Recently, I discovered a wonderful podcast recording of two courses taught by David Beagley at La Trobe University in Australia. The podacast is presented by ITunes U, a wonderful facility that allows professors to record their classes and make them available to the world.
David Beagley touches on all types of children’s literature, from fantasy to social realism. Of course I was thrilled to listen to his two-part lecture on historical realism!
He compares historical fiction to fantasy. After all, Ancient Rome and mystical Narnia are both places that we can never go. The only difference is, with Ancient Rome, we have a fairly reliable common map. Historical fiction and fantasy both whisk us away to far-off places. Only their means of doing so is distinct.
So in his lecture, Beagley stresses the importance of authenticity in children’s historical fiction. After all, many children have their first encounter with death in novels and loss in contemporary children’s boooks. Likewise, when reading a historical novel, a child may have his or her first enounter with ancient Rome; his or her first encounter with Medieval Europe; his or her first encounter with the Boston Tea Party or the American Revolution. We owe it to children, in our writing, to be accurate.
But we owe them something else, too. We owe them a good story. How can we expect them to connect with history if they do not connect with the narrative or characters?
One of my favorite characters in children’s literature said it best: “What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “Without pictures and conversations?”
Beagley reinforced a definition of historical fiction I’ve always held dear. That is, the characters and perhaps the story are of the mind’s imagination. We read them as we would a piece of fiction. And yet, the history must be accurate enough that no one could say that the story didn’t take place, or that those people didn’t exist.
The Short Life of Sadako Sasaki
In some cases, those people really did exist. The childhood classic Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr was a real person. She really was a little girl who loved to run, before radiation sickness caused her fatal leukemia. In one sentence, I have just told you the factual story of her life: Sadako loved to run; she contracted radiation sickness; she died of leukemia. However, this is not fiction. What touches your heart about her story is the empathy you feel when you spend time with that little girl. We don’t really know what she thought or felt as she went through those dark days in the hospital. But the writer isn’t telling us lies–she is imagining what a little girl might feel in such a situation. She is imagining the hope, the fear, the darkness of a hospital, the heaviness of limbs that used to run, the lightness of paper cranes.
I had a similar experiencece writing my adult novels about Marie Laveau, who was a real voodoo queen. I knew her myth, but to breathe life into it, I had to make her into a character, which sounds diminishing, but really, I think it is the opposite. Creating characters out of people who really lived connects the reader to history on an emotional level. There is something noble in that.
However, since we are talking about historical fiction for children, we beg the question–is our first responsibility to teach them history, or is it our first responsibility to tell a gripping and emotional story? I would argue that Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes does not teach history. It introduces the horrifying fact of Hiroshima and the fact of the bomb, but it does so only on a personal level. Children don’t learn much about the war. They don’t learn why the bomb was dropped in the first place. They know only what Sadako knows.
And I’m okay with that. Because introducing our children to other people from other places and other times is just as important, in my opinion, as introducing them to the facts of history. Children find a friend in Sadako. A friend on the “enemy” side. A friend from a long-ago war. Sadako is not a history lesson, and neither is she simply a way of telling children, “war is wrong” or “bombing is bad.” She is something–someone–much more complex.
Sadako and the child who reads her story are like two strangers meeting from across a great distance, touching fingertips for just an instant, before the book is shut. The touch is electric, and the knowledge passed by fingertip is always a knowledge of the human heart.