well.
    Side question: Did you ever read Rita Mae Brown’s book Dolley?

  4. Thank you! I feel like I should cut and paste those words and put them on my desk: that’s what I try for, and it’s sweet of you to say I get there sometimes.

  5. Yes, that’s what I want, a Yin/Yang Library! That curving line meets the Dewey decimal system!

  6. Oh, no, you said that well and it makes a very good point. Of course now I want to know what the book is, but, don’t worry, I won’t ask!
    I never did read that book Dolley! I guess I thought I had enough of her as a child, but maybe I should go back, and move beyond!
    (glad you find a few seconds to think of your novel from time to time!)

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