Two new books, whose subjects are children born into slavery, fall into a popular trend in picture book nonfiction referred to as fictionalized biographies.
“My Name is James Madison Hemings” written by Jonah Winter is the story of the son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Although Jefferson remains unnamed for most of the book, the reader is told that James’s father is a writer, a violinist, and a scholar. Told as a first-person narrative, the key question that James grapples with throughout the story is “How could I be both his slave and his son?”
“Lift Your Light a Little Higher” by Heather Henson is the story of Stephen Bishop, who guides visitors through Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Also told as a first-person narrative, Bishop known as Guide leaders tourists through this natural wonder. The art work in dark greens and browns by artist Bryan Collier provides an insight into this underground wonder as well as the man who becomes an expert in its exploration.
Both books received good reviews. However, these books raise the question as to how far an author can stretch when writing nonfiction. Both authors admit that there is limited documentation available for both of their subjects and so there stories are built on “skeletons of true stories and real people, but incidents, motives and thoughts are added.”
Biographies written for older children are held to a higher standard of accuracy. But the idea seems to be that “fictionalization is not a flaw if it leads to a better story or in some way serves as a larger purpose” for this younger audience.