Daily Archives: November 18, 2011

Historical Fiction Featuring Real People

The Heavy Medal discussion here and here involving Jefferson’s Sons has me wondering if one of the complicating factors is that all the book’s main characters were real people, a number of them highly familiar to us adult readers. (Given the lack of history instruction these days in elementary schools I can’t say they would be particularly familiar to child readers, I’m afraid.)  I’m always jittery when reading historical fiction or viewing films about real people. I suspect it comes from my father who was very on guard with a German academic who made his life work my family — writing books and articles about them.  These were academic works, but even then the academic had opinions about my grandparents and great-grand parents, some of which did not sit so well with my father.  One of the reasons I had a great deal of trouble with Sharon Dogar’s Annexed was that she was going into the mind of a real person and it felt to me intrusive to make-up feelings for someone who couldn’t. (See my HuffPo post, “Fiction about Real People” for more of my thoughts on this.)

This has been a longtime challenging situation for me personally as I grappled for years with how best to tell the story of Sarah Margru Kinson, one of the children on the Amistad.  I tried very, very, very hard to make it nonfiction, but there just wasn’t enough for me to work with so finally, with baby steps, I crossed the line into fiction, going so far as to write the book in first person.  We’ll see what you all think when the book comes out in a couple of years (the illustrator has just gotten to work on it and I have to say what I’ve seen so far is very wonderful).

Looking back through the Scott O’Dell winners I see mostly works set in real historical periods with imaginary main characters. A book I admire tremendously, M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing, has been mentioned in the Heavy Medal discussion, but the characters in that book are also all fictional. I’ve been trying to come up with a successful work of historical fiction for children that has real people as main characters dealing with something as difficult as the issues in Jefferson’s Sons.  The only one that comes to mind just now, is Julius Lester’s extraordinary Day of Tears.

And so, I ask:

1. Can you think of some other successful works of historical fiction for children with real historical figures as the main characters  addressing a difficult historical and moral situation like the one  in Jefferson’s Sons?

2. What are your thoughts about Jefferson’s Sons being based on real people?

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