The Perils of Historical Fiction

It’s not that I don’t like historical fiction for kids.  It’s just that there’s so much bad historical fiction out there–books that probably aren’t going to convert any kids to the history-nerd lifestyle.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual.  Due to the bizarre combination of a miserable cold, the holidays, lots of accumulated comp time, and a week of furlough, I haven’t worked a full 8-hour day since December 18.  Please don’t hate me.  But this whole not going into the office thing leaves a lot of spare time for other things.  Like books.  So I turned to my enourmous To-Read list on Goodreads and started requesting books from the library.

In the midst of the stack, I read two very different historical fiction books for children: The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages and The Hope Chest by Karen Schwabach.  The Green Glass Sea is the story of two girls growing up during World War II.  At Los Alamos, as their parents race to create the atomic bomb.  The Hope Chest is the story of two girls who witness the end of the fight for women’s suffrage in Tennessee. 

The Green Glass SeaGGS is almost a perfect book.  The characters ring true and natural.  It tells a complex story, but does it through Dewey and Suze’s eyes—not the all-knowing narrator who already knows exactly how this whole gadget thing works out.  I learned all kinds of little details (how does a kid apply to college when his high school doesn’t exist) and bigger stories too (women in science).  And at the end of the book, I wanted to know more about Dewey and Suze, but also the history of Los Alamos.  Klages provides a few, selected sources at the end, which is exactly enough to keep the interest going.

Almost all of my pet peeves in historical fiction happened in HC.  I began it with such high hopes–an older sister has taken the money given to her for a hope chest and bought a car instead.  And then she heads nThe Hope Chestorth to work for women’s suffrage.  Younger sister discovers that her parents have been hiding all these letters from big sis so she runs away.  And that’s where it all went down hill.  Violet gets to New York and gets lost.  She becomes friends with a younger African American girl (because that happened on a regular basis back then).  They hop a train to DC, meet an anarchist who happens to be her sister’s boyfriend, and then head to Tennessee.  Violet becomes a spy for the antis (what, they don’t notice an 11 year old hanging out?)  She just happens to be involved in the final crucial voting.  Every single person related to the end of the suffrage movement parades across the pages.  Oh, and there’s segregation issues and anarchist stuff and well, just about every historical issue possible in 1919/1920.  Seriously?  It’s just all way too convenient.  And doesn’t feel real at all.

My biggest issue with this book, and others like it, is that it felt like a history lesson.  Schwabach was doing everything she could to make sure it was a PC book that covered all the major issues.  Her author’s note and references at the back is huge–she recommends a couple of books for every single historical theme, even if they were just minor in the course of the story.  Schwabach was trying way too hard to teach history–rather than hinting at a few things, hoping to spark interest that kids will later follow.  It’s a complex time and a complex story, but there was no grace in this book.

Perhaps I’m being extra hard on this book for two reasons:  I read it just after reading Green Glass Sea and this is my favorite time period.  To my knowledge, there aren’t any factual errors, but I did have to suspend my disbelief on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, it seems like there are a lot more books out there that are like The Hope Chest, with its heavy-handed history, than the beautiful, graceful Green Glass Sea. 

Which all leads me back to why I think kidlit history is so important in inspiring future history nerds.  Often, you don’t even realize that you’re learning about history.  It’s just a good story.  There are no author notes at the back, explaining the details or historical events that might have flown right over your head. The author isn’t trying too hard to get all the details in there–because they’re writing about their own experiences.   And somehow, the history just seeps in.  It rings true and feels right, and you’re not wasting time questioning the historical details.  And though there aren’t a list of resources for “further reading,” kids can discover more if they want to.

Or, they might turn into someone like me–someone who doesn’t discover their love of history until they reach college.  And in looking back realizes that it’s been there all along, in the books I read over and over again.

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7 thoughts on “The Perils of Historical Fiction

  1. I have never been able to articulate why some historical kidlit really annoys me and you have managed to put your finger right on the old ever-too-convenient button! Well done…

  2. There was this episode of Gossip Girl (I don’t like the books, but love the TV show) that flashed back to depict the life of a mom, back in the 1980s. Every possible ’80s fad was included (Rubik’s cube there, leg warmers over here), and I remember my husband commenting, “It’s like having the ’80s shot at you with a cannon.” Sometimes, well-intentioned historical fiction shoots the history with a cannon, and readers, I think especially young readers, can feel knocked over.

    Your comment, “Often, you don’t even realize that you’re learning about history. It’s just a good story,” reflects my experience with the Betsy-Tacy books; I’m ambivalent about all the biographical information in the more recent editions. Actually, I’m not ambivalent: I don’t like it. But I’m glad the books are in print, so I don’t complain.

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