For the first time in its thirteen year history, the Young People’s Literature category of the National Book Award recognized a work of nonfiction:¹ Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose. It’s great to see children’s nonfiction getting more recognition, both because nonfiction can have just as much literary merit as fiction, and because kids need ways to explore and discover the world, past and present. And behind every great work of nonfiction is a true, and truly great, story. Without that truth, it’s not nonfiction. Nonfiction is more than just facts, but it needs facts.
But what if fact becomes fiction, or fiction is presented as fact?
That’s the issue at the heart of a recent censorship case: a school board in Miami who removed a book, Vamos a Cuba. There are two issues at play here: the article says the school board removed the book “because the book paints too rosy a picture of life in the communist nation,” but that the Court of Appeals deemed the removal okay because “the school board was seeking to remove the book because it contained substantial factual inaccuracies.”
Whatever the reasons the school board sought removal of the book, this story is revealing. To me, it’s clear that removing a book for a point of view with which the remover disagrees is censorship, but removing a nonfiction work because its facts aren’t really facts, or because it’s out of date (the book in question is eight busy years old), is just collection management. (A more clear-cut example: I really hope most encyclopedias referring to the Soviet Union as a current world power have been retired by now.) Some people would argue that any positive portrayal of life in a communist country is inaccurate; others would point out that in any country under any government there is a range of experiences. I found Peter Sis’s beautiful book The Wall problematic for the opposite reason—I thought its depiction of the West was overly perfect and unrealistic—but it is an accurate depiction of its author’s feelings and experiences, and I don’t think it should be banned.
So where should the line be drawn? Should book removal of nonfiction be different than that of fiction?
¹ Before 1996, there were several iterations of a children’s book category, some of which recognized nonfiction. There was even a three-year period with a separate nonfiction award.