I think that January should be declared "National Historical Fiction" month because it's a perfect time to look back and read books about the past to help us move into the New Year. Plus, it might help us promote what is often a "hard sell" genre. I have always loved books set in the past, but I have also learned that I'm in the minority there. Many young readers don't choose to read historical fiction on their own and see it as the castor oil of children's literature—good for them, but not pleasant. We need to change that perception! Fortunately, there are so many excellent novels that infuse humor in the history or incorporate fantastic time travel or tap into themes that are particularly timely.
Historical fiction dramatizes and humanizes the past for us, giving us the "virtual experience" of living in another time. But what is historical? That is not a fixed date. Clearly a book set in the World War II era is historical. A novel about the Vietnam War is also considered historical (even though it is within my own lifetime, for example). Very shortly, however, stories occurring in the 2000s will also be judged as historical fiction, especially if they are clearly linked to world events of the time. This is partly because we should also consider the age of the child who will be reading these books. For example, consider your typical ten-year-old fifth grader, a good age for promoting historical fiction. A book set twenty to twenty-five years before his or her birth is historical to that child reader. It is his or her parents' generation. Do the math. Does that make you feel old? It is important to consider the child reader when we look for historical fiction to share with children. It also helps us gauge what seems "historic" to the children who are the audience for the books we select. What seems like history to them? We generally say that historical fiction is set at least one generation in the past. That bar is movable as time keeps moving on and new children are born. Of course, some contemporary novels also become historical fiction over the years, particularly if there are many time and place markers in the story.
What are some of the current trends in the writing and publishing of historical fiction for young people? There has always been a rather ethnocentric focus in historical fiction published in the U.S. Most historical novels published in the United States are set in the United States. This includes the New World (pilgrims, colonialism, the American Revolution), the American frontier (slavery, the Civil War), and World War II. But that is changing. More books are appearing about the Middle Ages, for example. And, more history with a multicultural focus is being published with former taboos discussed openly in an appropriate historical context. In addition, authors are experimenting with the genre's boundaries, mixing historical fiction and fantasy, as well as poetry and history.
In recent years, historical novels have tackled sensitive issues such as poverty and prejudice. Authors are grappling with challenging issues and are not afraid to include them in a story for children, particularly when not to include these issues makes a book less authentic. Ellen Klages frames her story around the research on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II in The Green Glass Sea (Viking, 2006) and its sequel White Sands, Red Menace (Viking, 2008), part of her Gordon Family Saga. In addition, we are fortunate to see more authors from a variety of backgrounds and cultural perspectives write historical novels for children and receive distinctions for their work. For example, Coretta Scott King awards have gone to Rita Williams-Garcia for her engaging coming-of-age story set in the volatile 1960s, One Crazy Summer (Amistad, 2010), and the sequels. Kimberly Bradley Brubaker's moving novel The War That Saved My Life (Dial, 2015) won both Newbery honors and a Schneider award for a compelling story about a young girl with a physical disability neglected by her mother who finds a new life outside of London during WWII. All these perspectives enrich our literature and invite even more readers to see themselves in our collective history.
Not all historical fiction is serious, however, and several authors offer a wry or humorous voice in the telling. Consider Gennifer Choldenko's novel about a young boy living on Alcatraz Island in 1935 and his reluctant friendship with the warden's "entrepreneurial" daughter in Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam, 2004), a Newbery honor book, and its several sequels. And, Jennifer L. Holm has authored several humorous historical novels including Full of Beans (Random House, 2017), winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction.
Some authors are using historical fiction in conjunction with other genres in new, creative ways, such as historical fantasy or historical novels in verse. Karen Hesse blended poetry and history to create verse novels that qualify as beautiful historical fiction, beginning with the Newbery medal–winning Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997). Other writers who have used poetry to create historically rich novels in verse include Helen Frost with The Braid, the tale of two Scottish sisters who immigrate in the 1850s (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006); Crossing Stones (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), set against the backdrop of World War I; and Salt (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), set in Indiana Territory in 1812. Margarita Engle plumbs Cuban history for powerful stories rooted in fact such as The Surrender Tree (Holt, 2008), The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba (Holt, 2010), The Lightning Dreamer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), and Lion Island: Cuba's Warrior of Words (Atheneum, 2016).
With the genre of historical fiction, the key in choosing high-quality historical fiction is authenticity. Writers must thoroughly research the time period for the setting of the story: the times, the people, the values, the language. They must then, however, create a story that draws readers in without overwhelming us with historical details and long descriptions. A balance of fact and fiction is essential. Then, we look to see how the author uses the traditional literary elements of plot, characterization, setting, theme, and style as all these pieces are woven together to create a compelling and authentic story. You may notice that many historical titles have also been Newbery award recipients as the most distinguished book of the year selected by the Association of Library Service to Children, including:
- Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Houghton Mifflin, 1943)
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton, 1958)
- Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell (Houghton, 1960)
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (Dial, 1976)
- Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson (Crowell, 1980)
- Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (Harper, 1985)
- Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (Delacorte, 1999)
- Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum, 2004)
- Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Random House, 2010)
- Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011)
But there are several other awards and "best lists" specifically for works of historical fiction including these:
Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction
Probably the best-known barometer of excellence in historical fiction for children is the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction established in 1984. The winning book must be published in English in the United States and must be set in the "New World" (North, South, or Central America).
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People
For a helpful list of books focused on social studies that includes many works of historical fiction, watch for the annual annotated book list "Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People," created by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in cooperation with the Children's Book Council (CBC).
Jane Addams Book Award
The Jane Addams Children's Book Award recognizes books for young people that promote the cause of "peace, social justice, global community, and the equity for all people." The committee seeks out "beautifully crafted, compelling books, telling complex stories that delight, inspire, and deepen the understanding of young people." Many of these choices are novels of historical fiction.
With the huge enthusiasm for the musical Hamilton, maybe we can reinvigorate interest in reading books about the people and events of the past—and help young people better understand how our choices help determine our own futures.