Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some Talk About Historical Fiction And Balance

I will be behind in my blog reading for the rest of my life. But that's a good thing. I can bring readers' attention to things they might have missed, or, maybe, refresh a discussion.

For instance, earlier this month (not that long ago, by my standards) Tanita Davis made a case for historical fiction over at Finding Wonderland. Evidently historical fiction isn't wildly popular with a lot of young readers. Tanita says, "In part, the sticky label of "historical fiction" is a marketing key for parents and librarians to identify the book: Here is something semi-educational to slap into the unsuspecting hands of innocent youth. Go to it!"

This argument both works and doesn't. It doesn't work because historical fiction isn't written just for the young. There are adult works of historical fiction. Any western novel is a sub-category of historical fiction. Lonesome Dove, for instance. Those Napoleonic seafaring books by Patrick O'Brian are historical fiction. Georgette Heyer's historical romances are historical fiction. None of these books were written for children or even young adults.

Tanita's argument does work, though, because adult readers don't read historical fiction to learn anything. They read it because they enjoy the setting. Time is a setting, just as place is. But, as Tanita pointed out, too often historical fiction for the young is expected to be educational. Only child readers are expected to learn something from reading it.

Forgive me if I've told this story before (and I think I have): As a teenager, I was a big reader of historical fiction. A lot of it was adult historical romance, and a lot of it was related to adventure stories of some sort. None of it was assigned reading. I found it on my own. I don't recall ever reading a novel as part of a social studies class.

Time passes. It's the late 1990's, and I'm a children's writer considering writing a historical novel because, hey, I liked them back in the day. 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.

As I said before, though, time is part of setting. Setting is only one of the elements of fiction. A good novel has to balance all its elements. So while it's important that historical information be accurate, the historical setting shouldn't become so weighty and important that it overwhelms character, point of view, plot, and theme. When it does, you get a book that needs to be assigned reading because who's going to want to read it otherwise?

Some well-balanced historical fiction: A Drowned Maiden's Hair, How the Hangman Lost His Heart, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation, and What I Saw and How I Lied.


tanita✿davis said...

I loved historical fiction, too, so it peeved me to note when I wrote some that I had to be careful - or so my editor told me - because kids "wouldn't read it" without some hooks in the present day. Those same hooks created a critical response from adult readers who claimed that for them, the teens in the present "ruined" the book.

Meh. Can't always win. I don't read historical fiction to learn anything, true. I read it if the setting is spot-on and I feel dragged out of my time period into Somewhere Else. And if it's a good dragging, I'll trust the author to drag me off again.

Gail Gauthier said...

Oh, very interesting about the editor wanting the present day hook. 1. I wonder if any of us adults know what kids will read.
2. Perhaps the editor him/herself wasn't a fan of historical fiction and wouldn't read it without a present day hook.