Monday, March 24, 2014

Why Write Historical Fiction For Kids?

It's my great pleasure to introduce today's featured guest on 'Heroines of Fantasy', J Anderson Coats, who is, in her own words, 'the author of historical fiction for young adults that routinely includes too much violence, name-calling and petty vandalism perpetrated by badly behaved young people.  Her first YA novel, The Wicked And The Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), was one of Kirkus’s Best Teen Books of 2012, a 2013 YALSA Best for Young Adults (BFYA) winner, and a School Library Journal Best Books of 2012 selection. It also won the 2013 Scandiuzzi Children’s Book award (the Washington State Book Award for teens).

        I was at a social gathering recently, fidgeting with appetizers and attempting to make small talk. A friend excused himself to get another lemonade, leaving a friend-of-a-friend stranded in my presence.
        She fidgeted, smiled politely, and asked, “So what do you do?”
       “I write for kids.” It’s taken me years to be able to say this out loud without tripping over it or qualifying it.
        “How interesting! Like, little poems in magazines?”
        “Fiction, mostly. For young adults.” I paused, but she was clearly waiting for something more. “Historical fiction right now.”
         She frowned. “Why?”
         It was the way she said it that stopped me. Like anyone under twenty-one couldn’t possibly be interested in anything except sparkly vampires and dystopian hellscapes and the odd cancer patient.
         There are a lot of reasons I write historical fiction. That’s a much easier question to respond to. But that’s not the question she was asking. She was asking why write historical fiction for kids? 
        It’s a fair question. Most people assume--often rightly--that the historical part of historical fiction will dredge up images of essay questions and quizzes and memorizing dates and blah blah blah. 
       Here’s the thing: I don’t think young readers are homogenous. And I don’t think they’re stupid. I don’t think they’re lazy or self-absorbed or so buried in technology that they can’t be bothered by anything beyond the edge of a screen.
        I think they’re complicated, dynamic people who are capable of making connections between the worlds in the past and their world today, who will see the value and wisdom in doing so.
        There are budding teenage history geeks out there, and I want to be on the front lines of handing them books that let them know they’re correct in believing history is awesome. And they’re not alone in thinking so.
        There are kids who don’t think much of history because all they’ve ever had by which to judge it is bland, predigested curriculum that reduces human complexity to a series of dates and politicians and battles. I want to hand them real stories about real people who feel familiar, who have the capacity to be cruel and kind and stupid and thoughtful and loving and vindictive just like we all do.
        There are kids who might like history if it was more real. Or maybe it’s not so much that I want kids to like history, but to understand that it’s not as foreign or irrelevant as they may think. I can’t un-indoctrinate them, but I can hand them a story that doesn’t pull any punches, that presents the past in all its corrupt, seamy glory, and let them decide for themselves.

          1293.  North Wales.  Ten years into English rule. 
        Cecily would give anything to leave Caernarvon and go home.  Gwenhwyfar would give anything to see all the English leave.
        Neither one is going to get her wish.
       Behind the city walls, English burgesses govern with impunity.  Outside the walls, the Welsh are confined by custom and bear the burden of taxation, and the burgesses plan to keep it that way.
        Cecily can’t be bothered with boring things like the steep new tax or the military draft that requires Welshmen to serve in the king’s army overseas.  She has her hands full trying to fit in with the town’s privileged elite, and they don’t want company.
        Gwenhwyfar can’t avoid these things.  She counts herself lucky to get through one more day, and service in Cecily’s house is just salt in the wound.
         But the Welsh are not as conquered as they seem, and the suffering in the countryside is rapidly turning to discontent.  The murmurs of revolt may be Gwenhwyfar’s only hope for survival – and the last thing Cecily ever hears.




Karin Rita Gastreich said...

All the most memorable books I read as a teenager were historical fiction. What you do is awesome and don't let anyone tell you otherwise! Thanks so much for being our guest this week on HoF.

Terri-Lynne said...

I love YA historical fiction. I did as a kid, and I do as an adult. Little House on the Prairie and that whole series were constant companions all through my life. When my girls were into American Girl dolls, I devoured them along with them. Recently, books like Octavian Nothing drag me in and make me remember that kids don't have to read nothing but Captain Underpants and Twilight. There is so much MORE to discover!

Glad to see another YA historical fiction writer in the world. Thanks!