Tuesday, November 7, 2017

KidLitCon 2017: Notes and Sources I used for the Historical Fiction panel

Last weekend, I was in Hershey, PA for the 2017 KidLitCon. where I was on a panel discussing Historical Fiction with these other distinguished panelists: 
fellow blogger Sondra Eklund (Sonder Books), and authors Alexandria LaFaye (Walking Home to Rosie Lee, Worth and more), Celeste Lim (The Crystal Ribbon), and Michael P. Spradlin (Prisoner of War, The Enemy Above, and the Young Templar series among others).

I thought the discussion went really well, and I had made some handouts but didn't have enough for everyone, so Karen at Ms. Yingling Reads suggested I post a copy online. I decided I would also post my notes, as well as the handout, in case readers might find it useful. 

Historical Fiction Panel Notes: What is historical fiction? 

"The dead are invisible, they are not absent"
Hilary Mantel quoting St. Augustine of Hippo
The Guardian
"Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist"

In 1828, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay argued: “To make the past present, to bring the distant near ... To call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly belong to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist.
From: Lord Macaulay's Essays; And , Lays of Ancient Rome
"Hallem's Constitutional History" 

“…more than any other class of literature, [children’s books] reflect the minds of the generation that produced them.  Hence no better guide to the history and development of any country can be found than its juvenile literature.”
A.S.W. Rosenbach
Early American Children’s Books (1933)

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.” 
William Faulkner 
Requiem for a Nun (1951)

“What is past is not dead, it’s not even past” (das vergangene ist nicht tot. Es is nicht einmal vergangen) 
Christa Wolf
Kindheitsmuster or Patterns of Childhood (1977) 

HF is blending of fact and fiction *historicizing fiction, fictionalizing history), a meeting of past and present, in an attempt to interpret the past and give it some meaning for the present day reader. And HF writer does this by making connections for the reader, evoking feelings, showing patterns, creating structure.

What I look for in an historical fiction novel:
1- a story that is told well and doesn’t conflict with historical sources, unless it is clear that it is speculative historical fiction;
2- Realistic characters - not too heroic, not too weak
3- Believable settings
4- Incorporates historical facts seamlessly
5- Illustrations, if any, should be accurate and match the text
6- No stereotypes 

Uses of Historical Fiction:
1- Introduce readers to what life was like in the past: an as if kind of experience
2- Make history real and meaningful, even relatable
3- Influence reader’s thinking (eg: kindness, empathy)
4- Make a statement about the present world
5- Tool of propaganda (government, political groups, anyone with an agenda)

Authenticity: (I am including links to my reviews because I touched on the topic listed)
1- Authentic HF should contain a truth about the time period a story is set in but if history and fiction are subjective, how do you convey a truth? 

2- Character’s Agency: who has it, who doesn’t, why, why not and how much agency can you give a character in an historical fiction novel. How does collective and institutional agency support or constrain an individuals’ power to act. Need a balance between a character of heroic proportions and one who too heroic to be believable. 
eg: Avi - The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle 1832 - Charlotte ended up too heroic to be believable.

3- Setting: time and place 
eg: Full of Beans by Jennifer Holm Florida Keys in the 1930s
eg: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (and all the books in this series)

Balance Between "Historical" Detail and the Demands of the Narrative
eg: The Exeter Blitz by David Rees  In this book, Rees changed the date of the bombing of Exeter Cathedral by a short amount of time to fit the story. 

Balance Between the Different Social Norms and Conventions of the Past:
How responsible does an author need to be to the historical record? What about using insensitive names like Kike, Jap, N-word, etc? Is is OK in historical fiction? Or will it make today's reader uncomfortable or normalize name calling too much, empowering the reader to also use them?

What We Cannot or Will not Tolerate in the Present:
1- Anachronisms and time changes that are too forced for the sake of a story
eg Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

2- Language: too modern and it jars you right out of the story
eg: The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow - back in 1930s Berlin, Germany people did not use expressions like "at the end of the day"

Tensions that Might Exist Between “kid-appeal” and the Didactic Delivery of Information:
I've solved this problem by simply not reviewing works that are didactic - usually the author has an agenda and I'm not interested. 

What Makes a Work of Historical Fiction Relevant to Readers Today:
1- It can help them see what in going on in their own lives and the world around them and give them a sense of belonging
eg: Spying on Miss Müller by Eve Bunting - jumping to conclusions about people based on who they are
eg: Slap Your Sides by M.E. Kerr - in which she very nicely interrogated the difference between nationalism, which is exclusionary, and patriotism, which is inclusionary

2- Historical fiction can explore different themes, for example,  immigration, internment, refugees, resistance, survival, race relations
eg: The Other Half of Life by Kim Ablon Whitney - Jews on the St. Louis
eg: Dash by Kirby Larson - life in a Japanese internment camp in the United States
eg: The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw - aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima
eg: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry - rescuing Denmark's Jews from the Nazis
eg: Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz - surviving the Holocaust
eg: Caleb's War by David L. Dudley - living under Jim Crow laws in the south
eg: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith - problems with trying to pass for white 

3- HF can show diverse readers that they are also a part of history in a positive way 
eg: Mare’s War by Tanita Davis - African American women in the 6888th Central Postal Battalion
eg:Jump into the Sky by Shelley Pearsall - African American men in the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion in Oregon
eg: Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac - how the Navajo language was used to help win the war
eg: Four-Four-Two by Dean Hughes - a Japanese American in the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team after being released from an internment camp to serve his country

Secondary Sources:
Bradman, Tony. “Historical Fiction for Children.” Historia 26 April 2017

Brown, Joanne. “Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical 
Novels for Young Adults.” The Alan Review 26:1 (1998) 

Diamond, Anna. “Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present.” The Atlantic 21 

Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House, 1951.

Johnson, Sarah. “Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? Historical Novel Society 2002

Macauley, Lord Thomas Babington. “Hallam’s Constitutional History.”  The Works of Lord 
Macauley, Volume 5, London: Longmans, 1871, p. 162.

Mantel, Hilary. “Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist.” The Guardian, 3 June 2017
Rideal, Rebecca. “Hilary Mantel was right - some academics dislike novelists. But why?” The 

Rosenbach, A.S.W. Early American Children’s Books 1682-1840. Portland: Southworth, 1933. p. xxvii. 

Yonghee Suh, KaaVonia Hinton, James Marken, & Guang-Lea Lee. (2011). “Are We 
Comfortable Teaching This? Using Banned Books as a Vehicle for Teaching about World 
War II-Era Japan & Korea.” Multicultural Education 19 (1) pp. 24-30.

Tripp, Valerie. “Vitamins in Chocolate Cake: Why Use Historical Fiction in the Classroom?” 
teachinghistory.org 5 September 2011

—-. “Valerie Tripp’s Looking Backward, Looping Forward: How to Make a Period of History 
Matter to Your Students.” teachinghistory.org 24 October 2011

And I would like to thank Shelia Ruth (Wands and Worlds), Pam Margolis (An Unconventional Librarian), Charlotte at (Charlotte's Library), Paula Willey (@pwbalto), and Jen Robinson (Jen Robinson's Book Page) for all their hard work making this such a fun and informative KidLitCon.

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