Thursday, January 03, 2008

Do Kids' Historical Novels Get A Pass?

I recently finished a historical novel from the beginning of this century written by an author whose work I was familiar with. The book was filled with one World War II cliche after another, to say nothing of a few stereotypical characters who appear in other kinds of stories. The writing was flat. It was such a chore to read it that I started skimming. Yet as I plodded along I thought I might give my copy to BDT, who's teaching sixth grade this year, for his classroom library because the book was, after all, historical fiction.

Jeezum, Gail, I said to myself. What are you thinking? That it's acceptable to encourage the young to read poorly written books simply because they include historical content? Then I began to wonder if that is exactly what is happening in the world of children's literature. I mean, over the last decade or so I've stumbled upon some less than stellar kidlit historical novels, some of them very highly regarded by others.

Take the book in question, for instance. Its child characters have no real storyline of their own. They are placed in a setting in which things happen to other, adult, characters. Three of the four dramatic moments in the book occur offstage. The first-person narrator tells us about them. In two cases, he doesn't even take part in the events. He doesn't even witness them. Another character tells him the important information (offstage) and then he tells us. Instead of being shown action we're told second-hand stories. Finally there really isn't a climax to the kids' story because they don't have a story. They're just sort of there while stuff happens to other people.

This is an award-winning book I'm talking about, and it appears to have received significant attention at the time it was published. A lot of people liked it a whole lot more than I did.

Or did they? Is it possible that the literary gatekeepers in kidlit believe that making sure children get a history lesson is far more important than the way that the history lesson is presented? And thus they are willing to turn a blind eye to stereotypical characters and situations, weak plots, flat prose, and any number of other writing flaws?

I am aware that some adult readers are so interested in the content of a book that they just don't care about how it is written. I understand and respect that. I sometimes even feel shallow for requiring more of a book than its subject matter. But child readers are never going to get a chance to decide that they prefer one kind of fiction over the other if they aren't exposed to books that include both good content and good writing.

Promoting unbalanced historical novels, books that are pretty much all history and no novel, isn't the way to do it.


Kate said...

I am delighted to see this in cyber-print! I feel as though at least eighty percent of the new historical fiction for kids and young adults I've read this year was written by authors who really wanted to write history, but were persuaded by their agents that fiction would be easier to sell.
But maybe it's the fault of the school/library establishment, for eagerly buying titles that support curricular topics, without sufficient examination of their intrinsic worth.
So, my New Year's resolution -- no historical fiction purchases based solely on time period!

Gail Gauthier said...

Thank you. Because I've never seen this addressed anywhere, I tend to wonder if the emperor really isn't wearing any clothes or if I'm just undressing him with my mind.

MotherReader said...

Ugh, now I want to know what book it was. I'm curious that way.

I do know what you mean about historical fiction. I've never been a huge fan of the genre for reasons you mention. Sometimes it feels so flat.

Gail Gauthier said...

I wonder if it is a genre that isn't wildly popular. That would help to explain why kids' historical fiction doesn't get a very critical reading. Perhaps many of the adults making decisions about it don't read much historical fiction, themselves, and think that as far as kids are concerned it is just supposed to be improving. That's just speculation on my part.

I can't claim to read a great deal of it now, but I did like it a lot as a teenager. At that time, I may have been reading adult books, and probably some historical romance.