I’ve been debating for some time about whether (and how much) of my Critical Thesis to blog about. I can’t imagine a large enough segment of the world to be as interested in my exploration concerning picture book biographies, but at the same time I recognized some areas where current trends indicate a need to examine them further.
So instead I think I’ll pull out specific sections that might be of interest and treat them a little less clinically than I did in my thesis. Today, let’s take a look at the clunky word storyography.
The term storyography came up early in my research and it seemed to explain a certain phenomena specific to picture book biographies. In a 1998 article for School Library Journal Julie Cummins proposes the word storyography as a way of differentiating whole-life biographies from those that choose to focus only on a section of the subject’s life. More specifically, the storyography builds a narrative around an incident in a subject’s life that is story first, biography second, and not merely a simplified biography.
The important distinction between the storyographies and traditional biographies is summed up in this idea of “story first.” This notion that the narrative arc supersedes the older thinking that a subject’s greatness comes from an accumulation of life events. Which is not to say that earlier events in a subject’s life don’t shape the individual, but their relevance to the story at hand is paramount. In the Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature the elements of storyography are refined further as being:
in picture book format
possessing child appeal, or from a child’s perspective
is not part of a series
shaped by traditional story components
A book that fits the definition is Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian. The focus of the story is on a period of Bentley’s life when he came to record snowflakes, we do not learn anything about his life that doesn’t in some way feed into the story-focused narrative. Similarly, Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum by author and illustrator Robert Andrew Parker covers Tatum’s life experiences from birth to young adulthood, and only those elements that pertain to Tatum’s development as a musician.
The idea of zooming in on a particular time in a subject’s life in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem. This notion that a person’s achievements are somehow the culmination of a life’s work and growth appears to have come into vogue in the early part of the 20th century with the help of Freud. Rather than saying “this is a life” biographies had evolved into “these are the underlying events that shaped this life” which, in the end, put the biographer into the role of analyst as opposed to simply a biographer.
There are two problems, however, that manifest in storyographies in ways that often go unnoticed. The first comes from the necessity of omission; it simply isn’t possible to tell a person’s entire life story in the space of a picture book and so some material must be excluded. The second problem, which may or may not be the result of the first, is accuracy. Nowhere in the definition of storyography is there any mention of the accuracy of the details. I don’t believe this is simply a case of assumption because the idea that the storyography is shaped by traditional story elements implies a conscious effort to mold the material to fit a purpose. Accuracy, it appears, would tend to get in the way.
The bete noire here would be Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Ryan has chosen to tell of a visit Amelia Earhart made to the White House in 1934 where, at a dinner party, Earhart discusses the beauty of flying a plane at night. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an amateur pilot, is so taken with this that she immediately decides they must take a flight over the capitol. And they do, with the two women as pilot and co-pilot taking in the National Mall from above. Back on the ground the two women slip away so that Roosevelt can return the favor by driving Earhart around the capitol streets at high speeds, something she was known to do.
The story here is of two head-strong women, fearless and daring, who in a single evening share each other’s passions for adventure. If only it were true. Or rather, if only if weren’t partially true.
In shaping the story elements Ryan omits some details that change the story radically. While Ryan mentions that the Secret Service objected to an unscheduled flight she neglects to point out that the women actually weren’t permitted to pilot the plane. Ryan does make note of this in the end notes but not in the text itself. Worse, there is an illustration showing the two women in the cockpit which would lead a reader to believe they were flying the plane rather than inspecting the controls pre-flight. Additionally, there is some question as to the veracity of the late-night drive through the capitol ever taking place at all. In focusing on the intersection of these two lives (which Ryan admits in the end notes to having based on a photo she saw of the two women in a plane together… as passengers) Ryan has concocted a storyography that sounds good but isn’t accurate.
This idea of omitting details or reshaping the story makes it easier for the picture book biographer to approach a subject as entertainment, as a story to be told, and to the reader it takes on the veracity of truth because (as the subtitle for Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride attests on its title page) it is “Based on a True Story.” We have come to view that phrase as a stand-in for the word “accurate” in movies and television, and with the caveat “based on” we assume the liberties taken are minor and don’t affect the overall outcome of the story at hand.
This is dangerous territory for books aimed at children, especially younger children whose first exposure to a subject may be through a picture book.
Storyographies are everywhere these days. And despite their bibliographies and the clarification of facts in the author’s notes at the end of the book, I am noticing that many either contain minor inaccuracies or omissions that would seem crucial to understanding the subject’s lives.
Though the term storeography is clunky it does accurately convey the essence of these books, a hybrid of a story book and a biography. In the past (and in my thesis) I thought of storyographies as a subset of biography but on further reflection I’m going to have to come down on the side of calling them a subset of fiction. Because they are story first I think they should be treated as stories first and foremost and shelved accordingly. If that sounds harsh consider that I have found Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride shelved in children’s libraries among the biographies when the crucial, central, and titular event of the book did not happen as it is depicted.
Look for yourself. Go to a bookstore or library and check out some recent picture book biographies. While reading these titles study the text carefully and ask what’s being left out, where did this conclusion come from, what is the source? It is far too easy to get caught up in the story than to question it, which is what’s most troubling.
Biographies are nonfiction. Storyographies are semi-nonfiction. And since there’s no limbo section in the library, and because we teach children that books fall either into these two categories of either fiction or nonfiction, there is no room among the “true life” stories for those books that may be “mostly true.”
Until we can find a word that differentiates between those picture books that accurately tell a slice-of-life narrative of a subject’s life and those that are not entirely accurate, I think we need to vet these books carefully and not automatically shelve them among the biographies unless we can be certain they do not mislead the reader, intentionally or otherwise. Simply telling the story of a real person does not and should not automatically bestow a book with an unimpeachable air of truth.
Cummins, Julie. “Storyographies: A New Genre.” School Library Journal August (1998): 42-3.
Martin, Jacqueline Briggs, illustrated by Mary Azarian . Snowflake Bentley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Parker, Robert Andrew. Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum. New York City: Schwartz & Wade, 2008.
Ryan, Pam Munoz, illustrated by Brian Selznick. Amelia And Eleanor Go For A Ride. New York: Scholastic Press, 1999.
“Storyographies: Picture-Book Biographies.” Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. London: Continuum, 2005.