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A good historical novel, William Faulkner once said, should "bring the presentness of the past alive," to which Kate Waters might well have responded, "No one lived in the past. They only lived in the present, but it's their own present." The past, you might say, is behind us, so who cares? Many authors for young readers care deeply. They reach back to capture the glories and tragedies, the triumphs and defeats, the facts and speculations, the reality and magic, and especially the people, both valiant and villainous, of bygone times. All these morsels of history shape the human experience and inform our present. Notice how present has two very different meaning: present/now ... and present/gift. Thus, let's consider the past our present, our gift, to today.
As the author of historical fiction for readers from about 4th grade on up, I was once on a panel with another novelist when this question came from the audience: "Do you do much research for your books?" I let out a breath and launched a blizzard of chatter on how I spend at least two years steeped in the milieu of the book, including library, used-book, and Internet sources; interviews; travel; maps, music, weather, and language study; and the sheer tactile joy of handling items from the era I'm writing about. A Victorian beaded purse, with its tiny upholstered mirror inside, propelled me through the first five drafts of an 1850s novel set in upstate New York. I pin maps and photographs up on the wall above my desk. Who else do you know who currently has calendars from 1858, 1910, and 1953 on her bulletin board? This research and these sensations spin themselves into detailed and indexed notes that fill shoe boxes and manila folders. All this I told the audience until their eyes glazed over, and maybe they resolved never to open one of my books again. But my colleague on the panel bestirred them with her response to the same question: "Oh, occasionally I send my husband to the library to find out what year a certain gun was invented."
Where did I go wrong?! Yet, I'm certain that responsible authors for young people, feeling an obligation to be not only entertaining, but also accurate, do an awesome amount of research. Maybe only 10% of that research ends up in the novel. In the same way, a novelist unpeeling the layers of his or her main character may invent a family tree that spans four generations, even though that character's grandparents and great-grandparents and unborn children may never enter the stage and take a bow.
And what about truth? The fact is, you can't just trust the author to tell the truth in an historical novel. Is fact the same as truth, and when do fact and truth morph into fiction? It's slippery, so how does a teacher or librarian select historical novels to share with young people for class projects or individual reading?
Aside from the novel's readability and interest quotient, here are some criteria and some questions to ask about historical fiction you're considering:
· If compared to a reliable non-fiction account of the same event/time period, would the actual facts hold up?
· Is the setting true to the period? Are the details of daily life true to the period?
· Is the book consistent with the norms and values of its era?
· Does the author "sanitize" the facts to fit a younger audience? If so, what is lost and what is gained?
· Is the author going for sensation, or for truth as s/he understands it?
· Is the portrayal of gender roles true to the period? Consider Karen Cushman's marvelous Newbery Honor book, Catherine, Called Birdy.
Catherine is a delightful 14 year-old, but is she just a tad too feminist for the 13th century? Is it okay, anyway?
· Is it authentic for its time? Or does the author bring contemporary values to historical events and characters -- what critic Laura Miller calls "contemporary values dressed up in period costumes."
· Do the conflicts and their resolutions fit the time period?
3. Research/Fact vs. Story/Fiction
· Are the research, though accurate, and the setting, though authentic, secondary to the story so the novel isn't cluttered with too many minute details?
"The passion born of ardent research is to novel-writing what salt is to cake-baking. It's always called for, but be very careful how much you put in. Dates, places, names, time lines, detailed lineages and elaborate theories will never do as substitutes for a good story peopled with believable characters." [Jeff Tyrrentine, "Repossession," in New York Times Review of Books, July 20, 2003].
· Is the book developmentally appropriate?
· Does the level of language fit the reading and comprehension level?
· Are the illustrations and/or jacket design appropriate to the reading level?
5. Interest Level
· While social studies is a chronicle of factual human events, it is also about the feelings, thoughts and social interactions of those events. Can the reader experience emotions, thoughts, intensity, fear, indignation, and excitement of those events with some depth? Does it allow the reader to leap into human experience?
6. World View and Point of View
· Can the reader see historical events clearly through the eyes of the character?
· Is the world view of the protagonist accurate? For example, Native Americans might view life as a circle, whereas European Americans might see life in a linear fashion.
· Is the point of view - or are the multiple points of view - the best choice(s) for telling the story from an historical perspective?
· Is this book an example of "keyhole history," i.e., events rendered from the perspective of ordinary people during extraordinary times? [Kathryn Lasky, "Keyhole History," in Signal, Spring, 1997.]
7. Language, Vocabulary, and Dialogue
· Is the language right for the time period? Are there any anachronistic expressions or vocabulary?
· Does the language rely too much on archaic terms or dialect that render the book stilted or stuffy?
· Does the dialogue sound natural for that time period? Can you "hear" the characters speak? Are their voices distinct?
· Is the language rich and appropriate to the content level of the story?
· Is the tone appropriate to the subject? Consider Karen Hesse's Newbery winner, Out of the Dust, a novel in verse about the 1930s dust bowl era. The language is spare, evocative, deeply moving, but never sentimental.
· Do the illustrations/jacket design fit the tone of the story? The original cover of Out of the Dust was a bit disappointing, but the paperback edition was more emotionally satisfying.
· Does the writing "evoke the atmosphere so that readers will feel the ache of wading an icy stream, the bite of the wind, the pinch of an empty belly along with the characters and ask, 'How could they stand it?'" [James Alexander Thom, quoted by Sherita Campbell and Pat Mills, "The Research Time Machine," in Writers Digest, March 1998].
· Does the book offer vivid role models from an earlier time or culture?
· Does the book have something important to say about the past, but relevant to the present?
· Does the book have literary or thematic value beyond being an exciting story?
· Is the theme understandable, or is it muddled? Bearing in mind that theme and subject matter are two different things, could the theme be expressed in one sentence if necessary?
10. Critical Thinking
· Does the story demand reasoning, thinking, and decision-making skills?
· Does the story lend itself to robust debate and differing opinions? Does it evoke questions?
· Does the story provide opportunities for hypothesizing, sequencing, problem-solving, and predicting outcomes?
· Does the story impel the reader to research the facts and study more about the subject?
· Does the author provide a bibliography? A list of sources in a usable format?
· Is there a glossary?
· Is there a chronology of major events?
· Are there maps?
· Is there a family tree, or a "cast of characters?"
· Is there an author's note as to what the actual facts are?
· Do the Acknowledgments provide insight into the author's research methods?
Having evaluated the proposed novel exhaustively, here are a few provocative questions you might ask about using historical fiction in libraries and classrooms:
· Is memoir history - or historical fiction? What about biography/autobiography?
· How do you figure out what's true and what's invented?
· How long ago does the story have to take place for it to be "historical?"
· Are we/should we be uncomfortable about portrayals of actual LIVING or recently living people in fictional context?
· Can fantasy and history mingle in the same book?
· Must there be a large geo-political, social conscience theme?
· Can novels set in the past be effectively told in present tense?
· Is historical fiction ever dangerous, misleading, maybe even subversive, and if so, when and how and why?
So, our prime directive in selecting historical fiction for children and teens: the novel must be good story, good history, and interesting to the reader. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a superb, arguably perfect, historical novel, a genuine classic that's weathered the test of time. But can you think of a single eighth-grader who loved it?
Here's a loaded topic: students' rights, which are just chips off the huge iceberg of children's rights. In 1989, the U.N. adopted a Convention on the Rights of the Child, vouchsafing to people under age 18 myriad human rights and protections. Here are a few: the right to life, education, medical care, shelter, and information from a diversity of sources. The Convention names basic protections from abuse and neglect, capital punishment, incarceration without possibility of release, child pornography, prostitution, and kidnapping. To date, 194 countries have ratified the Convention and only two have refused: Somalia and the United States. For more information, go to http://www.unicef.org/crc.
That's the iceberg. What about those slivers and chips, the civil rights of students? Even though a Supreme Court decision (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969) states that "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," there are reasons why those rights may be abridged. The classic example is, adults may wander dangerous streets, but children must be protected from such behavior by parents. The school functions in loco parentis, that is, in place of parents. So, fascinating constitutional issues arise in schools. Consider these ...
· A boy writes an article for the school paper about any number of controversial topics: his political views? student evaluations of a teacher? allegations of inappropriate conduct of a coach? So, is he free to print such an article? If he does, can he be sued? Can the journalism teacher be sued? For more about the rights and responsibilities of school journalists, visit the Student Press Law Center, at www.splc.org. The center offers advice and legal help to students and their teachers when issues roil over violations of free speech, or in potential libel suits.
· A devout Muslim girl is obligated to wear the hijab (head scarf) and dress modestly. But the school dress code forbids head coverings and requires shorts in P.E. Are her religious rights violated? When, if ever, can such exceptions be made?
· The school has a zero tolerance policy for weapons and drugs - laudable, to protect the health and safety of children and adults. But a girl is reported for having Midol in her makeup case. Likewise, during a random locker inspection, a boy is caught with a Swiss Army knife he's never seen before. Should both the Midol girl and the Swiss Army boy be expelled? Are locker inspections constitutional?
For more on the rights, responsibilities, and protections of students and the teachers who care for them, see http://www.freechild.org/student_rights.htm, which deals with corporal punishment, zero tolerance policy, Internet use, and search and seizure in schools. Also see http://www.comdsd.org/pdf/hs_1.pdf. Though tailored to California legal code, this is a clear summary of rights and restrictions in schools, as well as procedures when rights are abridged.
This month I will be focusing on the beginning of the end of the story-steps nine, ten, and eleven. If you missed any of my previous articles, GO HERE.
After surviving the Midpoint Challenge and enjoying the reprieve of the Escape, it is time for the protagonist to face step nine: the Tunnel of Transformation. This part of the story can be compared to a caterpillar entering into a chrysalis to go through the process of becoming a butterfly. The prize is just within reach, and yet it seems as if the hero will fail in his quest. All hope seems lost. There is often an internal death and rebirth signifying a major internal change or shift. A change of heart and a change in thinking often characterize this stage of the story.
After the main character seems to die to her old self, she is reborn as a New Person in step ten. Dara Marks, in her book Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc, refers to this pivotal event as the transformational moment. Chris Vogler, in his book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, calls this stage the resurrection. It often occurs just before, or during, the Climax. The New Person emerges when an internal decision to shed the old persona and claim a new identity is made. This alteration may be represented by external signs such as changes in appearance, but the REAL change is something internal such as overcoming fear, learning to speak up for oneself, or conquering inadequacy. It will not be clear whether this is a permanent change until the Climax when the protagonist must face the final challenge and take external actions based upon this internal growth.
During the Climax, which is the point of highest tension in the external story, there may be a battle, shootout, duel, debate, contest, final court testimony, or an argument where it seems that an important relationship may come to an end. Whatever transformations the main character has undergone have prepared him for this moment. This is the final test to see if the transformation is real or only temporary.
In Avi's Newberry award winning historical novel, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, the young peasant protagonist doesn't even have a name at the beginning of the story, but is referred to only as Asta's Son. He is timid and disempowered, having just lost his mother. For reason's unknown to him, there is a bounty on his head, and he flees from his village in fear. Through the course of the story he discovers that his real name is Crispin, and during the Transformation he is told that he is the son of the recently deceased Lord Furnival. At the Climax of the story, Crispin sneaks into Furnival's palace, threatens Aycliffe, the antagonist, with a dagger, and demands the release of his mentor, Bear, in exchange for which he promises to give Aycliffe the cross which proves the boy's true identity, thus relinquishing any claim to the Furnival fortune. Not only does Crispin go from being a timid peasant to a brave Lord's son, he lets go of the bondage of his tainted birthright to truly claim his own, unique identity.
For a fun activity exploring character transformation, see the March Random Writing Activity on the blog on my website at www.caroleedean.com.