It’s not often that there’s a great, free, literary event in Dallas. I still think longingly of my days in Raleigh, when I was just 10 minutes away from one of the best indie bookstores in the US. I went to author events all the time–Sue Monk Kidd, Linda Sue Park (right after she won the Newbery for A Single Shard), Adriana Trigianni, Susan Vreeland and probably a few I’m forgetting. Here in Dallas, the best authors come to town through the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts and Letters Live Series. I have heard some great authors through that, including David Sedaris, but tickets run about $30 each, which can really add up. And when you’re used to free. . . Well, perhaps I am spoiled. I do know that I’m on a budget.
At any rate, when I realized that the DMA was putting on a new festival, BookSmart that focused on children’s literature and was free, I was intrigued. When I saw the line-up, I was really intrigued and rather impressed. Rick Riordan. Norton Juster. Jerry Pinkney. David Wiesner. Laurie Halse Anderson.
Because of things I had to get done on Saturday, I decided to focus on attending Anderson’s talk. I had heard Riordan speak at the Texas Book Festival, right after The Lightning Thief was published and before he was a kidlit rock star. And I knew that things would be a bit crowded, and I hate huge crowds. Though when there are huge crowds because of a Book, well, that does make me happy.
I read Anderson’s Chains back in 2008. I didn’t love it, but I do think this was tempered in part because I adored The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. The two books are both telling that same complicated story of slavery during the Revolution in the North, and I think M. T. Anderson did a better job with that story. But I was still really curious to hear Laurie Anderson’s thoughts on writing historical fiction for teens.
While I was standing in line, I was really pleased and surprised to see one of my educator friends in line too. We had no idea that we both were huge YA literature fans. And then I was really pleased to see two of my junior historians, who I ended up sitting with. Isabel and I had talked about Fever 1793 (which I haven’t read) before, and she’s a big fan. It was kinda nice to sit next to a young person who was just really, really excited to hear one of her favorite authors. I didn’t get that opportunity much as a kid, since most of my favorites died long before I was born (ahhh, the trials of being a fan of kidlit history. . .)
Anderson is an absolutely charming speaker–funny and witty and passionate. You don’t always get that. You can tell that she loves teens and she gets them. Like many fans of history, her interest began when she was a child–lots of family reunions and lots of family stories. She grew up knowing who her people were and how they fit in the bigger story. And she mentioned reading Little House. . .
Some paraphrased quotes from her talk (I could only scribble so fast!):
“I love our history and we do such a bad job teaching it. Tell a good story and they’ll remember. Throw in some action. Have you ever noticed how bloodthirsty 6th graders are?” Anderson was specifically talking about Fever 1793. Isabel giggled and whispered “That’s when I read that book!”
On Chains and Forge: “Slavery is American history. It’s our original sin. We must look at history honestly.” She then said that if she was ever crowned a priness, she would want a big old elephant on her crown. And her gravestone to read: “Queen of the Elephant in the Room” I like this about her. A Lot. And she takes her research seriously. My favorite story: she dressed as the soldiers at Valley Forge dressed and then took a walk in the snow. A long walk. Her husband thought she was crazy and kept begging her to stop. But she then understood how blood footprints in the snow were possible.
I have mixed emotions on the last bit though. She doesn’t call her books historical fiction, but rather historical thrillers. Because as she put it: “Children have been scarred by Johnny Tremain and my brother Sam needs to die.” It made me laugh, and I do agree that those books aren’t the best to inspire a long-lasting love of history. My feelings about historical fiction are complicated–there’s so much more bad than good. But I don’t think calling the books “thrillers” and putting lots of action and blood is quite the answer either. On the other hand, if it gets kids interested and semi-knowledgable about our complicated past, well, I can’t complain too loudly.
So, here’s the thing: after hearing her speak, I like Laurie Halse Anderson a lot more and am willing to give her other books a try. She’s fighting the good fight, so to speak. And really, we need all the help we can get in building a historical literate public.
For those of you who have read her books, what do you think? Is historical fiction so bad? Are “historical thrillers” a better path for teens? Do we need a new genre of historical fiction?
PS After posting this, I kept thinking about what really bothered me about the phrase “historical thriller.” As I was trying to sleep, it came to me: First and foremost, I am a historian. I believe there is enough action and adventure in history for anyone. Embellishment just isn’t necessary.
It all reminds me a bit of an interview with Mel Gibson, right after The Patriot came out. In it, the interviewer said “Some people have taken you to task for historical accuracies in the film.” Mel: “Well, if we had been completely historically accurate, it would have been the most boring movie in history.”
My reaction to that: “You’re talking about the f*&^%! American Revolution!! That’s not boring at all!” And that’s exactly when I lost all respect for Mel Gibson.