Mystery about history

If you love YA and you’re not reading Michael Cart‘s column for Booklist, you’re missing out.  “Carte Blanche” provides great information on young adult trends and topics in publishing.  His most recent column, “A Genre Without a Readership?” really hit home for me, as it discusses historical fiction and its readership – or lack thereof – among young adults.

I love historical fiction, but as children’s librarian, it’s a hard sell these days.  Michael’s point that “librarians need to do a particularly strenuous job” getting children – in his case, teens – to read historical fiction so they can “recall a past they have not experienced” is too true.  I do try hard – displaying these books prominently, reading from them, using them as examples – but historical fiction doesn’t seem to resonate with young readers the way other genres do.  When I do manage to get it into the hands of a reader, it’s usually enjoyed and followed up by requests for similar books.  One girl came in all fired up after reading Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s Fever 1793 wanting more books about slavery – “but not true ones.”  That made me smile!  (And also gave me a great opportunity to chat about historical fiction as opposed to nonfiction, and how writers use research to create narratives.)

Cart makes two points that really stood out for me:

– That quality often trumps quantity for historical fiction as a genre, and

– That mashups and pastiche may well save the historical novel.

Both are true for this librarian – the award-winners I display are historical fiction more often than other genres, and both mashups and pastiche provide a light-hearted and witty way into a genre that all too often reads like homework to young readers, another point made by Cart.  While I found several of the books listed in Cart’s column a welcome relaxation, young adults may well find  Kindl’s Keeping the Castle  a gateway into more serious novels such as Wein’s Code Name Verity – both excellent in their own way, and both of which I loved.  Perhaps it’s time for me to seek out mashups or pastiches for younger readers?  If not, novels such as Konigsburg’s From the Mixed -up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me may provide talking points to lure elementary readers to the work of authors such as Ruta Sepetys and Gary D. Schmidt, not to mention stalwarts such as Richard Peck and Linda Sue Park.  Novels set in the – to us – not-so-distant past can lead readers to notice differences between their world and the novel’s world.  And by getting children to compare and contrast such books, we’re meeting those pesky Common Core standards.

The bottom line is that too many great books are languishing on shelves or in e-reader queues.  Today, the proverb that those who do not recognize the past are doomed to repeat it resonates even more.




4 thoughts on “Mystery about history

  1. Leslie, I like that last line very much. As a speaker to middle school students, I hear a lot of interest in fantasy/adventure novels, especially from the boys. I wonder if there isn’t a need for a cross-genre book. Historical fiction meets adventure. Or something like that.

  2. I think part of the problem is that “historical” fiction isn’t necessarily considered “hip” or “cool” which is a big factor with teens. To go back in time to an “old-fashioned” era doesn’t necessarily connote “romance” (and all that goes with it) or adventure, or familiar language. I do agree that when you put the word “historical” in a description when speaking to any school-age kid/teenager, they will think “history class”=boring, unless they’re lucky enough to have an amazing history teacher lol

    And thanks for introducing me to new words for my literary vocabulary: mashups and pastiche. Never heard of them ’til now, and I’ve done a LOT of reading on writing!

    1. You’re welcome – must be a librarian thing. I love a good pastiche (think all of the Jane Austen “sequels”) – mashups might be more of a publishing term (see Pride & Prejudice & Zombies – not a fave!).

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