Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Writing “Authentic” Historical Dialog

My reasons for looking at dialogue in a different way were mainly because I was heartily tired of reading what I have taken to calling the Berlitz phrase-book approach to dialogue and character-thought. In the phrase-book approach all language is modern, except when specific words are inserted. Sometimes words from entirely the wrong language are used: Modern French instead of Old or Middle French for the Middle Ages, for instance. Get me after a drink or two and I’ll tell you which writers in particular get their languages wrong, but otherwise I shall mutter their names to myself, unhappily.

That is from this fascinating blog post: “Dialogue in Novels — a Medieval Experiment by Gillian Polack.” For those interested in how to balance the historical real with the contemporary reality — that is what your intended reader will make of it —this is very good stuff.


Leave a comment

Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Writing

Girl (AKA Lena Dunham) Wants to Make “Catherine, Called Birdy” Movie

Lena Dunham discussed a wide array of topics with writer and author Ariel Levy during the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on Friday night, including her aspirations to turn Karen Cushman’s “Catherine, Called Birdy” into a feature film….”It’s a really interesting examination of sort of like coming of age and what’s expected of teenage girls,” Dunham said. “I’m going to adapt it and hopefully direct it, I just need to find someone who wants to fund a PG-13 medieval movie.”

From Lena Dunham Wants To Turn ‘Catherine, Called Birdy’ Into A Movie.

1 Comment

Filed under Film, Historical Fiction, movie

In the Classroom: Close Reading

I’ve been curious about the attention now being paid to the skill of close reading, something I began doing with my 4th graders decades ago. Judiciously. By that, I mean I only do it enough for the children to see how much pleasure they can take in the experience, but not enough for it to become a chore. Frankly, some of the current suggestions I see for close reading concern me because they seem utilitarian in the extreme and leave out the joy that the experience can be.

Joy?  Yes indeed. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a summer studying children’s literature in a scholarly manner and one of my favorite aspects of it was doing some close readings of parts of the books we were exploring. I wanted to see if I could help my 4th graders have the same experience and so returned to my classroom that fall and gave it a try with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It turned out to be a fantastic experience, one I now do every fall. I’ve written about it in books and articles, talked about it in presentations, and have been thrilled that other teachers have taken the idea and run with it. Now with close reading being so on everyone’s radar I hope some do read about how I do it and perhaps use some of those methods in their own classrooms.

Here are some posts about my teaching of close reading with Charlotte’s Web:

I also do it with a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source of the Pilgrims and have written about that lesson as well in articles, books and in various posts including this one:


Filed under Charlotte's Web, Historical Fiction, In the Classroom

Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood

I’m a far-ranging reader, happily reading a picture book one minute and a book for adults the next.  Professionally, being a 4th grade teacher and reviewer, not a librarian, I tend to read only YA that really intrigues me for one reason or another and I have to shamefully admit that until now what I’d heard about Marcus Sedgwick’s books — that they were dark and creepy — did not make me want to read them. But recently, I saw something interesting about his latest, Midwinterblood, just as a copy showed up in the mail and so I took it home to read.


The book has an unconventional structure that someone told me is like Cloud Atlas, but while it does have a sort of similar time sense, I’d say it is otherwise completely different.  Beginning in 2073 on the island of Blessed, it moves back in time, with an epilogue connecting back to the book’s start. There are seven stories in total, all set on the island, heading back and back and back through time. And by way of these distinctive narratives we are startled to encounter characters we have already met in the earlier stories, characters who care, hate, most of all, two who love throughout eternity.  Separately these are ghost stories, love stories, and even something that might be termed dystopic. Playing on tropes of folklore, horror, myth, historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Sedgwick imaginatively weaves something highly original and completely compelling. While Midwinterblood is its own distinct thing, mulling it over now, I think of Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch Three Times and the stories of Margo Lanagan.

Most of all, it is gorgeous. Highly recommended.


Filed under Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, YA

More Mulling on the Nonfiction/Fiction Conundrum

In the past year there have been some interesting discussions about nonfiction books that seem like fiction (e.g. Steve Sheinken’s Bomb) and fiction books that seem like nonfiction (e.g. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair). The one this week on the child_lit list serve (about how to identify books like Nelson’s) prompted me to write the following response:

… I’ve been thinking about how children take in history for many, many years (written some books and articles about this) and the issues of authenticity and authority are complicated. I’ve seen errors in nonfiction books  that were highly lauded, that appear to be absolutely perfect, only because I was an expert on the subjects. As you note, writers of history have to shape and consider what to include and what to leave out so the act is not as pristine as may be thought. 

I’ve just read Andrea Cheng’s ETCHED IN CLAY: THE LIFE OF DAVE, ENSLAVED POTTER AND POET, a fictionalized, multi-voiced, poetic exploration of what this enigmatic artist’s life (there is so little firsthand material about him) might have been like. Kirkus gave it a star and describes it as “verse biography.” I see it as belonging in the same area as Nelson’s book, another fictionalized biography.

A few weeks ago I attended a session about nonfiction for children at the New York Public Library. One of the issues that came up was how to make these stories engaging and accessible for young readers. One author spoke of fictionalizing one aspect in her otherwise nonfiction book and writing about this in the back matter as a solution. Another panelist said she would not have done this, feeling a nonfiction book should be only nonfiction, I’m guessing. Illustration came up too — an artist in one case had to imagine a significant person in a picture book biography because she was unable to find any images of her.

These stories and others just make me think again and again that the telling of history is not something that can be firmly one thing or another. There are reasons to fictionalized true stories in ways that aren’t  those of the historical fiction novelist. The novelist is firstly telling a story that happens to be set in the past. The story is front and center. Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES is firstly a heartrending story; I don’t think we expect to learn a whole lot about the French Revolution reading it. But others are writing about historical situations that they want known most of all. That these lightly fictionalized works end up being in the same category as works like Dickens’ seems very odd to me. (I guess this goes way back to me railing against the use of historical fiction to engage kids in history — way, way, way back on this list:)

And I’ve got a dog in this fight. Like Nelson and Cheng I wanted to get a person’s story out, someone for whom firsthand information is limited (Sarah Margru Kinson, a child on the Amistad). I tried for many years to write it as nonfiction, but the editors I worked with felt the individual always seemed too distant for the child readers and so, with enormous trepidation, I crossed the border to fiction. I suppose it will now be termed historical fiction, but I’m uncomfortable with that because the story is still as true as I could make it and I want children to know that. I don’t see them engaging with the book as they would a work of fiction, but more as a true story. Possibly like readers will with Nelson and Cheng’s works.

It seems to me that these stories need to get out there to children. That the historical record is slanted toward those in power, that the lack of the significant source trail that we require and demand should not be obstacles in getting these stories out there. When it comes to those enslaved from Africa we see a limited number of stories over and over because those are the ones for which there are records and sources. But there has to be a way to get more stories out there and it may be we have to look at that funny place between fact and fiction as one place to do it.


Filed under Africa is My Home, Historical Fiction, History, Nonfiction

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?


Filed under Historical Fiction

Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fiction, Slavery, and Didacticism

I’ve been teaching a unit on the forced immigration of Africans during the time of the transatlantic slave trade for many years and can say that it is definitely the hardest topic I teach and, for many of my 4th grade students, the hardest for them to learn. The idea that living people took other living people in bondage, treated them as less-than-human, kidnapped young children from their families without a thought, were complicit in acts of murder and violence, and more is very hard for my 9 and 10 year-old students to take in. As is understandable at their age, they put themselves in the position of the children they are learning about. And so, when reading The Kidnapped Prince, Ann Cameron’s adaptation of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography or the draft of my forthcoming Africa is My Home: The Story of Sarah Margru Kinson, students will ask with such pain — did his parents go after Olaudah? Did they try to get him back? And what about Sarah — did she ever see her parents again? Or, most heartwrenchingly — would my parents come after me?

Reading a huge variety of primary and secondary sources on the topic as well as a variety of historical fiction over the many years I worked on Sarah’s story made me incredibly aware of the challenges we adults have as we figure out how to communicate to young children such difficult historical truths. Especially when we choose to tell them as historical fiction as Kimberly Brubaker Bradley did for Jefferson’s Sons, the story of  Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally HemingsHaving firsthand experience with research of this period I can say that I have tremendous admiration and respect for Bradley’s research and her efforts to tell this story for children. She does an excellent job giving young readers a sense of life in Monticello at the time. Considering her young audience, she is judicious in communicating horrors —the whippings and the selling.  By doing so she creates scenes that pack incredible emotional punches. The ending, in particular, is absolutely harrowing.

But. As a teacher, someone who spends her days giving lessons, the book seemed one big lesson to me. Beverly, Maddy, and Peter felt familiar to me — not as children of their time, but as children of my time, asking the questions my students would be asking, speaking as they would, responding as they would (in a 2011 vernacular and sensibility rather than ones more in keeping with the actual historical period). And then there were the teachers in the book acting as my colleagues and I would, earnestly and honestly attempting to answer the children’s questions as clearly and thoroughly as possible.  Mostly this was Sally,but there were others  too — say Beverly when he is older, Miss Ellen, Uncle John, and Jefferson himself (in an oddly removed way).  Over and over it felt like the child characters were standing in for the 2011 readers, asking their questions as they would rather than as someone in 1805 would (and would probably not because these seem to me to be 2011 questions not 1805 questions anyway). And the answers felt 2011 too, caring adults like ourselves patiently explaining a situation to 2011 readers more than the actual 1806 children. At least that is how it felt to me. Here are a few examples:

“She [Miss Martha] loved to come to Monticello and act like the boss of everything.”  (5)  Very 2011 vernacular.

“This was news to Beverly.  ‘Are you a slave, Mama?'” (22)  While I can certainly imagine my 2011 students asking this question I have a hard time imagining Beverly being so surprised in 1805.

“Mama,” Harriet said, “why are we slaves?” (33) Sally responds with just the sort of lesson I might do or a parent might today.  (This is just one example of what happens often in the novel. Sally is usually the one responding with the lesson, but others do on occasion too.)

“Enslaved people,” Mama said. “That’s what she [Miss Martha, Jefferson’s daughter] meant. Don’t worry about it.” (53)  This really stuck out for me for the 2011 language in addition to being an explanation for the 2011 intended audience rather than her 1805 son.

“But I’m the same people she is,” Beverly said.  “I’m her brother.”  (53) Again, this is more a 2011 child speaking as it seems very unlikely to me that he’d voice this idea of being Miss Martha’s brother in such a way in 1806.

“If you and Master Jefferson got married,” he asked Mama, would you make Miss Martha stay away?  (68)  What, I wonder would make Beverly possibly imagine that Jefferson, president of the United States, would marry his mother?  Another question that I’d expect of my 2011 students more than of an 8 year-old boy living in 1806 Monticello.

“If she acts prissy,” said Beverly, “I’ll punch her.”  (74) That last bit — totally for the 2011 child audience. Would a child in 1806 speak that way?  I can’t imagine it.

“…France never allowed slavery.  In France, people with dark skin aren’t automatically seen as inferior to people with light skin.” (105)  Hmmm… I am very dubious that there weren’t racist people in Paris when Jefferson and Hemings were there. And France was quite active in the slave trade elsewhere into Napoleon’s time.  And Sally’s language — she sounds like a teacher yet again. Was she schooled by Jefferson to speak this way?

“It’s Greek,” Miss Ellen said.  “Aristotle. Know who he is?”  (136) in Maddy’s section we get Miss Ellen (one of Jefferson’s grand-daughter’s) as another teacher in addition to Sally.

“…but all I’m allowed to do is get married and have a dozen babies.  Like I’d want babies, or a husband. It’s stupid.” She [Miss Ellen] glared at Maddy.”  (138)  Yet again this is language and a view point for 2011 children not 1812 children.

“You want to know if great people can own slaves?” Uncle John asked. “Can a person still be great and still participate in evil?” He tapped on Maddy’s shoulder. “That’s what you are asking?” (255) Another lesson for the 2011 young readers, this time from the father-figure, Uncle John.


Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Newbery, Writing

Why Historical Fiction Now?

Writing historical fiction is the easiest way to escape the Now; to avoid dealing with the internet, you only have to step back a decade or two. If you’d prefer to write about characters entirely innocent of TV, you’d need to retreat as far as the 1940s; then you get the second world war and the Holocaust, subjects that, despite their historical specificity, are understood by everyone to be unimpeachably Timeless.

Four out of five of this year’s Newbery honorees are historical fiction.  I’m curious — is it indeed easier to go back in time as Laura Miller suggests in today’s Guardian rather than grapple with contemporary circumstances like the Internet?  While she’s writing about adult literary fiction, it seems to me the problem is true for writers of children’s and YA literature as well.


Filed under Historical Fiction

On the Return of DEAR AMERICA

I’m very intrigued by Scholastic’s relaunch of the Dear America series this fall.  I had mixed feelings about the original books — some were terrific, some were not, and all were packaged in a way that made kids think they were real diaries.  So, first of all, let me say — Bravo, Scholastic, for now putting the author names on the covers.  That will definitely help young readers better understand that the diary writers are fictional characters and did not really exist.

Because, yes, in my experience in the classroom kids do sometimes think the books are real.  Here’s a 2004 child_lit post of mine:

A few minutes ago a boy in my class exploded.

He’s calmer now and went back to his work, but not before saying, “I’m angry with the guy who said, ‘Let’s fool kids by pretending they are real.’ ”

And what was he so angry about? Finding out that the Dear America books are not real. He is working with two other boys on a historical fiction project, but somehow had not registered that fiction in the case of his book meant not real. He evidently has read many WWII Dear America books and was completely beside himself to discover they were complete fiction. At first he was furious with me and ready to run to the library to show me other books that were real. I finally calmed him down enough to show him the tiny disclaimer at the back of the book at which point he made the above comment. He has gone back to his desk feeling completely and utterly betrayed.

My impression is that Scholastic is working hard to avoid this today. Not only by putting the author names on the covers, but by making the covers look less “real” by using photographs instead of drawings.  (That is, a child today will realize that the cover photograph is not actually from, say, 1620 whereas the paintings on the older books could be and were in fact misconstrued to be real-life portraits.)

For example, here’s the new cover for Kathryn Lasky’s A Journey to the New World. Now I can’t say I’m wild about the photo as the girl looks way more 2010 than 1620, but I as I wrote above, it is probably to reinforce the fact that she is a fictional character.  I’ve been teaching a unit on the Pilgrims for a couple of decades (and have written about it in books and articles) and can say with reasonable authority that Lasky did her research.  In fact I read parts of the book aloud. It is so much fun for the kids to recognize exactly where she got her info (as it is from the same primary sources they use — Mourt’s Relation and Bradford’s memoir).  It is, to my mind, a superb example of well-researched and well-written historical fiction.

PS Years ago I got a bit tired of the hyperbole surrounding Harry Potter (and, mind you, I love Harry Potter) and wrote a Dear America parody about a poor kid who hated HP.


Filed under Historical Fiction

Coming Soon: Deborah Wiles’ Countdown

Although it evidently has been in the works for years and years (The Sixties Project), I knew nothing about this book until a few weeks ago when I saw that one of my goodread friends was reading it. Having enjoyed Wiles’ earlier books, I contacted the publisher for an ARC. They told me it wasn’t ready yet and they’d send me a manuscript; I said I’d wait, but they sent it anyway.   And I am mighty glad they did.

How to describe it? On the one hand it is a very straightforward work of historical fiction. On the other hand it is also filled with primary sources, collages of them, and nonfiction vignettes. Kinda scrapbookish. Wiles is calling it a “documentary novel.” Whatever it is, I loved it.

It definitely is the story of Franny and her family and friends over the brief, but frightening time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Based on her own childhood memories, Wiles represents the time and place vividly. And her characters are nuanced and complex. Not a one-dimensional one in the lot. There is the beloved older sister who is off to college and activism. The earnest younger brother who lugs around a book on atoms and wants to be an astronaut. The very-60s mother who plays bridge and is rarely without a cigarette. The embarrassing great-uncle who suffers from post-traumatic-stress (not that it is so identified as this is 1962, of course). The  often absent military dad. Most of all there is our protagonist Franny — an endearing and complicated eleven-year-old. As often happens at this age, Franny’s own small world is changing as harshly as is the big world. She’s facing-off her former best friend even as Kennedy and Khrushchev are doing so the world stage. Both relationships are teetering on the brink.  You know how the latter ends; as for Franny’s — well, just read the book when it comes out in May.

Now would I have been as wild about it without the documentary stuff? Honestly? I’d definitely still have enjoyed the story, but this additional material, the bricolage, the scrapbook stuff makes it a richer reading experience. There are posters about duck and cover. Material on the making bomb shelters.  Advertisements.  Song lyrics. Quotes. Photos. (You can get a taste of it here.)  And scattered here and there are lively small essays about significant figures, say Truman and Kennedy.  I can’t wait to see how it all looks in the final book.

Keep your eyes peeled for this one come May!


Filed under Historical Fiction