Adventures in Nonfiction

Article from Penny Colman’s presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention, Baltimore, Maryland, November 2001.
Originally published: Journal of Children’s Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2 Fall 2002, 58-61.


Editors (Pat Austin and April Whatley, editors of Journal of Children’s Literature): Your body of work has made such a contribution to the field of children’s literature, particularly in the arena of books about women. What led to your interest in writing nonfiction?

Penny Colman: When I was eight years old, my mother got a job as a photojournalist at a newspaper in Warren, Pennsylvania, a small town tucked between two rivers at the edge of the Allegheny Mountains in the northwest corner of the state. Occasionally, I got to go with her as she pursued real-life stories, and that is how I learned that there are adventures in nonfiction-adventures that ranged from interviewing Pete Pepkey, the saddlemaker, to covering the annual field day and watermelon-eating contest at a state mental hospital, to checking out the rumor that a group of gypsies were camping in a nearby state park.

Adventures that I have continued as a passionate writer of nonfiction, or a “Writer of Reality.” That is the term Barbara Tuchman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, adopted after she ruled out the term “writer of FTR,” short for “Fact, Truth, Reality” as too awkward, and, after she ruled out her preferred term, “realtors” because “that has been pre-empted” (p. 46). “I wish we could get it back from the dealers in land,” Tuchman wrote. “Then the categories could be poets, novelists, and realtors” (p. 46).

Editors:: So often authors have to balance other jobs with writing for quite a while before they can afford to give up their day job. When did you start writing full time?

Penny Colman: I have been a full-time writer since October 1, 1987, a month after my 43rd birthday. I started as a journalist and essayist. Then, at the behest of an editor, I started writing fiction for children, both picture books and magazine stories. About that same time, I started writing my first nonfiction book for kids: Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks, and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom (Atheneum, 1994).

Writing fiction was great fun, but so was writing the true story of the history of bathrooms, especially since the idea for that book came to me while I was on a white water raft trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, a connection I explain in the preface to Toilets.

Toilets was the first nonfiction book that I wrote. Since then I have published fourteen nonfiction books for children and young adults, including Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial (Holt, 1997), Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II (Crown, 1995), Strike! The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Time to the Present (Millbrook Press, 1995), and Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II (Crown, 2002).

Editors: With an obvious interest in women’s issues, how did you come to this wide range of topics?

Penny Colman:: Many people have wondered about my seemingly varied topics. In fact, once a male interviewer blurted out that he was baffled by my list of topics because he just could not see what bathrooms, strikes, and burials had to do with all my books on women’s history.

“Everything,” I told him, “if you think about who typically cleans the bathroom, who needs to fight for better working conditions and pay, and who is responsible for many of the emotional and practical tasks of dealing with death.”

Editors: In much of children’s nonfiction these days, there’s a blurring of genres but not in the books you write.

Penny Colman:: All of my nonfiction books are what one editor once called “hard-core nonfiction.” And in case you have not heard of “hard-core nonfiction,” do not worry, neither had I until I received a letter from that editor who wrote that although she loved my writing, the “hard-core nonfiction” that I wrote was “out” and “edutainment” was “in.” Could I adapt, she wondered, because she would love to do a book with me? Puzzled, I called her and asked: “What’s the difference between ‘hard-core nonfiction’ and ‘edutainment’ ?“

“Hard-core nonfiction writers don’t make anything up,” she said. “Edutainment writers do.”

That is when I realized that she was talking about the practice of blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, a hotly debated practice in nonfiction writing for adults. Subsequent to our conversation, I discovered that the practice appears to be common in children’s nonfiction, and it is not hotly debated. Needless to say, I think this issue should be debated.

Editors: And where do you stand on this debate? You’ve already alluded to the dialogue that writers and publishers have about this. Can you elaborate a little bit? And what about educators and kid readers in this debate?

Penny Colman: As a writer, I do not make up anything! Everything in my books comes from verifiable information and evidence, without my elaboration, exaggeration, invention, or imagination. As a journalist and essayist who writes books in the tradition of what is commonly called creative nonfiction, or literary journalism, I do use fictional techniques such as foreshadowing, alliteration, and using quotations to illuminate a scene, reveal character, illustrate a point, and/or move the story, etc. But, I do not make up dialogue, use composite characters, invent scenes, attribute thoughts or feelings, imagine motives, or in any other way cross the line between fact and fiction. And if I ever do, that writing will be what I like to call modified nonfiction or fiction, even if it’s based on extensive research and loaded with information, which, of course, many fiction books for adults are. Think, for example, of Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy or any book by James Michener or Barbara Kingsolver. And, fiction books for children such as Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

This should be a serious debate for educators because boundaries matter to kids. Kids care deeply about whether something really happened, whether it is really a true story. Kids respond to the immediacy and veracity of a true story and real people with all the multiple perspectives and complexities, whether the story and people are contemporary or historical.

Nonfiction is the language of all the debates of policies and issues-social, economic, political, and environmental-that affect everyone’s life throughout the world. That is why educators and kids need to be informed about the issue of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction-because it matters.

Editors: Your writing, as you’ve mentioned, has taken you to many places-both physically and through research. What have you learned from your adventures in nonfiction?

Penny Colman: First, that my adventures in nonfiction as an adult are just as interesting and exciting as they were when I was a kid following my mother around as she pursued real life stories for the newspaper. In the course of my career, I have paddled a raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, walked across a high wire strung between two trees, spent fascinating hours in historical archives, explored cemeteries from one end of the U.S. to the other, and interviewed amazing people.

Second, I have learned about taking risks with my writing. With Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, I forced myself to figure out how to present the complexities of the story in a clear, coherent, and compelling way. My solution was to write a five-strand interconnected narrative that included Dot Chastney, a real person who was eight years old in 1939, as a commentator of sorts who appears throughout the book to move the chronology and comment on daily life.

With Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial, I made myself vulnerable by including my personal experiences because I felt I could not ask other people to share their experiences with such a painful topic unless I was willing to also. In addition, I took most of the 130 photographs, including the cover photograph, although I had never taken on such an ambitious project before.

My latest book, Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II, felt risky because instead of organizing it around one woman or around topics, I decided to write two overlapping narratives in order to weave nineteen women war correspondents’ words and pictures into key events that led up to World War II and that took place during the war itself.

Third, I have learned that nonfiction is dominated by male writers, especially for young adults and adults, and by true stories that feature boys and men. This is true, I think because nonfiction is rooted in authority and expertise and universality, all of which are culturally ascribed to men. Consequently, I have been exploring the world of nonfiction by women: essays, articles, interviews, op-ed pieces, reviews, critiques, commentaries, speeches, letters, diaries, journals, autobiographies, biographies, adventure stories and true crime, and books about history, science, psychology, education, business, art, nature, and war. I have had a wonderful time immersing myself in nonfiction writing by authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Martha Gellhorn, Rachel Carson, Alice Walker, Mary Heaton Vorse, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Joy Harjo, Gloria Bird, Marie Arana, Maxine Hong Kingston, Annie Dillard, Judy Yung, and Vicki Ruiz, just to name a few.

Nonfiction is the currency with which public policies and legislation are made, societal needs are discussed, cultural aesthetics are defined, life lessons are conveyed, historical narratives are transmitted, and matters of war and peace are decided. Nonfiction is about life itself, and that is why I am passionate about it.