Monday, September 22, 2014

Who’s Saying What to Whom?

           Are you familiar with “The Trinity of Discourse,” the notion that communication can be understood by considering the distance between three factors—the speaker, the reader/listener, and the message? It’s a very useful idea and generally associated with the scholar James Moffett, who devised a fantastic (my opinion, here) teaching method based on it. Basically, he advocated that if we begin with the most direct and basic communication relationships, we could build a foundation for the more distant and abstract relationships. So far, so good, right?

            But what happens when we are not sure who is communicating with us? That is the problem I am facing when reading some current nonfiction. I simply want to know who is speaking to me. Several weeks ago I mentioned Jon Meacham’s new book about Jefferson. This book is definitely informative, and it has an interesting point of view. Readers can learn a lot of history by reading this book. Yet I was (and still am) concerned that in the process of adapting Meacham’s longer adult book for middle grade students, the text became less interesting stylistically, choppier, and changed. Is this still Meacham talking directly to me, or is this something else?  How are you and I to understand these new “combo-speakers”? In this case, there is an author and an adapter. I would very much like to know about this process of adaptation.

            Fast forward to a new title that is soon going to be released. This book is about Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s experience during the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March and it is a very significant story. The book reads like a memoir and uses the word I to indicate that Lynda Blackmon Lowery is speaking to us. Yet, there are two adaptors. The book states on the title page that it is by Lynda Blackmon but as told to two other co-authors. Now we have a party of three. Again, I am not against this process, but I want to know more about it. I cannot believe that there are no significant differences between writing your own story and having someone write it for you. Help me understand these differences. Since I read an advance reader’s copy, maybe there will be additional information in the final version of the book.

            We have talked a great deal in this blog about how important it is for nonfiction authors to unpack their processes. We teachers need help explaining to young readers how nonfiction is created. So if an author writes a book for adults and it is later adapted for a younger audience by someone else, it would be very helpful to know more about this process. And if two adapters are working on a book, we should know about that process too. And if the adapters are using the pronoun I, let’s hear about why they decided to do this.

            Before getting off my soapbox, let me contrast the works I discussed above with Marc Aronson’s nonfiction titles. In many of his books—for example, The Skull in the Rock, If Stones Could Speak, and The Griffin and the Dinosaur—he carefully situates himself as an observer and learner who is explaining the work of a scientist. When he uses the word I, he is referring to himself. He speaks directly to the reader. We know he is sharing his excitement in learning with us. In fact, young students tell me that when reading Marc’s books they feel like he is their friend. The connection he builds with readers is that strong.

Can we make the role of an adaptor that transparent? Should we?

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