Daily Archives: October 22, 2006


(Since I’ve just written about historical fiction in my last post I figured I’d paste in this post of mine from child_lit, one of my rare reviews.)

Originally posted on child_lit Sat Jul 22 09:09:51 EDT 2006

Because it seems likely to be lost otherwise, I want to draw your attention to a beautifully written work of historical fiction for upper elementary and middle school, Katherine Sturtevant’s A TRUE AND FAITHFUL NARRATIVE. Taking place in Restoration London, the book is about booklover and writer Meg, daughter of a bookseller, for whom publication is sorely limited due to gender. Meg is of her time; feisty as she is, I never felt l I was reading about a 21st century girl in a 17th century world.

Sturvetant has done her research and does a lovely job giving her readers the flavor of the time, but there are two aspects to the novel that make it truly shine for me. First of all, a good chunk of the book is of Meg listening to Edward, a young man who was captured by Barbary pirates, describe his time enslaved in North Africa. It is fascinating stuff, but by having Meg react as would a girl of her time to his description of Muslim beliefs and actions and by having the young man help her to understand them better, Sturtevant has also helped today’s young readers understand them better as well.

And secondly, there is what Meg does when she writes Edward’s story for publication — adjusting points for reasons she explains to him, deciding what can be eliminated, what needs to be changed slightly, and so forth with the final objective of creating something that will attract readers. According to Sturtevant (see “Fact, Fiction, and the Stamp Act” on her website: http://www.thesignofthestar.com), the problems of fact and fiction in writing were problems in the 17th century as much as they are today. And so Meg ponders, “…how I might make from such material a narrative that would both honor the teller and satisfy the needs of the told; how I might related enough of truth that our readers would scent it, and draw near, as a doe to water, but not so much that it would frighten them away with the sound of its splashing.” (p. 238 )

Hope that some of you track down this gem.



Filed under Historical Fiction, Reading

Thoughts on Historical Fiction

My relationship with historical fiction is a complicated one. I’ve gotten into intense debates on both child_lit and ccbcnet about its usefulness as a way for children to learn history, written about it in books and articles, and given speeches on it, one of which is available to read here.

Some years ago, deciding to put my money where my mouth is, I began focusing on historical fiction in my teaching by first having the kids read and critique a variety works before writing their own. What I’ve noticed that no matter how many times we talk about what is fiction and what is not, they still get very confused. And I know how easy it is even for us adults to take historical fiction (in books and film) as the truth.

My ongoing interest led me to Jane Sullivan’s article in The Age, “Making a fiction of history…” about the debate that has evidently insued by adult novelist Kate Grenville, “claming her Booker-shortlisted The Secret River is a new form of history writing.” As I read the article I wavered back and forth. On the one hand, I agree with Dr Inga Clendinnen, whose article, “The History Question — Who Owns the Past? ” is cited and who objects strongly and vociferously with Grenville’s fictionalizing of history. Admiring Clendinnen from an earlier work of hers, Reading the Holocaust, I have a lot of respect of her points, especially how we can not truly empathize with people back in time whose circumstances and even ways of thinking are completely and utterly different from ours.

On the other hand, I also think that writing history is as much an act of the imagination as is writing fiction. And while I still disagree strongly that the only way to really get kids interested in the past is through fiction (see my books if you want to know more on other ways to do so) and also think there is an awful lot of lousy historical fiction written for kids, there is also some pretty remarkable stuff too.

For example, I recently read M. T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING TRAITOR TO THE NATION. This is indeed an astonishing book. How Anderson managed to capture the tone and style of an 18th century American writer, developed the characters, the plot, the setting is nothing short of remarkable. While I wonder about audience (I see it as high school, but some seem to think younger children would enjoy it), I have no wonders about the book as an exemplary work of historical fiction. Of course, even as I am breathless in admiration, I still do hope that it isn’t used to teach history. Amazing as it is, it is still fiction.

Another recent work of historical fiction for children I much admire is Katherine Sturtevant’s A TRUE AND FAITHFUL NARRATIVE, but I’m going to write about it in a separate post.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Reading, Teaching

Fear and Fiction Conference

Yesterday I attended the fascinating and thought-provoking conference, “Fear and Fiction: The Power Of Children’s Books and The Inner Life of The Child” which was co-sponsored by the Yale Child Study Center and London’s Anna Freud Centre and held at New York City’s Bank Street College of Education.

The day began with a superb keynote speech by Steven Marans of the Yale University Child Study Center. Setting the tone of the day, Marans began with a personal story illustrating not only the fallibility of memory, but of adults to know what children truly fear. Marans remembered being 4 1/2 years old and watching the rescue of a raccoon outside his window. Telling his parents years later they looked at each other and then asked, “Do you want to know what really happened?” The real story was horrible, culminating in the shooting not rescuing of the raccoon. His parents had no idea that he had turned the true story into a fictional narrative, “How could we have known?” they asked wondering and wishing that they had so they could have helped him. Marans went on to point out that it always is hard for adults to know what are behind children’s fears. Once, a fear (say of kidnappers coming into the house) gets into a child’s mind, it is no easy matter to get it out (convince them that there is no way kidnappers will get in). And the task is even harder for adults when even the child does not identify the fears, as in Marans’ raccoon story.

Marans spoke of the “mystery of meaning.” That it is difficult for us adults to know since it is so hard for us to listen and remember. That is, we (understandably) tend to relegate our own memories of fears as children (who wants to remember them, after all?) and so it is hard to help children with theirs.

Marans said so much more, often through powerful stories of children he had observed. He spoke of adults giving children words for what they are fearing, of practicing response to the fears, of the capacity for fantasy and imaginary narratives, of the child’s opportunity to control and master scenarios, of the flexibility of fantasy life, and how “narrative creates a resolution…” unlike those in nightmares. He noted that books are children’s tools for mastery of fears even as they also entertain. He ended by talking about the remarkable and frightening movie and book, “Night of the Hunter” and quoted the book of which I only have the part, “Lord save little children….”

Next was a picture book panel featuring Martin Waddell, Robie H. Harris, and Mo Willems. Waddell focused most evocatively on his book, OWL BABIES, which others referred back to through the day. (“I want my mummy!”) Harris talked of putting chaos into order as parents try to do too. How she tries to make children’s fears bearable and discussed her book DON’T FORGET TO COME BACK! in this regard. Of particular interest were those points in the book that made her editor nervous and how they came to resolution about them. (e.g. showing the child in the belly of the moose saying “I told you so” to balance the scary image). Willems was hilarious (much joshing about talking to an audience of Freudians) and serious as he talked about LEONARDO THE TERRIBLE MONSTER, a story of failure more than of fear, he explained. He ended by telling us he always wants to be on the kids’ side and that his book about saying please was about “how to get the cookie.” Getting the cookie is what is important.

The two responding analysts were Jenny Stoker and Alicia Lieberman. Stoker was pretty dense for us non-Freudians, but Lieberman grabbed us from the start with her appreciations of the books and by connecting them to her own work with babies in foster homes. She spoke of the first universal being the fear of the loss of the mother figure (as in OWL BABIES) and of annihilation. While it is comforting to know that tantrums (like the one in DON’T FORGET TO COME BACK!) only go so far it also shows how “puny” the child’s power really is. She also highlighted the existential dilemma of Leonardo filling one whole page of his book. (She mixed the words “terrible” and “friendship” at one point, one of many Freudian slips of the day:) She ended with a personal story involving a nightmare, Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and the line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

The afternoon keynote was by Gregory Maguire. Continuing the tone set from the start, Maguire’s talk too was very personal. He quoted Roger Scruton, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” However, much of his talk was built around the James Dickey’ poem “Falling” and personal stories tied to it, to fear, to fiction, to children, and the connections between them. It is impossible to do justice to this talk. I was so pulled in (as Maguire is a master orator as any one who has seen him will agree with) that I stopped taking notes and just listened. Just take my word that it was magnificent.

A middle-grade panel followed featuring Neil Gaiman (who was not there so his talk was read by someone else), Lois Lowry, and Pam Munoz Ryan. Gaiman’s words were powerful, but I didn’t take notes so can’t say much more. Pam spoke of moving personal stories, celebrating the importance of teachers and librarians in her and children’s lives. Lois Lowry’s talk, featuring her new book GOSSAMER, was especially moving. Continuing the trend of the day, she too gave us the personal stories that are behind this beautiful work. “Books, “ she said, “become the sort of dream worlds where the terrors dissipate and subside.” The two responding analysts were Judy Yanof and Nick Midgely.

Last was a YA panel featuring David Almond (unfortunately not able to be there so his talk was read by someone else), Chris Crutcher, and Jacqueline Woodson. Almond’s talk was personal and lovely and both Chris and Jackie spoke personally, passionately, and beautifully. Their stories were moving and extraordinarily powerful. Crutcher told an eagaging (and ultimately hopeful) story about one child he had worked with, spoke of “testing kids into comas” and that no child could be left behind because “they aren’t going anywhere” in today’s schools. Woodson talked of her daughter, of her books, and of writing “against her future fears.” As always she was powerful and brilliant. The responding analysts were Karen Gilmore and Arietta Slade.

The day was long, dense, intense, moving, thought provoking, and worthwhile. Another conference is already being planned, ”Fiction, Feelings, and Imagination: The Power of Children’s Books and The Inner Life Of The Child” to be held in London in October 2007.


Filed under Reading