“HEY, YOU GOT YOUR FICTION IN MY NON-FICTION!” OR TWO GREAT TASTES THAT TASTE GREAT TOGETHER: THE TRUTH OR LIE SERIES by Erica S. Perl
I’ve always been a fiction writer. You might even call me a fiction snob. But whenever I do author visits, I meet some kids who prefer non-fiction. Kids who dismiss fiction as “made up.”
I usually go to great lengths to show them that fiction can be every bit as fun/interesting/cool. To write fiction, I explain, you need to do research, just like for non-fiction. And fiction demands truth when it comes to characters’ emotions. So, I conclude, it’s not all “made up” after all.
But after a gazillion school visits, I had a crazy idea: why couldn’t a book be BOTH?
Why couldn’t I write a non-fiction book that had fiction baked in? And what if it were the reader’s job to spot the made-up stuff, and in so doing develop the ability to not just read, but read critically?
I looked around and saw that while some awesome authors were working on this kind of book for 8-12 year olds (check out Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Thomson’s Two Truths and a Lie series), no one was doing it for the 4-8 year old set (unless you count one of my favorite picture books, Seventeen Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore by Jenny Offill and Nancy Carpenter, which features the narrator giving a school presentation that is particularly lie-laden).
So, I decided to give it a try.
I’m proud to announce that this crazy idea is now a reality. The first book in the series, TRUTH OR LIE: SHARKS! – written by me and illustrated by the fabulous Michael Slack – came out today.
And today, I can honestly admit that writing this book kicked – or, in shark terms, bit – my behind.
When I pitched the series, I was confident that I could pull together an assortment of facts – and dream up a selection of lies – about this topic. As a kid, I was mildly obsessed with sharks… so much so that I feared them in Lake Champlain, the YMCA pool, and my own bathtub. I even had personal experience with sharks: on a fishing trip with my grandfather, I actually reeled one in (a tiny dogfish, which threw up in the boat before we were able to release it). This book would write itself! How hard could it be? I thought, naively.
Hard, I found out. Turns out, there are lots of kinds of sharks, and lots of variations in their anatomy. So you have to be careful about words like “all” and “none.” Also, kids know a lot about sharks (a kid on my block dressed as a hammerhead last Halloween, so I made him a consultant on the project). You can’t get stuff wrong in a nonfiction book – especially one with “truth” in the title – or they will let you know. And the lies were hard to write, too, even for a professional liar (though I prefer the term fiction writer) like me. Too easy or obvious? No way. Two hard or obscure? Not okay. The sweet spot was tiny and often elusive.
And then there’s the format. Step Into Reading, Level Three books are not set up for a quiz format (TRUTH OR LIE is the first Step Into Reading series written this way). My editor, Heidi Kilgras, was wonderful at figuring out ways to make the quiz questions work while adhering to the conventions of the reader program’s system and levels. There are strict guidelines for numbers of line per page and characters per line, all designed to meet the reader at an appropriately challenging level. The illustration process added more complexities, because Michael Slack’s wonderful cartoons (and his adorable depiction of the series’ narrator, the Truth Sleuth) interact with photographs and text on practically every page.
Whew! So, now, I have a better appreciation for why some kids love non-fiction. And a lot more awareness of the limits of my own knowledge – thank goodness for libraries! Without them, I could not have written this book or the next book in the series, TRUTH OR LIES: DINOSAURS!
Or the one after that, TRUTH OR LIES: PRESIDENTS!
Which sounds like a joke, but is actually a book.
Erica S. Perl’s most recent middle grade novel, ALL THREE STOOGES, won the National Jewish Book Award and the Sydney Taylor Award Silver Medal. Erica also writes picture books – including CHICKEN BUTT!, GOATILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS and FEROCIOUS FLUFFITY – early readers, and chapter books – TRUTH OR LIE!, ARNOLD AND LOUISE, and the CRAFTILY EVER AFTER (writing as “Martha Maker) series. Erica is a crowd-pleasing presenter at schools, libraries and community events. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.