A new kind of historical fiction?

It’s not often that there’s a great, free, literary event in Dallas.  I still think longingly of my days in Raleigh, when I was just 10 minutes away from one of the best indie bookstores in the US.  I went to author events all the time–Sue Monk Kidd, Linda Sue Park (right after she won the Newbery for A Single Shard), Adriana Trigianni, Susan Vreeland and probably a few I’m forgetting.  Here in Dallas, the best authors come to town through the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts and Letters Live Series.  I have heard some great authors through that, including David Sedaris, but tickets run about $30 each, which can really add up.  And when you’re used to free.  .  . Well, perhaps I am spoiled.  I do know that I’m on a budget.

At any rate, when I realized that the DMA was putting on a new festival, BookSmart that focused on children’s literature and was free, I was intrigued.  When I saw the line-up, I was really intrigued and rather impressed.  Rick Riordan.  Norton Juster.  Jerry Pinkney.  David Wiesner.  Laurie Halse Anderson.

Because of things I had to get done on Saturday, I decided to focus on attending Anderson’s talk.  I had heard Riordan speak at the Texas Book Festival, right after The Lightning Thief was published and before he was a kidlit rock star.  And I knew that things would be a bit crowded, and I hate huge crowds.  Though when there are huge crowds because of a Book, well, that does make me happy.

I read Anderson’s Chains  back in 2008.  I didn’t love it, but I do think this was tempered in part because I adored The Astonishing Life of Octavian NothingThe two books are both telling that same complicated story of slavery during the Revolution in the North, and I think M. T. Anderson did a better job with that story.  But I was still really curious to hear Laurie Anderson’s thoughts on writing historical fiction for teens.

While I was standing in line, I was really pleased and surprised to see one of my educator friends in line too.  We had no idea that we both were huge YA literature fans.  And then I was really pleased to see two of my junior historians, who I ended up sitting with.  Isabel and I had talked about Fever 1793 (which I haven’t read) before, and she’s a big fan.  It was kinda nice to sit next to a young person who was just really, really excited to hear one of her favorite authors.  I didn’t get that opportunity much as a kid, since most of my favorites died long before I was born (ahhh, the trials of being a fan of kidlit history. . .)

Anderson is an absolutely charming speaker–funny and witty and passionate.  You don’t always get that.  You can tell that she loves teens and she gets them.  Like many fans of history, her interest began when she was a child–lots of family reunions and lots of family stories.  She grew up knowing who her people were and how they fit in the bigger story.  And she mentioned reading Little House. . .

Some paraphrased quotes from her talk (I could only scribble so fast!):

“I love our history and we do such a bad job teaching it.  Tell a good story and they’ll remember.  Throw in some action.  Have you ever noticed how bloodthirsty 6th graders are?”  Anderson was specifically talking about Fever 1793.  Isabel giggled and whispered “That’s when I read that book!” 

On Chains and Forge: “Slavery is American history.  It’s our original sin.  We must look at history honestly.”  She then said that if she was ever crowned a priness, she would want a big old elephant on her crown.  And her gravestone to read: “Queen of the Elephant in the Room”  I like this about her.  A Lot.  And she takes her research seriously.  My favorite story: she dressed as the soldiers at Valley Forge dressed and then took a walk in the snow.  A long walk.  Her husband thought she was crazy and kept begging her to stop.  But she then understood how blood footprints in the snow were possible.

I have mixed emotions on the last bit though.  She doesn’t call her books historical fiction, but rather historical thrillers.  Because as she put it: “Children have been scarred by Johnny Tremain and my brother Sam needs to die.”  It made me laugh, and I do agree that those books aren’t the best to inspire a long-lasting love of history.  My feelings about historical fiction are complicated–there’s so much more bad than good.  But I don’t think calling the books “thrillers” and putting lots of action and blood is quite the answer either.  On the other hand, if it gets kids interested and semi-knowledgable about our complicated past, well, I can’t complain too loudly.

So, here’s the thing: after hearing her speak, I like Laurie Halse Anderson a lot more and am willing to give her other books a try.  She’s fighting the good fight, so to speak.  And really, we need all the help we can get in building a historical literate public.

For those of you who have read her books, what do you think?  Is historical fiction so bad?  Are “historical thrillers” a better path for teens?  Do we need a new genre of historical fiction?

PS  After posting this, I kept thinking about what really bothered me about the phrase “historical thriller.”  As I was trying to sleep, it came to me:  First and foremost, I am a historian.  I believe there is enough action and adventure in history for anyone.  Embellishment just isn’t necessary.

It all reminds me a bit of an interview with Mel Gibson, right after The Patriot came out.  In it, the interviewer said “Some people have taken you to task for historical accuracies in the film.”  Mel:  “Well, if we had been completely historically accurate, it would have been the most boring movie in history.”

My reaction to that: “You’re talking about the f*&^%! American Revolution!!  That’s not boring at all!”  And that’s exactly when I lost all respect for Mel Gibson.

6 responses to “A new kind of historical fiction?”

  1. I admired and enjoyed Chains and Forge, but would not call either book a thriller. A young reader would be disappointed if the books were presented to them as such. Historical adventures, sure, and there is a long tradition of historical adventures in children’s books.

    It’s unfortunate that Johnny Tremain has become the whipping boy of historical fiction, because it is filled with action and gore, even courtroom drama. I was never required to read Johnny Tremain, but I read it over and over.


    1. I haven’t read Johnny Tremain since I was a kid, but I remember liking it a lot.
      I think I always get a wee bit defensive when there are attacks on classics without any real analysis. Just because it’s a “classic” doesn’t mean it’s not relevant to today’s readers.


  2. Your comments about a possible “historical thriller” genre gave me something to think about. Thanks.

    After reading your post, I wonder if you’ve perhaps confused YA authors Laurie Halse Anderson and M.T. Anderson. The latter wrote “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.” Perhaps that’s why you liked it better — different author?


    1. It was clear in my mind–but confusing in the blog! I’ve edited to clarify. It’s just not nice for two authors telling similiar stories to have the same last name!


  3. What is with all the hate over JOHNNY TREMAIN? Our fifth grade teacher started reading this book to us after lunch (this was 1966). At first we were highly insulted at being “read to like babies.” Within a week after she began reading to us, you could not find either of the copies of JT in the school library; they were both reserved for weeks. I begged my mother to find me a copy. At that time it was not in print in paperback. My mother got a bookstore to special order a teacher’s edition with discussion questions at the end. In eighth grade we had to read the book for English class. I was so happy! I did an entire illustrated booklet on the book complete with a drawing of Johnny on his horse Goblin on the front. It is a wonderful book!


  4. Marketing doesn’t drive sales, reeadrs do. in that, publishers feed the beast what it wants. if it’s historicals with men in kilts on the cover and the story to reflect that, then so be it. why would they take a chance on something else when the beast demands more men in kilts? it’s all a numbers game.and right now it’s more crucial than ever that publishers give the beast what it wants.unfortunately that doesn’t leave much room in the budget for buying and publishing a remarkable story that will only appeal to a niche reeadrship.can the argument be made that there have been break out books no one wanted? not really, because those are exceptions, and as a rule, business does not prosper on exceptions. though exceptions can certainly add to a business’s bottom line, but again, if publishers took chances on every story they love that didn’t fit the beast menu, they would be out of business.Amy and Edie, you just gave me an idea for my blog tomorrow! thank you!


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