Naturally, historical fiction writers for children choose periods in history to write about that interest them. But what else do they need to consider, for their book to be a success?
Well, let’s look at our sample books. Each one rises from a unique historical moment that cannot be repeated today. In Nory Ryan’s Song, by Patricia Reilly Giff, the moment is in Galway at the height of the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s. The Ravenmaster’s Secret: Escape from the Tower of London (Elvira Woodruff) takes place in the Tower of London where Scottish Jacobite rebels are being held in 1735. Linda Sue Park, in A Single Shard, describes the strong family basis of Korean village celadon pottery-making of the 12th century. It’s clear the author needs to choose a moment when something special is going on.
These unique historical moments are also emotionally gripping. In each of these books, the setting brings with it social injustices that offend both the reader and the main character. Woodruff has Forrest’s family attending a public execution, which makes Forrest throw up. Giff adds to the steadily approaching potato rot and starvation, descriptions of the unethical evictions and confiscations of property by the English landlords in Ireland. Park shows us how orphans are shunned for being bad luck and barred from learning the village’s profession; but she also thrills us with the art of celadon pottery-making.
The setting takes an active role in the book. It provides the protagonist’s goal. Nory’s is a family goal, of survival. Tree-ear wants to be apprenticed to the best potter in the village. Forrest feels imprisoned in the Tower, and wants to prove himself. In some cases, the setting also intensifies the immediacy of the goal and builds suspense. Living in the Tower has taught Forrest the certainty that hangings of the condemned are inevitable, so Maddy must be moved now. Nory and her family are starving and about to lose their house, so she must act.
Choice of a time and place in history for a historical fiction story for children takes more thought than you’d think!