Historical Fiction for Children: Setting

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!

Historical Fiction for Children: A Writer’s Point of View

We are looking at historical fiction books from a writer’s, rather than a reader’s, point of view. In doing so, we’re rather like Min in A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park. Yet Min isn’t a writer at all, but a potter.

Unique among the other potters in his village who only come public with their finished best pieces, Min works from start to finish in an open-air shelter. Anyone can watch him interacting with his clay—Tree-ear does. Park tells us the other potters worry their designs will be copied; surely ego must also be involved. We imagine the potters were told they had talent from an early age, and as a result, they don’t want to be seen struggling to create art. It makes sense to me that Min is the most successful at the end. As James Hamblin says in his article, “Don’t Call Kids ‘Smart’,” “’Smart’ kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.”

I view Min’s pursuit of his craft as very much like the writing process, and his attitude as very community-, or education-oriented. He would probably say he does not care whether watching him try, and try, and try again helps anyone else. But owning the process in such a natural way, making the process visible, especially where children are around, is as enabling as seeing other writers draft and evaluate and revise in a workshop setting. The moment where Min—and later Tree-ear also—pauses and studies the clay before him, as if trying to learn what it wants to be, tells us a good deal about the writer’s point of view.

At one point, Tree-ear, in his frustration at not being allowed to work with Min, prepares clay for himself and makes a monkey for his friend, Crane-man. Park validates that effort of Tree-ear’s by having Min discover the monkey and offer Tree-ear an apprenticeship on the basis of the quality of that piece, teaching us the lesson that the urge to create—to write—comes from within. We own it, and it will out.

Historical Fiction for Children: Introduction

I always liked historical fiction. The classics—The Secret Garden, Johnny Tremain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond—basically made up my reading.

The main characters had heart, and that fact talks to how reading feeds the writer in us. Fiction notwithstanding, their histories were my histories. I was the protagonist. It was my chance to learn how another society worked and try to succeed there. With each turn of the page I begged the author not to let me down.

Now, I want my student authors in Sierra Leone who are putting their personal experiences onto paper to feel that link: Your experiences are histories, too. There’s a reader out there identifying with your family’s stories; your character’s trials. Draw them as they were. Paint the colors and sounds of that long road. Show how your mother turns to wave.

I’ve been looking at what could be called multicultural children’s historical fiction, written for 8-12 year olds, set in other countries than the US but commonly found in US school and public libraries. I have a list of 25 such books. I’m standing a few against each other to see what elements they have in common. One is that it seems any part of the world could provide a rich setting for historical fiction. Six are set in the UK, three in Rome, two in France, two in Korea, and one each in Russia, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Japan, the Netherlands, China, Ireland, Cambodia, India, British East Africa and South Africa. In four of these (including both African books) the main character is an expatriate in the country where the story takes place.

We’ll be looking for more books set in Africa, but from this alone, I’d say the continent is a bit under-represented—wouldn’t you?

A Place to Write and Re-Write

The nonfiction title A History of St. Edward’s Church, Kent, Sierra Leone, 2nd ed. appeared last month just in time for the 170th anniversary of the church. It’s fun gathering feedback: I am enjoying what widely varied pieces of information readers find interesting.

I’m also looking forward to finding new documented information from original sources—to correct errors or imbalances or bring more insight into how this church developed. Hopefully, enough will come to light to warrant producing a 3rd edition.

I see each blog entry here as a living piece of writing, something to keep adjusting just as I do the book. A way of joining an ongoing conversation that perhaps you are already engaged in. If so, let me know. . .