Monday, January 16, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Heart and Soul

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans Kadir Nelson

Much like his We Are the Ship Nelson again goes for the everyman (this time, everywoman) narrator and focuses on the very long, broad story of the African American experience.

The narrator's story-telling voice draws readers in as she tells of her great-grandfather Pap, a slave taken from Africa who fights for the North during the war, becomes a Buffalo soldier out West, and moves to Chicago during the Great Migration. She tells of her uncles and cousins who were Southern share-croppers, of her brothers who fought in WWII, and of how she (somehow back South) marched with Dr. King for Civil Rights and eventually case her ballot for Obama. The way her family touches on so many keystone events is a bit Forrest Gump, but is based on Nelson's own family stories.

Nelson beautiful, full-page paintings appear frequently and there are several 2-page spreads.

Readers will enjoy the narrative and artwork.

My only question is-- why is this nonfiction? It's full of made-up dialogue and made-up characters. In order to keep an authentic voice, historical fact is obscured, like when the narrator says that when Roosevelt declared war on Japan "every person in America was behind him." No, they weren't. The war had vast popular support, but not every person in America was for it. The brevity of the book and that it's all family stories, doesn't give a good sense of the timeline involved and how long some of these events were. Also, the way some social trends are covered in the narrative messes up the timeline. She talks about jazz when discussing the summer before the end of WWI. In her discussion, she mentions many of the big names including Ella Fitzgerald, making it sound like Fitzgerald was a popular jazz singer during WWI. But she wasn't born until 1917.

Many of my frustrations with We Are the Ship are double for Heart and Soul. It's a beautiful book that kids will really enjoy reading and they'll learn a lot from it but... it's a horrible example of nonfiction. Some minor edits and this would be a WONDERFUL work of historical fiction. Frustrating all around.

Today's Nonfiction Monday round up is over at The Swimmer Writer.

Book Provided by... my local library

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GatheringBooks said...

I'm glad to note some of your reservations about Heart and Soul - oftentimes we fail to really take into account the accuracy of the details/tidbits of information that are provided in the book, especially if we have already drowned in the beauty of the artwork and the lovely narrative style. Your point about historical fiction and the boundaries of what constitutes fact/reality should be quite clear-cut - yet evidently, it's riddled with quite a number of issues - something that may likewise be raised with the students so that they can exercise their own critical/evaluative/research skills concerning the reading material.

The Swimmer Writer said...

I coordinate an online nonfiction critique group for children's writers. We have discussed the topic of fiction in nonfiction.
One of our members says that when she does a book with fiction elements she will make it clear by saying "a story about..."
In the case of this book, the events are real and the narrator
is a composite of the author's family members.

Jennie said...

Plenty of historical fiction has true events and is even narrated by people who actually existed.

Yes, the events are true. The narrator is a composite of family members. But the small facts are not true. The dialogue is not real.

You can have a lot of nonfiction in excellent fiction, but you can't have fiction in excellent nonfiction.

The Swimmer Writer said...

It's like the Magic School Bus series. Libraries put it in the science area but it has fictional characters talking about science.

Jennie said...

Hmmm... the Magic School Bus comparison gives me something to think about. I don't think it's really the same, because in MSB, there's a clearer line between fact and fiction, but something to think about.

But, even if one stipulates that having a fictional character narrate a story based about fictional characters can constitute history because these characters and events represent broader realities of many people, Nelson chooses to honor his narrator's voice over the smaller facts. There are many examples, I detailed the ones about WWII support and Ella Fitzgerald above. I wouldn't have a problem with such choices in fiction, because character voice allows a little hyperbole in such situations, but I don't think there's a place for that in nonfiction. Nonfiction needs to be truer to fact than character voice.