If we look back over the top news stories of 2016, one term keeps popping up over and over: fake news. Fake news most often emerges as deliberate misinformation spread through rumor or nontraditional sources. Fake news has long been with us, and although it’s more prevalent today than ever and disseminated through different media, the real problem is not its existence but its acceptance.
As librarians responsible for information literacy, we can lay some foundations with the children we serve that will begin to prepare them to deal with all manner of facts and figures. The good news is that the materials to do so are at our fingertips in the fine literature available for today’s young children.
One of the first places to begin is with the simple question: How do we verify information? Encourage kids to use extra textural resources to validate or refute the content of the books they are reading and hearing. Consider the satisfying and popular Trapped! by Robert Burleigh. Here a team of divers work tirelessly to free a humpback whale caught in abandoned fishing nets. Finally released from its bonds, the whale swims by each diver, moving a fin as if waving.
With several newspaper accounts available online, young children can see the general events confirmed. But in the back matter, the author encourages older readers to discover more as he states that this account is “based on” an actual incident. Such a comment prompts an investigation of just what “based on” really means and introduces the concept of literary license that may or may not sacrifice basic information.
More extensive literary license can be found in several recently published biographies. In the back matter of My Name is James Madison Hemings, for example, Jonah Winter describes his account as historical fiction although the Library of Congress defines it as biography. So, how do readers, often not inclined to read the extensive author’s notes, evaluate the veracity of this account? Librarians can emphasize that the first person point of view and lack of documentation for Hemings’s internal feelings should begin to alert older readers to the fictionalization.
In Presenting Buffalo Bill Candace Fleming encourages middle grade children to think about the information they encounter without adult scaffolding. She uses Bill Cody’s biographical stories to frame her narrative, but at each of six points in the text creates an extensive sidebar to show how he may have embellished the truth or simply fabricated incidents for the sake of a good story. Fleming shares her research, such as combing the employment rolls of the Pony Express for Bill’s name, but also tempers such revelations with accounts supporting Cody’s tellings. In doing so, she encourages critical reading and writing.
These few fine books will not by themselves turn children into discerning users of information, but librarians who help readers navigate such accounts may help them begin to follow the old adage: Question everything you read.
Burleigh, Robert. Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue; illustrated by Wendell Minor. Sommerville, MA: Charlesbridge, 2015.
Fleming, Candace. Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented The Wild West. New York: Roaring Brook, 2016.
Winter, Jonah. My Name is James Madison Hemings; illustrated by Terry Widener. New York: Schwartz and Wade, 2016.