Sunday, December 13, 2009
No Afterword, Thanks
I liked The Witch of Blackbird Pond, but I really think there should have been an author's note explaining that some women (and one man) really were executed as witches, along with something about the real-life persecution of Quakers (or Friends, as they prefer to be called) in New England. I'm not sure kids would get from the book what a very serious situation this was.
You can relax that horrified expression now; that isn't a real quote. But it could have been.
Have you noticed how common lengthy afterwords are on kids' historical fiction these days? In fact, I think we've come to expect them. When I read The Green Glass Sea (Ellen Klages), one of my favorite books from the last several years, I felt something odd when I'd finished it. Something refreshing. It was... the lack of an author's note.
One major complaint: Where's the explanation note? I cannot believe Klages ends the book without one. Her list of further reading materials doesn't take the place of something on the topic in the book. What happened to the scientists and their families? How did they react to what they created (hinted at in the story) What about radiation poisoning? Etc. Etc. There are dozens of additional questions readers could ask. Several have come to my mind since I finished the book. I don't expect her to answer all of them fully but I do expect her to say something. What the scientists created changed the world. Surely this deserves more than a footnote's worth of explanation.
That IS a real quote, from Goodreads, and it pretty much sums up most of what I don't like about afterwords.
I commented about this before on a post in Marc Aronson's Nonfiction Matters blog, Historical Fiction Seminar. I said "there was nothing to take me out of the book [after finishing]" Marc responded "Seems Wendy is one of those readers who wants to stay within the dream between the covers of the book". We were talking about whether people read historical fiction for a hallucinatory experience, so I can see why he thought that's what I was getting at. But it isn't that I don't like author's notes because they break the spell; it's because I think too often they interfere with both the enjoyment and the learning experience of the book.
The person who commented on The Green Glass Sea above said that "dozens of additional questions" came to her mind after she finished the book. She wanted them answered in an author's note. My question is--if there had been an author's note, would she ever have had those questions? Would she have spent time pondering the answers? Would the other Goodreads reviewers who were troubled by the ambiguity of the book have spent that time clarifying their own positions?
Let's take another classic, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. One of the central incidents in that book is the plague of grasshoppers. If it was written now, the author's note might include other descriptions of the devastation caused by the grasshoppers. Maybe there'd be a map showing how widespread the damage was. Maybe we'd get information on how the grasshoppers affected other families and whether there was any government relief.
It'd be factual. It'd teach kids something. Some of us would read this additional information with great interest. But the book is so well-written that it doesn't need any of this; in fact, I think it would only take away. We read On the Banks of Plum Creek and we get a clear picture of how the grasshoppers affected the lives of one family. We know the creepiness of the grasshoppers getting into our clothes, of hearing the neverending chomp-chomp of their jaws; we know the helpless feeling of watching our year's worth of work be destroyed in a matter of hours.
The last thing I want--or need--after experiencing something like that is to read an author's note where someone tells me what to think about it.
In most cases, if a book is written well enough, we get everything we need from the text. A curious reader can investigate the subject more; and we can say "but most kids won't do that"--if the book is good enough, that won't matter. If it's so important you have to say it, say it in the story.
I read The Rock and the River (Kekla Magoon) recently. I enjoyed the book. I hated the author's note. This is a Black Panther-positive book; most of those who review it comment on how good it is to have a book showing another side to the Black Panthers. But not only does the author's note pretty much reiterate the information that's already integrated in the text, but it makes the last sentence of the book--this book that shows the Black Panthers as a force for good--"In 1982, the Black Panther Party officially disbanded." So what, exactly, is my take-away there? How do I align that with the note the actual story ends on?
Magoon actually has the perfect author's note there. It's similar to the one at the end of The Witch of Blackbird Pond; it says the story is fictional but contains some real people. She's even got a line there that would have been a great last sentence, one that wouldn't destroy the power of her story's end. She could have finished her author's note with "The struggle that Sam faces in the story is based on the real-life challenges that many teenagers went through."
Do we need any more than that?