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?


Wendy said...

Coincidentally, Monica Edinger posted today about her thoughts on some of the other "extras" included with books:

Monica Edinger said...

Hmm,I guess I do come to this as a teacher. In my experience, kids latch on to everything in a work of historical fiction as the truth, as real. I appreciate author notes where there is some clarity in what is real and what is not. I read something recently where the author explained how she played around with historical stuff just a tad in the work. (I think it may have been Al Capone Shines My Shoes but wouldn't swear to it. It is at school so I can't check.)

I originally wanted to do my book as nonfiction, but there wasn't enough about Margru to do so. But I do worry when my students read some of the fictionalized stuff and think it was as true as the other stuff. But then I'm writing completely about real events and real people whereas Klages and Spears' main characters were fictional.

Monica Edinger said...

My point being, I like these afterwards!

Wendy said...

I'm curious, Monica--what do you see as the major problem when kids think some things in HF are real when they aren't? I see figuring that out as a developmental task.

As I said (or tried to say), I think it's fine, maybe even good, that both Speare and Magoon mention which characters are "real". It's the background information, the fact dump, the occasional proselytizing I object to.

Someone even suggested over on Heavy Medal that they'd feel more comfortable with A Season of Gifts if Peck had "included an afterword that discussed the stereotypes included in the book along with the reality of the Kickapoo people today". That, to me, would have been the worst sin of all--disavowing the words in the text.

Monica Edinger said...

In my experience kids don't usually read these notes anyway (they always ask me if they have to) so I guess it is more for us authors to feel we've "covered" things. And also for those readers who do want to read more about the topic, but not so much more they are going to go off to read other books on it.

Wendy said...

And I'm thinking--guessing!--that the last thing an author wants when a kid finishes a book is for the kid to look at the last pages and think "yuck, do I have to keep reading?".

Monica Edinger said...

I don't think it is "yuck" as just not part of their idea of the reading experience for such a book. They don't tend to read the endorsements either.

Sandy D. said...

Maybe it's because of my background in academia, but I love afterwords, "further reading" lists, footnotes, endnotes, all that extraneous stuff. It's like getting a free gift with a purchase - I don't necessarily expect it, but when I do get it, I'm almost always happy to have it. Even if it's something I don't really need or even want. :-/

Melody Marie Murray said...

I'm quite firmly in Wendy's camp on this one. I find the afterwords jarring and eye-rollingly sincere more often than not. I'll draw my own conclusions, thanks. And I have a huge amount of faith in the ability of kids to do the same.

Cheryl said...

Whenever this subject comes up, I always remember my experience as a 5th grader reading NUMBER THE STARS. Lowry talks about both a real young man who died as part of the Danish Resistance, and whose bravery in part inspired the book, and the fact that the handkerchief Annmarie carries, which scares off the dogs at the climax, was filled with cocaine. The anecdote about the young man (there may also have been a picture of him) made me awed and dizzy at the reality that all this had actually happened, years and years ago; the bit about the cocaine thrilled and fascinated me, since, as a child of the '80s, I had only heard of the drug as a Bad Thing. (I remember excitedly sharing the latter fact with my sixth-grade World Civilizations class, that cocaine had once been used for good! They were considerably less impressed.)

Granted, I was an overly motivated reader even then. But I've been firmly a fan of most author's notes ever since, for just those sorts of inspiring, reality-expanding, and thought-provoking possibilities. But it's a personal choice for each author, editor, and book -- I'd no more say every historical fiction book should have them than I would say no books should. In the books I edit, I DO always try to make sure that any author's notes or acknowledgements come at the back of the book, and are separated from the text by at least one blank page, so the reader isn't immediately pulled out of the dream and can choose to skip the additional text if s/he likes.

Wendy said...

I had a similar experience with Number the Stars, Cheryl--in fact, I think it was the thing I most remembered about the book until I reread it as an adult. (Hmm, this makes me wonder if I would have remembered something more about the book itself if the note hadn't been there. Impossible to know, and definitely reaching, but it makes me curious.) But to say that a reader can skip back matter if s/he chooses ignores what is, to me, the central question--what if the book is better without it? Are authors/editors pressured to include author's notes either consciously or subconsciously? I kind of get that feeling, that the idea is author's notes give a sense of legitimacy to historical fiction.

And why DIDN'T Lois Lowry include the bit about the cocaine in the story? How would it have changed the story or the reader's response?

Sarah Rettger said...

Wendy, I don't think there's any way Lowry could have plausibly worked the cocaine detail into the body of the story.

I don't think it's likely Annemarie would be familiar with cocaine - since I doubt Danish kids in the 40s had to sit through DARE, and she didn't grow up with breathless news coverage of the War on Drugs - so if her father (I think... it's been a few months) had explained to her what the substance on the handkerchief was, he would have also had to explain what cocaine was.

But because most of the book's readers, who have sat through drug ed classes or turned on CNN or otherwise grown up with the topic, don't need the explanation, the explanation would detract from the shock value that you get from a straight mention of the fact.

Of course, I read footnotes in adult non-fiction (and use them to add more books to the ever-growing TBR list), so I love afterwords and such.

Ellen Klages said...

I've always thought that, as a writer, it's not my job to give people answers, but to get them interested and engaged enough to want to ask more questions.

sdn said...

thank you, ellen. THANK YOU.

Scott said...

I have a group of kids reading Number the Stars right now. Lois Lowry is a master of characters. I can read any of her stories and the class is mesmerized.

As a amateur historian, I loved reading her afterword. With students, I like to talk about information in the afterword as research questions to lead into the historical context and how it relates to today. I think that the afterword in itself, though, can also take away the images that each student has created of the characters as well. It is kind of like being told about a wonderful dessert and when it is brought out of the kitchen it's just a chocolate cake. You're personal interpretation of the characters can be minimized with the facts. If that is what you are looking for you can read an encyclopedia. When I read HF I am looking for a flowing, complex, rich story.

I personally prefer to research the back story (which is a lot easier now than in the 1980's), and stick with the Joe Friday intro.

And yes, constantly children ask, "Do I have to read the Foreword?" If it is a choice between reading the foreword, afterword, and hating to read, I would rather discuss the context and realities of the stories than have the kids trudge through writing that doesn't flow into the style of the story. Just my opinion...

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

As an author of a historical YA novel, I struggled with the length, content, and placement of the author's note. I had originally wanted to put the historical note, about a page and a half including the sources, at the end, mainly because I didn't want people putting the book down before they started and looking up the sources. But I wondered how much background readers would have on the subject of Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. And judging from the reviews, I made the right decision, because people have said they knew nothing about this time in Chile (or about Chile in general) until they read the book and they appreciated having the context. I tried to pare the historical information down to the bare essentials, though I felt compelled to note the two people mentioned in the text who existed and what happened to them because it would be hard to believe otherwise.

And in the one-page acknowledgements, I felt compelled to thank the SCBWI, which funded my research travel, and the Chileans who hosted me in their homes, showed me around their country, and agreed to be interviewed about what were difficult and painful experiences. Not to acknowledge them wouldn't have been right, especially since it took so long for the novel to find a publisher that I lost contact with most of them. I also wanted to mention the story of the cover, the fact that the designer survived much of what was depicted in the book, and that he took the cover photo at a former torture center now turned into a peace park.

I'm not sure this answers your question, but it's my perspective as a writer of historical fiction. I don't feel I was being inconsiderate to my readers by putting in this information (which really isn't very lengthy), any more than I was being inconsiderate to my readers by writing a YA novel about a refugee teen dealing with the aftermath of his father's torture.

MissA said...

Hi wendy! I just wanted to let you know I received my books today! Thank you so much :) I'll do a post at the end of the week and share the link with you, because I have some thoughts to share about the books (I really liked Call to Freedom as a kid and I can't wait to re-read A House on Mango Street).

Also I like afterwords. I agree with Monica Edinger in that afterwords provide clairty, sometimes I finish historical fiction and I'm not always sure if it's true or not. True kids should go and find out for themselves, but some won't and they may go on thinking the wrong thing. Also an afterword is a sneaky little way of adding in even more history! For exaple in I Am Apache, (I really didn't like the book), the author includes an afterword that essentially says everything is fiction and doesn't say anything about the history. I was completely confused (why call it historical fiction if there's no history) and I wanted to know more about the actual events. In Flygirl, the author writes an afterward that really piqued my interest in learning about women pilots and the roles of African Americans in history. I think they're helpful :) It's also true that many kids (non-readers really) don't read afterwords.

Kathleen McDade said...

WHAT MS. KLAGES SAID! I think inspiring people to make the effort to find out more is huge. And I think it's a great opportunity for kids -- they need to know how to find out, if that makes sense. And for teachers, it's a great opportunity for enriching the curriculum, and maybe for tying the book into other subjects besides reading.

Maybe I'm not at all typical, but as I child I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond and I read several nonfiction books about the Salem witch trials, because it sparked my interest. I still do the same thing sometimes.

(now I need to go read The Green Glass Sea. I have it out from the library.)

Joan Holub said...

Interesting post, Wendy. I shocked my crit group by announcing that I rarely read forewords or author's notes. Sometimes I skim them, but I guess I just have always sensed that they aren't part of the story or they'd be IN the story. I like that they're included though, so that if I have questions about the author or her story, I can choose to read outside the storybox.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with you, Wendy. I just read two YA historical fiction books with two very different author notes.
Klages note in Green Glass Sea was just right--left the reader wanting more.
But Schwabach's note in The Hope Chest was way too much. She wrote a couple of paragraphs on each of the major themes. Of course, I had other issues with her book.
Both books featured complex history. But I wonder if the difference between the notes doesn't also boil down to the differences in the books: Green Glass Sea was more about a good story that happens to teach some history, while Hope Chest tried to teach history with a story.