The danger of a “true” story – KidLitCripCrit

The danger of a ‘true’ story. Authenticity in books has always mattered. But there aren’t many children’s books about disabled characters written by disabled authors. 

Disabled voices have been seen as inaccessible, silent, in need of an interpreter. For years publishers have taken easier routes – shortcuts – to authenticity: the disability adjacent author; the true story. 

I want to talk about what a ‘true story’ actually means. Wading through books tagged ‘disability’ on Amazon for our #KidLitCripCrit list, this kept coming up. 

‘Based on a true story’ covers a multitude of sins. Looking into author interviews and notes at the backs of books something became clear. Sometimes the author knew the person whose story they were trying to tell. Often they’d met them once. Sometimes they’d just seen a photo. 

Seeing a photo of a person could provide a starting point for a creative writing project. But would you think you were telling the actual story of the person in that photo? Really? 

Eg the photo above of James – swipe for some guesses on what people might see in it vs our reality. (Based on comments, over the years.)

Or how about this: you see a photo of a brain surgeon. Would that in any way enable you – presuming you’re not a surgeon yourself – to tell their actual story? 

Well, no. If you were a brain surgeon yourself you might be able to read visual clues: their scrubs, the type of scalpel… I have no idea really, because I too am not a brain surgeon. That’s the point. 

It would be bizarre & arrogant of me to imagine I could tell a brain surgeon’s story because I saw a photo of her. And I’d rightly be laughed at – because we take brain surgery seriously. So mistakes would be embarrassing.

But you know what we don’t take seriously? Disability.

When we don’t take a subject seriously, getting it right doesn’t really matter. The author’s imagining is prized above reality. And with reality out of the way, you can use disabled characters to say something positive & encouraging. Like never give up! Or, never give up! Or… well mostly just that. 

But truth matters. Readers generally trust that a ‘true story’ is… true. We have to treat this trust with great care.

Lucy Catchpole

First posted on Instagram 24.10.2020

If you’d like to support what we do, we have affiliate links to Bookshop UK and Bookshop US – where you can buy most of the books on our KidLitCripCrit list.

[Image descriptions:

  1. James is wearing a prosthetic leg over his clothes, and holding Mainie’s hand. Our text reads ‘the danger of a “true” story. 
  2. The same image, with text added, like: ‘A true story?’ ‘Inspirational!’ x 4 😉 ‘Triumph over adversity?’ ‘Heroic soldier backstory?’ ‘Not giving up!’ ‘Where’s the wife? Tragic double car accident?’
  3. Now our text mostly reads: ‘The true story’. ‘Disappointing lack of leg related heroism/ tragedy’. ‘Just going for a walk’. ‘Prosthetic leg = tool’. ‘Wants a pancake’. ‘Not terribly inspirational, sorry!’]

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