Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Researching STEM Kidlit - Welcome Guest Blogger Anita Silvey

The problem of the unreliable narrator – in primary sources ~~~
For the past six years, I have been working on a nonfiction trilogy for National Geographic about the “ape ladies” or trimates. With breakthrough field research, Jane Goodall (Untamed), Birute Galdikas (Undaunted) and Dian Fossey (Unforgotten) radically altered our understanding of our closest biological cousins -- the chimpanzees, orangutans, and mountain gorillas who share 97%+ of our DNA.

From the beginning, when I was asked by editor Kate Hale if I would be interested in a book on Jane Goodall, the project had everything I could desire – lots of primary sources, their own first-hand accounts, videos of them working in the field, people to interview who knew them, and foundations or the subjects themselves who could review the manuscript for any inaccuracies and misrepresentations. I should one day adorn my car with a bumper sticker “I brake for Primary Sources!” 
Then a year ago, I began researching the last of the three women for a biography of Dian Fossey, to be published in 2020. Within a couple of months, I realized I had a massive problem on my hands. After Dian Fossey was tragically murdered in her research camp, many who knew her provided interviews or wrote their own accounts of the incidents. I first picked up John Fowler’s A Forest in the Clouds, a fascinating adult biography. Then I read and reread Gorillas in the Mist, Dian’s account of her own journey. At that point, I realized I had a terrible problem in terms of telling the truth about Dian’s life. Like many creative people, Dian loved to tell a good story. But in her case, much of what she conveyed probably did not happen as she wrote or told it. We love to talk about the unreliable narrators in fiction, like Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye or Nick and Amy in Gone Girl. For fiction, such an untruth teller can provide narrative tension, because the reader slowly begins to realize they cannot trust the point of view of the protagonist. But I am creating nonfiction; Dian’s willingness to bend the truth both in her book and in her letters led me into a research swamp, trying to check facts again and again.
Some of the final decisions were easier than others. For instance, when Dian was forced to flee her first research station in DRC, she told so many versions of the story and changed the details so many times, that I realized I could only convey the basics, leaving out some of her more dramatic, and less verifiable, claims. But what about the morning when she met with Louis Leakey after his lecture in Louisville, Kentucky? He told her he would find money to finance her study of mountain gorillas. In this case, I had only her account of events. Fortunately, I had already written about the pivotal meetings of Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas with Leakey. Dian’s version of what happened that day matched their recollections down to small details. So I felt confident that I could rely on what she had said. Basically, I had to weigh everything she had said or written, understanding that I could not trust her own words.
Every book presents its own challenges; I can only hope that I have done Dian justice while attempting to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But the whole experience makes me think I should redo that bumper sticker: “I brake for Primary Sources! Please tell the truth.”

Former Editor of Horn Book Magazine and Publisher of Children’s Books at Houghton Mifflin, Anita Silvey launched the Scientists in the Field series for young readers. Currently teaching at Simmons University, she has been writing a trilogy about the Trimates --  Jane Goodall (Untamed), Birute Galdikas (Undaunted), and Dian Fossey (Unforgotten). 

Watch for Anita's upcoming biography of Dian Fossey, UNFORGOTTEN!  


Nancy Castaldo has been writing about the planet for over 20 years. Learn more about her award-winning books at

DK LifeStories ADA LOVELACE is now available at your local bookstore!

1 comment:

  1. great post - Dian Fossey would not be the only one to "tell a good story" ...


Agriculture in the Classroom

It's spring and we're all living through a nationwide pandemic when our food security is even more important. In the midst of th...