Historical Fiction for Children: The Protagonist

I work with children in Sierra Leone who are learning to write down their individual true personal experiences. The more they work through successive drafts, the more both their proficiency in English and their writing skills, improve. We would like to see them contribute to the national literature of Sierra Leone.

In trying to help these students convert their experiences to equally culturally-relevant children’s fiction, however, we come up against an obstacle inherent to childhood: children generally are under the supervision of adults. Therefore, most of our students’ true experiences happen while carrying out an assigned task, and their pieces end with how successfully it was carried out. The task, or the goal of the story, is an adult’s. Good children’s fiction, on the other hand, requires that a child be the protagonist—the plots should be driven by what the children need or want, and how successfully they achieve it.

The problem is not for want of goals. Our students are full of ideas. The problem is that the roles they play in their families and communities do not make acting on those ideas possible, so carrying them out could not be written into a culturally-relevant book. Our young authors share this cultural characteristic with the characters in the historical fiction for children I have been reading. By looking at how those authors solve the problem, we ought to be able to help our child authors write fiction for children.

One way to give children independent agency in books is to make them orphans. More than half of the authors of the two dozen or so children’s historical fiction books we’ve been looking at, used this solution; a related twist is in Nory Ryan’s Song (Patricia Reilly Giff) where the child spends the entire book waiting for her single parent to return. The longer protagonists stay outcast, fugitive, homeless, solely-in-charge of younger siblings or otherwise left to their own devices, the more options they have to act. However, once they are taken into homes, orphanages, apprenticeships or servitude, they are again closely monitored and we know the authors will find another way to give their child characters the freedom to act.

Essentially, authors use only one other device: subterfuge. How else can the protagonist buy time alone? Lying works: In The Ravenmaster’s Secret (Elvira Woodruff), Forrest says he needs to spend a night in the shed with his pet raven. In Akimbo and the Elephants by Alexander McCall Smith, Akimbo says he wants to spend a few days with a friend. Another ruse to buy time is physical disguise: there is the choirboy outfit Alice wears in A Murder for Her Majesty (Beth Hilgartner), the Jewish holiday costumes Sashie’s family wears in Kathryn Lasky’s The Night Journey, and the switched identity strategy Forrest uses to get Maddy out of the Tower of London.

Kathryn Lasky, especially, exposes us to the possibilities of deception on more sophisticated levels. If you use night, why not fog (“Scarves of mist swirled around them”)? And what about using parts of an object (the samovar) for unexpected purposes to disguise both the object and yourself?

I need to make these books available to my students, and devise distancing activities to help pairs of students fictionalize their experiences along these lines. Can’t wait to start.

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. . .