Defining Historical Fiction for Kids (Part One)
Thank you, everyone, for voting on this week’s poll!
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia Machlachlan emerged as a surprising front-runner. (It is one of my favorites as well. Its gentle lyricism is hard to forget, especially when one has experienced it as a child, or has read it to a child.)
While I was composing the poll list, I wondered if I should include books like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, or Little House on the Prairie, or Anne of Green Gables. All three of these books were written by women within their own time about their own time (or at least, about their rather recent past). And yet, we encounter these books as we encounter strange lands. We learn our history from them. We escape into time.
I’m going to call them historical fiction. Since writing the list, I’ve decided that’s what they are.
Not all books written in the past qualify as historical fiction, of course. Peter Pan, for instance, is a fairytale, a play, a work of fantasy. The Secret Garden is bildungsroman, with most of its emphasis placed on the transformation of its main character, Mary Lennox. The stories of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, though often gifting us with glimpses into Victorian life, are trickster tales and fables.
I think a work of historical fiction is a work deeply concerned with its setting. If novels are like flavorful, hot dinners, then historical fiction is hearty with the sense of place and time. (Excuse the food metaphor–I have been watching a lot of Gordon Ramsey’s cooking shows lately!)
And yet, despite the centrality of place and time, it is the characters that bring great historical fiction to life. Historical fiction takes place where the imagination meets everyday living. The character living that other life, in that other time and place, has hopes and dreams like we do, only, perhaps, she has to make her own soap in a prairie land… or her brother is a samurai… or she was born a slave… and how does that affect her hopes and dreams? Even if we do not and cannot know those people we write about them, we should endeavor to try to know, to try to remember them, or envision them, or conjure their faces in the fire. Because their hopes and dreams are never so different from our own. Only the situations and constraints ever change.
Historical fiction transports children to amazing places that once were–from Ancient Egypt to New York in the days before the Revolutionary War. Historical fiction introduces children to characters who might have been, and shows them fighting for the same things we always fight for–freedom, family, survival, individuality, and equality.
A wonderful book called The Joy of Children’s Literature, by Denise Johnson, has a wonderful chapter on the role of historical fiction in children’s lives. In it, she quotes the Newbery acceptance speech of Karen Cushman, author of Midwife’s Apprentice, which I think sums up our mission better than I ever could:
“Among a native Australian people, it is said, when the rice crop shows sign of failure, the women go into the rice field, bend down, and relate to it the history of its origins; the rice, now understanding why it is there, begins again to grow. Aha, I thought, as I read this passage, such is the importance of stories. That is why I write. When the book is finished and I hold it in my hands, I can see myself bending down to whisper it into the ear of of child.”
The Joy of Children’s Literature also has a blog, which is well worth checking out.
I’m off to devour some children’s books, as I prepare to begin a new book of my own. Reading, reading, reading: my favorite part of the process. I think I may start with by re-visiting Sarah, Plain and Tall.