Historical Revision

Gail Gauthier and Tanita Davis have fantastic posts about historical fiction and how it’s gotten a bad wrap in the last several years. In short, the label suggests a focus on “educational” aspects of reading, not the story. Gauthier tests this theory:

“So I decide I should take a look at a few middle grade historical novels. I tried maybe three before giving up. I couldn’t finish any of them. The historical fact aspects of the book were in my face and annoying. My professional reading from that period reinforced my impression–the most important factor in historical fiction for kids was historical accuracy.”

Problems like this can kill a story before a reader even gets invested. And it’s not necessarily that authors are sitting at their computers, writing with the idea that historical fiction must teach children all about history. It’s difficult to figure out what details to include to ground the characters in the appropriate setting but not overwhelm the reader with historical info. Davis says:

“As an author, I can say that one of the hardest things about writing historical fiction is the tightrope walk the author has to do — between historical accuracy and humanity. It’s important not to infodump dates and names, but it’s also crucial not to veer the characters – and the details of their daily lives – into obvious anachronisms by using more modern tools, language, and attitudes about social tolerance which make the historical accuracy a lie. “

Like Gauthier and Davis, I like historical fiction. Heck, I used to love the American Girl books, which probably veered more into infodump than not. But a story that’s set in another time period shouldn’t necessarily get shuffled off into the land of educational reading. Gauthier lists some good examples of novels set in the past but firmly grounded in story and character, including one of my favorites, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson. I’d also add Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Did I learn historical facts from these books? Sure. But when I remember these books, I remember the stories, the characters, the excitement and drama–just like any other novel.

I hope historical fiction has a resurgence in one way or another. I think we’re probably missing out on some fantastic historical novels just because they’re considering unpopular.

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