Thursday, December 24, 2015

On "The Huron Carol" by Michele Hathaway

Illustrated by Frances Tyrrell, Dutton, 1990.
It's the holidays and the last thing on your mind is historical fiction--right? That was not a question. But wait! Bookmark this page, because the The Huron Carol is a trail head into history any time of year. 

‘Twas in the moon of wintertime
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou*
Sent angel choirs instead.

Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wand’ring hunters heard the hymn:
“Jesus, your king, is born.
Jesus is born. In excelsis gloria!”

"The Huron Carol" was written in Huron by the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf (1643) who lived with the people for 22 years. He was tortured and killed when the Iroquois raided the Huron, nearly annihilating them. Many assimilated with other tribes. A small group, known as the Wyandott eventually migrated to Oklahoma, where they live today, and a larger group, the Wendat, followed the French priests and now live in Québec.

Illus. Ian Wallace, Groundwood Books, 2013
Ehstehn yayau deh tsaun we yisus ahattonnia
O na wateh wado:kwi nonnwa 'ndasqua entai
ehnau sherskwa trivota nonnwa 'ndi yaun rashata
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia

Ayoki onki hm-ashe eran yayeh raunnaun
yauntaun kanntatya hm-deh 'ndyaun sehnsatoa ronnyaun
Waria hnawakweh tond Yosehf sataunn haronnyaun
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia

What is most astonishing about "The Huron Carol" was Brébeuf's cultural awareness at this period in history when sensitivity and respect for other people groups was not part of the psychological landscape. His retelling of the Christmas story in a form that was relevant for the people is worthy of note. It must have impressed the Wendat, too, because they sang the carol for a hundred years in their own language before it was translated into French. In 1926, Jesse Edgar Middleton composed the English Lyrics, which is how it is best known today.

There is only one surviving verse in Huron and two in 18th century French. The English verses are more of a re-visioning than a translation. Here are the words of the original:

"Jesus, He is Born"

Have courage, you who are human beings: Jesus, he is born
The okie spirit who enslaved us has fled
Don't listen to him for he corrupts the spirits of our thoughts
Jesus, he is born

The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message
They're coming to say, "Rejoice!
Mary has given birth. Rejoice!"
Jesus, he is born

Brébeuf set the Carol to a 16th Century French song "Une Jeune Pucelle." It entered the public domain in 2011. There are many versions on You Tube that could be used in the classroom. Tom Jackson has a version that I like in particular because in addition to being a musician and actor, he is an outstanding philanthropist. One of his fundraising campaigns was the Huron Carol Tour.

Some more excellent links and comments are in Emily Gleichenhaus's blog post. Here is another lovely version of the carol sung by the Elora Festival Singers, Canada. Happy Holidays!

 * "Gitchi Manitou" is an Algonquin term that Middleton used for Great Spirit, but it is not from the Wendat language. Although today this is poor scholarship and culturally insensitive, it was not considered so in 1926. Another possible topic for discussion with students.
Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Merry Medieval Christmas

courtesy of wikicommons
Instead of writing a post on middle grade historical novels, I thought I'd give you readers a Christmas story. This excerpt is from On Fledgling Wings, my novel set in England during the time of Richard the Lionheart. I hope it will bring some holiday spirit to you.

  “They say that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals receive the gift of speech. I plan to lie awake to hear them,” Nathan said, wriggling with excitement.

“If you do not eat your dinner, it will be your stomach talking,” Agnes the nursemaid answered. Nathan was far too old for a nursemaid, but she had been a part of his life for so long that letting her boss him around was comforting, especially on Christmas Eve, when traditions were so important. It had been half a year since he had seen her or any of the members of his childhood home.

The church bell tolled the faithful to Vespers. Nathan hastily crammed one last piece of bread into his mouth and followed the crowd toward the church.

Torches cast skittering shadows across the walls of the darkening courtyard. Nathan stepped aside for a gang of children dragging a sheep, a donkey, and a half-grown calf toward the church. Others in the crowd shouted encouragement and slapped the animals’ rumps. The beasts balked against their halters, bleating as if they were being led to slaughter. Nathan felt sorry for them. They could not know that they were only going to keep the Christ Child warm.

The crowd surged through the double doors. Nathan caught sight of his father scanning the crowded nave on tiptoe. He grabbed Agnes’ hand and pushed through the people. He was almost next to his father before Amren saw him. Delight flickered in the knight’s eyes and a smile flashed across his face, then his face went rigid.

“I thought the snow might hamper your return.” Amren turned a critical eye on his son and Nathan felt his own belly grow cold. How foolish he had been to hope for a warmer homecoming. He bent in the low, formal bow he knew was expected of him. “You have grown.” Though his eyes were now directed toward the altar, Amren Marshal clapped his hand on his son’s shoulder. Nathan felt as if his heart would fly from his chest. He wished to ask about his father’s new bride, but dared not, lest his father remember where his hand was and withdraw it.

The crowd cursed and shoved as if unaware they were in a church. Sir Terence’s arms jerked. He shuffled from leg to leg like a restless child. Isabel and Maude gossiped. Babies cried. At the altar, sheep bleated.

But the other Glastonbury, the spiritual one, was also there. Nathan turned his eyes upward. Painted frescoes of the saints looked down from the clerestory with sad, serene eyes. If his mother were dead, she would be numbered among the saints. Was his mother watching him from heaven? Or was she alive, gliding silently over the pure, moonlit snow on the lonely moors?

The torchlight had caused shadows to leap in the courtyard. It made the paintings seem to sway and bend in a mystical, slow dance. Did his mother dance among the saints? Did the earthly tumult bother her?

The Abbot entered and the crowd fell silent. The monks chanted, the sound gathering in intensity.

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio.

‘Oh, how great the mystery, how wonderful the covenant, that simple beasts should behold the Christ-Child, as a babe newborn and lying in a manger stall.’ The beasts and children in front of the altar were quiet now, but their eyes remained white-ringed and uneasy. Nathan’s throat tightened with gratitude that Brother Dominic had forced him to learn Latin. He looked at the sea of faces turned towards the altar, their eyes and lips round with wonder. Birgitta blotted the corners of her eyes with her veil.

The Abbot began the kiss of peace. It spread through the congregation as people turned and kissed each other lightly on the cheek. Agnes’ eyes were moist as she passed it to her young Master. “Peace be with you,” Nathan murmured to a boy with a thatch of straw colored hair. The boy looked vaguely familiar and Nathan momentarily wondered if he had been a stable boy at Staywell. But before Nathan could place him, the boy jerked aside. He glared at Nathan, then slipped through the crowd and was gone.
By the time the service ended, Nathan had forgotten the boy. Worn from the day’s journey and from his anxiety, sleep overtook him. If the animals did talk at midnight, Nathan was not awake to hear. 

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grade Social Studies teacher and the author of three middle grade historical novels, the ebook versions of which will be Countdown Deals, offered at a discount on Amazon from December 30 to January 6. You can read more about her writing or sign up for her email announcements (including upcoming titles and special discounts) at her website.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Historical Fiction Makes Learning Fun

It seems everyone except the Powers That Be understands that the way to get kids excited about reading and learning is to make reading and learning fun. When teaching history, this means telling exciting stories, not merely teaching boring lists of names and dates.

One teacher used my Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, in a gifted class of fourth and fifth graders in New Mexico. She said, “Using this historical fiction has been a window into Ancient Egypt – its people, culture, and beliefs. My class enjoyed doing research on Egyptian gods and goddesses, and hieroglyphs. Projects extended their knowledge of this fascinating time and place.”

I often get e-mails from teachers who are using one of my historical novels in the classroom, and they report enthusiasms from the students. A teacher at a middle school in Washington state once told me, “We have been using your book, The Well of Sacrifice, as one of our lit circle books this year. Your book has been a very popular one for the kids … all levels of reading ability, and strongly supports our social studies theme.”

Social Studies and More

Using historical fiction in the classroom can have many educational benefits. First, and most important, many historical novels are a lot of fun. This makes learning easier! In addition, historical fiction can lead to great discussions about fact versus fiction, cause and effect, and viewing history through different perspectives (modern ideals versus the standards of the time, winners versus losers of a conflict, etc.).

These discussions go beyond social studies and can actually contribute to preparing for standardized testing. One positive to the Common Core is that the standards do, in theory, ask students to understand the why and how of events, and not just the factual what. They also ask students to judge between facts and opinions, and to know whether statements are backed by evidence. Historical fiction, perhaps paired with nonfiction, can help introduce these concepts.

Enthusiastic teachers get students involved with the text through a wide variety of projects, some clearly academic and some that appear to be mainly for fun. Students enjoy drawing cartoons or developing skits of scenes in the book. Persuasive letters or group discussions get a playful boost by having the students write or speak from the point of view of one of the book’s characters. Some teachers plan a party (perhaps with accompanying author visit) to wrap up use of the book. Parents may send in appropriate snacks, and the kids give presentations, using posters or dioramas to illustrate their areas of research.

Something for Every Student

To some, this may not look as educational as reading textbooks and memorizing information. However, people learn in a wide variety of ways. Some are more visual, benefiting from seeing lots of images. Others are verbal, learning well from words in speech and writing. Yet others need physical activity to help lock in information. Some students may learn better in social groups, while others work better on their own. Using a variety of projects in the classroom offers something to all of the students.

Historical novels can be used to teach almost any concept you can find in the classroom. Another teacher who used The Well of Sacrifice in her fourth/fifth grade classroom said, “This book is not only a great adventure for middle grade readers, but it is a useful tool for classroom teachers…. We used the book as the backbone of several language arts exercises such as: written and oral reports about the Maya; literary criticism of characters, plot, and sequence; persuasive essays on human sacrifice vs. murder and Mayan culture vs. our own culture; and art projects from wood burning to mapping. We studied geography and the rainforest. The students’ enthusiasm for this book pushed our curriculum into other disciplines including math.”

Wow, what lucky students!

A New Semester

If you are a teacher or librarian, you’re probably looking forward to some time off work. (If you’re a parent, hopefully you are looking forward to having the kids at home!) Winter break is a busy time, which frequently includes travel, family visits, special events such as concerts, shopping, and far too often, cold or flus.

Amid all the commotion, some of it fun and some of it stressful, do you have time to get ready for the next semester? Do you use your “time off” to prepare lesson plans, or at least read books that might work in the classroom? If so, do you have any historical fiction on your reading list for the break?

Lesson plans

For lesson plans for The Eyes of Pharaoh and The Well of Sacrifice, visit my website’s “for teachers” page. On the “reading list” page, you’ll find some of my favorite historical novels, plus links to other sources for discovering historical fiction for young people.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Oldies But Goodies-The Early United States, 1783-1814

The early years of the United States from around 1784-1814 were spent carving a new nation.
Prominent leaders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington gambled that this new republic could be independent—and it was. The leaders helped these thirteen states unify into a new republic, despite the states' constant bickering. Then they formed a new government where the leaders were elected by the people—a radical idea.

Later the leaders wrote The Articles of Confederation, which was the first constitution for the United States, but it was too weak to control powerful state governments. Thus, a new constitution
was written and eleven of the thirteen states ratified it in 1787 and 1788.

This new country was able to expand its boundaries after signing a peace treaty in 1783. Some people lived in relatively large cities then, but not as large as cities in Europe, as is shown in the first U.S. census of 1790.

According to Alan Taylor a Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, in his essay published in the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, more than 90 percent of the people lived in the countryside on scattered farms and plantations.

Students I taught researched what life was like for these citizens of the new United States of America. Some of the things they researched were how people earned a living; what they ate and wore for clothing; how they celebrated holidays; and what school was like. Some of the best books for this kind of research were written by Bobby Kalman. Her books have detailed illustrations showing what life was like; and the books use the vocabulary of those times, which is often unfamiliar to today's students. I believe these books would still be applicable for today's students whose learning is being shaped by Common Core and State Standards.

One standard in the History/Social Studies strand for Grades 6-12 asks that students, "Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies." 

We know that a class of students has a wide range of reading levels and abilities, thus introductory text as an image, as in Bobby Kalman's books, is invaluable to help build understanding and background knowledge in all students before reading complex, printed text. In other words, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

One prepared graduate competency that the Colorado History Standards stresses is that students be able to "analyze key historical periods and patterns of change over time withing and across nations and cultures." I'm confident that other states have this general standard too.

 I believe Bobby Kalman's books can be used to help students achieve history standards because the books are rich in vocabulary and illustrations, which are sources of information on their own.

Hopefully, these books are still used in the curriculum and are on the school library shelves. But, if a teacher/librarian is weeding non-fiction books, be sure to ask to see the cart and search for these wonderful books by Bobby Kalman to keep and use in your classroom.

Goodreads image

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mixing of the Bloods

Three recent events inspired me to write on this topic. First: November is Native American Heritage month. Second: Immigration reform and the acceptance of refugees are increasingly in the news. Third: On November 18, 2015, Five Star Publishing released Bear Claws, the second book in my trilogy, The Iron Horse Chronicles.

In my books, one fictional character is Charles Lone Eagle Munro, Jr., the son of a white mountain man and a Cheyenne Indian mother. I portray Lone Eagle’s struggle to identify with his proud Indian heritage while also acknowledging the adverse impact Manifest Destiny is perpetrating on that culture. Lone Eagle insists he is Cheyenne, although he is not full-blood. Will Braddock, the trilogy’s protagonist, thinks of his new Indian friend as mixed-blood. Paddy O’Hannigan, the antagonist, refers to Lone Eagle with the derogatory term half-breed.
According to the Navajo Times, the 2010 United States Census, reveals 5.2 million, 1.7 percent, of the US population is classified as American Indian and Alaska Native. Of this population, 44 percent of American Indians are considered “mixed-race.” The Navajos claim the largest percentage of full-bloods among American Indians at 86.3 percent.

America has long been known as the melting pot, usually interpreted to mean the beneficial blending of different nationalities and races. The Native American designation used by the government draws the ire of some American Indians, who prefer to be called “Indians.” Notwithstanding any argument over the “political correctness” of nomenclature, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas led to a blending of races that has greatly diminished the percent of full-blood, original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere.

The mixing of the blood of Caucasians with Indians occurred early in the years of European settlement in the Americas. The story of Pocahontas, and her coming to terms with a world that was changing around her, is often the middle-grade reader’s first exposure to this blending of the bloods. Pocahontas was not mixed-blood, but her son was. Her story has been repeatedly told in print and on screen. Of the many books on this subject, The Double Life of Pocahontas by Jean Fritz won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for its portrayal of her story.

Another middle-grade novel of the blending of the bloods is Sacajawea by Joseph Bruchac. A Shoshone girl, Sacajawea had been captured by the Hidatsa tribe, then married at a young age to Toussaint Charbonneau, a Quebecois (French) trapper. Lewis and Clark engaged Sacajawea and her husband as guides. The great Corps of Discovery Expedition probably would not have been successful in its famous trek to the Pacific Ocean without her help. Sacajawea was not mixed-blood, but like Pocahontas, her son was. In my book Bear Claws, I introduce fictional characters who are related to Sacajawea. One of them becomes the romantic interest of Lone Eagle.

The female involved in starting a mixed-blood family is not always Indian. Cynthia Ann Parker was a white woman whom the Comanches captured when she was about ten years old. She married a Comanche warrior and had three children by him. One of these was Quanah Parker, the last great Comanche chief. I had the privilege of meeting three of Quanah Parker’s great-grandsons during the 2015 Convention of Western Writers of America in Lubbock, Texas. They participated in a workshop on writing about Comanches, which was chaired by my friend Lucia St. Clair Robson. Robson’s wonderful book about Cynthia Ann Parker, Ride the Wind, won a WWA Spur Award. This book might be a struggle for some middle-grade readers, but it would be well worth the effort. An easier read and a fine book for the middle-grade student is Where the Broken Heart Still Beats by Carolyn Meyer.

Both full-blood and mixed-blood Indians have a right to be proud of their heritage and the  contributions they have made to the protection and betterment of all those who claim a relationship to the people who inhabited the Americas before the mixing of the bloods began. In The Iron Horse Chronicles I try to respect the legacy of the American Indian.       


Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Danger of a Single Story, Secondly...

My last post addressed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's excellent Ted Talk "The Danger of a Single Story" where she stated that when we have only one story, one idea about a person or people group, stereotype and prejudice follow. To combat this danger, she called for many stories to provide a true picture of people. 


Having one story is dangerous, but where stories begin is at least as important. Adichie said,

“The Palestinian poet Mourid Baarghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.”

One of the ingredients, that made Alex Haley's Pulitzer prize winning book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), so powerful was where it began. It did not begin with a whip, but with a birth--the birth of a child into the arms of a family in the strength of their life and people. It was the foundation of all that followed because the reader knew exactly what Kunta Kinte had lost. We did not pity him so much as we engaged in his impossible struggle to hold on to his identity in the face of impossible odds. Do you see the difference? In this case, it is respect versus pity. 
"Start the story with the arrow of the Native American, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” --Adichie

Not every story needs to begin in the mists of time, but we do need stories that establish a foundation for a holistic picture of people, both in history and contemporary life. For example, when studying the Iroquois, begin with the Six Nations before adding a story of first European contact, then follow with a contemporary story. This is also a great opportunity to pair nonfiction with fiction. In reality, you will have to do this, as in many cases all the stories we need have not yet been written.

Or how about beginning a study of Latin America with a pre-contact story. No Europeans. Chris Eboch’s The Well of Sacrifice takes place at the height of Mayan culture. Although this culture declined long before European contact, Mayan descendants are still around today. Besides a good background for learning about contemporary Mayan life, it's a thrilling story!

"Stories matter. Many stories matter . . . . when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise." --Adichie
When we lay a foundation for understanding, root it in history, we see people in sharper focus. Many stories inform the way we think about people, how we interact with them. Our world is enlarged, vibrant, becomes for us a wonder, "a kind of paradise." 

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Jennifer Bohnhoff on Drummerboys in the Civil War

War may be known as a man's game, but there have been plenty of boys who've played it.

The drummer boys of the Civil War were not just musicians performing in parades and ceremonies. Their drums directed military life. Drummers used dozens of different drum calls to get the men out of bed in the morning, tell them when food was being served, when different duties were to be performed, and when to retire for the night.  In battle, drummers told men when to form up in units, when and how fast to cover ground, and when to retreat. 'Lijah, the younger brother of my protagonist in The Bent Reed describes the drummer's repertoire this way:

“There’s drummer’s call, what the lead drummer plays to assemble the other musicians first thing in the morning. Then there’s reveille, breakfast call, surgeon’s call, drill call, assembly of the guard, Adjutant’s call, 3 cheers, dinner call, to the color, tattoo, and taps. An’ that’s just the reg’lar calls. Then there’s the marches and the break camps and the battle calls like commence firing and cease firing. A drummer boy’s gotta know a lot to direct the troops.”

Drummer boys were  noncombatants who did not carry weapons, but that doesn't mean that their service wasn't dangerous. But at times the buglers and drummers were involved in the action. Because the noise of battle made  communication difficult, drummer boys issued commands on the battlefields. Soldiers on the other side, who knew that their enemies listened to drum calls for direction, often targeted drummer boys.

Jimmy Harlow, the Confederate drummer boy from Georgia who has lost a leg in my novel is fictitious, but many real drummer boys suffered similar injuries. The youngest soldier injured during the war was a twelve-year old drummer boy named William Black, whose left hand and arm were shattered by an exploding shell.  Avery Brown, enlisted when he was just 8 years old, played the snare drum at recruitment stations to boost enlistments until he was finally deemed old enough to work as a drummer boy on the front. He was medically discharged in 1863.

The most famous of all the Civil War drummer boys, Johnny Clem, was 9 when he joined the 22nd Michigan. Clem, better known by the nickname of Johnny Shiloh, was wounded twice. He became the youngest soldier ever promoted as a noncommissioned officer. When the war ended, John Clem re-enlisted. He finally retired in 1915 as a major general.

In Ann Turner's Drummer Boy: Marching to the Civil War, a fictitious starry-eyed thirteen-year old lies about his age in order to join the Union as a drummer boy. This beautifully illustrated picture book for low shows what he sees, from the camaraderie of the camp fire to the cacophony of battle. Through it all, the drummer boy must keep playing his drum to relay orders and rally spirits. Powerful text and stunning artwork come together to showcase the drama and heartache of war.

Several books have been written about Orion Howe, a twelve-year old boy from Ohio who ran away from school to join the Fifty-fifth Illinois Regiment as a drummer boy. Howe earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery.

Marlene Targ Brill's Diary of a Drummer Boy is the fictitious diary of this real life boy. It is a simple book with stunningly beautiful illustrations that will make the era come alive for middle school readers with low reading skills.

For more advanced readers, G. Clifford Wisler's Drummer Boy of Vicksburg is a longer first-person narrative based on the same real boy's wartime experiences.

Another book by G. Clifford Wisler, Mr. Lincoln's Drummer tells the true story of  Willie Johnston, a ten-year-old who also was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courage as a drummer in the Union Army during the Civil War.  Kirkus Reviews calls this book "Scrupulously researched and overflowing with evocative detail . . . authentic and engaging."

You can see pictures of these two real life drummer boys here.

The author with her three sons, none of whom has been a drummer boy, but one of which has been a drummer, at Devil's Den, Gettysburg. Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grade social studies teacher and the author of 3 books for middle grade readers and 1 book for young adults. Her next book, a light-hearted contemporary middle grade novel, is due out in January. She is currently writing a middle grade novel set during the Civil War in New Mexico. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Chris Eboch on Fantastic History: Bringing Legends to Life, Part 2

Yesterday I began this post on Fantastic History. See part one here.

For authors who write historical fantasy, how much historical detail is enough? It varies by author and book, but quite often authors want their historical details to be accurate.

Authentic History, Fresh Fantasy

Though some writers use history only as inspiration, many are committed to historical accuracy. Carla Jablonski says, “The research helped inspire events that took place in [Silent Echoes] and I think the more realistic the setting, the more absolutely rooted in the truth, the more your reader will go with you in the fantasy.”

“I also write nonfiction,” says Tiffany Trent, author of In the Serpent’s Coils, “so I’m a stickler for being as accurate as I can, no matter what I’m writing. In the Hallowmere books, I used as much factual detail as I could, even down to finding out the days of the week corresponding to the 1865 calendar so I knew whether I was scheduling events at the proper time. I do admit to a few liberties when absolutely necessary, but on the whole, I don’t feel excused from historical fact just because I’m writing fantasy.”

Clare B. Dunkle says, “Because the Hollow Kingdom trilogy takes place mostly within the confines of the fantasy part of that world, I didn’t have to do too much research. For By These Ten Bones, however, I probably did more research than I would have done for straight historical fiction because I needed to know not just the historical details of life in a Highland township but their superstitions, pagan practices, and religious beliefs as well.”

The Messy Details

For Dunkle, “The historical setting of By These Ten Bones began to feel constricting after a time because I couldn’t just go with any flight of fancy my mind might dream up. I felt compelled to ‘get it right.’ This led me to obsess over crazy details, such as how the medieval Scottish chickens looked. I also had to piece together the mental and spiritual perspective of the medieval Highlander, which meant that I was working with characters who didn’t think the way I do. This can be uncomfortable for an author, but I dislike books that dress modern characters up in medieval costumes and call them ‘historical.’”

Of Dragon’s Keep, Janet Lee Carey says, “It’s all made up of course but tying into the Arthurian legend in the prologue and setting the story a little more than six hundred years later had its responsibilities.” She cites “the frustration of making the dates in the story fit snugly into English history. I had to do extensive research into England’s civil war between Empress Matilda and King Stephen, but it was worth it.”

Jablonski found challenging, “Making sure the fantasy element is believable, making the transitions between worlds seamless and grounded in credible reasoning – I paid a lot of attention to that.”

A Fictional History

Historical fantasy has a sister genre in speculative fiction that uses an alternate history. The Amethyst Road has a setting much like the Pacific Northwest, but in a world where gypsies are common and persecuted. Author Louise Spiegler says, “This is an archetypical story – the story of the heroine’s journey through trials. One reason I didn’t tell this as a straight contemporary story was to tap into these archetypes, and to create a world that is rich with allusion and poetry.”

Once you accept the basic premise of that world, it follows all the rules of ours. No one uses magic; there are no dragons or fairies. Spiegler says, “The research made my created group feel much more real to me, and certainly made the experience of racism come across more powerfully, and yet the speculative fiction form allowed me to integrate these invented people into this more archetypal story I was telling.”

Traveling Back in Time

Time travel books have long been popular in children’s literature. Often, the time-travel itself is the only fantasy element, while both the present world and the past are strictly realistic. In Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, a young actor winds up in Shakespeare’s time. In Kimberly Little’s The Last Snake Runner, a Native American boy travels back to the Acoma Pueblo of 1598. These books take place mainly in the past, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary character.

A few books weave contemporary and past stories together with multiple trips through time. In On Etruscan Time, by Tracy Barrett, a boy on an archaeology dig visits an Etruscan village 2000 years ago. He and his friend from the past move between each other’s world several times.

In Louise Spiegler’s novel, The Jewel and the Key, the main character travels back and forth between the early days of the American invasion of Iraq, and World War I. Spiegler says, “My subject demanded time travel. I felt a strong resonance between the two time periods, between the two wars – the questionable reasons for our involvement, the strong voices raised against it, the antagonism towards dissent, the curtailment of civil liberties.

“In this case, the advantage over straight historical fiction is the introduction of a perspective that characters who are embedded in their own time period can’t have. My World War I characters can’t know – as my 21st century characters do, for example – that World War I won’t be the war to end all wars.”

Bringing History to Life

Editor Reka Simonsen says, “I think history is fascinating to most people, really; it’s just the dry textbook approach that turns so many of us away from it. But when a talented author revisits a long-ago time or place and brings the people there to life, the results can be captivating.”

A realistic setting grounds the fantasy, while fantasy elements breathe fresh life into old times. For young readers, historical fantasy could be the entryway into a love of history.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Chris Eboch on Fantastic History: Bringing Legends to Life

This post, which will be split between today and tomorrow, is adapted from an article originally published in Children’s Writer newsletter. Some of the books mentioned are middle grade and some are targeted at young adult.

At a glance, historical fiction and fantasy appear to be opposites. Historical fiction requires intensive research to accurately portray a specific past time. In fantasy, the author may create the setting from pure imagination. Yet some writers combine the two genres into historical fantasy. This can be a bridge to get children who like fantasy, but don’t think they like historical fiction, interested in learning about the past.

The historical accuracy varies, however. How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell, claims an old Norse setting but is only loosely based on historical Vikings. Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series reminds the reader of ancient Greece, but includes anachronisms such as guns. Catherine Fisher’s Oracle Prophecies trilogy combines ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. These books are more “inspired by history” than based in historical fact. They could still be used as part of a unit on fact versus fiction, history versus author imagination.

Medieval Inspiration

Of course, many traditional fantasy books draw upon medieval England for setting and mythology. This era remains popular, but some authors take extra care to portray an accurate past. Janet Lee Carey’s Dragon’s Keep is solidly grounded in English history. Carey says of her novel, “Dragon’s Keep started out as a novelized fairytale about a princess with a dragon’s claw. The story begins in A.D. 1145 and takes place on a fictitious island that was once an English prison colony.”

Clare B. Dunkle set By These Ten Bones in about 1550 in the Scottish Highlands and used fantasy elements from the beliefs of the medieval Highlanders. She says, “Folklore-based fantasy has always been a favorite of mine. I made a study of the folklore of Britain when I was in school, so it was a natural choice when I decided to write.”

More recent historical England is another popular fantasy setting. Dunkle’s Hollow Kingdom trilogy, set in England from 1815 to 1854, uses the magical beings of British folklore. Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty and its sequels, set in Victorian England, use an accurate setting where only a few people access the fantasy world.

Reka Simonsen, now executive Editor at Atheneum, says “I’m not sure if the [English] setting fascinates so much because YA readers today have grown up with Harry Potter, or because Victorian London is the birthplace of the most famous classic horror and ghost stories, of if there’s some other reason entirely.” For whatever reason, you’ll find a lot of books with English historical setting.

A Broader World

Other books push the boundaries into more unusual times and places. Tracy Barrett’s novel King of Ithaka is based on Odysseus’ son Telemachos. “I’m trying to keep all the day-to-day details of late Bronze-Age Greece accurate and the centaurs, nymphs, sea-creatures, and other creatures that are in the story are interwoven with these realistic details,” she says. Barrett also has a YA novel about Ariadne and Theseus, called Dark of the Moon.

My own novel The Genie’s Gift is a lighthearted action novel set in the fifteenth-century Middle East. I drew heavily on One Thousand and One Nights, often known as The Arabian Nights, for the mythology in The Genie’s Gift. The stories in One Thousand and One Nights came from Indian, Persian, Arabic, and other sources. They were collected over hundreds of years, beginning in the eighth century.

As in The Arabian Nights, The Genie’s Gift is a series of interlocking stories that make up a whole. I started with many traditional stories and adapted them to suit my needs. Legends refer to a sorceress who changed a man into marble from waist down. Gnomes were said to dwell in the mountains and play tricks on people. A mechanical/magical horse of ivory and ebony could fly, controlled by pegs under its mane. Simurgh, a magic bird, offered advice and healed people by rubbing her feathers over wounds.

Coming to America

Teachers of American history will also find many books that support real history with fantasy stories. Walter Mosley’s 47 is set on an American slave plantation, with a character from a distant world. Eden Unger Bowditch’s The Atomic Weight of Secrets or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black is set in 1903.

Carla Jablonski’s Silent Echoes involves characters in New York City in 1882 and the present. Jablonski was inspired by research about a historical figure. “If she claimed these things today, they’d assume she was crazy. That got me thinking about context; about how values, attitudes, even sanity and reality are determined by the historical time period. The fantasy element allowed me to contrast how the same behavior would be perceived and experienced differently in different times.”

Tiffany Trent’s In the Serpent’s Coils involves a magic school in post-Civil War Virginia. “Often, fantasy books feature some sort of conflict that culminates in an epic battle,” Trent says. “But what if the epic battle has already happened? I wanted to give the sense that my character Corrine, at 15, had lived through a tremendous amount, before she even got involved with dark and mysterious Fey.”

The Painful Truth

Many of these fantasy authors appreciate the gritty realistic details that come from history. Carey says, “The fantastical elements require solid ground. The reader needs to feel as if she’s in a real place. The filth and stench of the middle ages helped me ground the story in reality. Medieval times offered so many strange and often gory details simply as it was. I found the time fascinating from fleas and famine to bizarre medicinal cures – did you know that goose droppings liberally applied can cure baldness?”

Dunkle comments, “Anchoring By These Ten Bones within a historical setting gave the book its strength. The Highlanders had a fascinating superstitious lore. They wouldn’t have been surprised to find a werewolf in their midst, and they would have known exactly which brutal course of action to employ.”

Then there’s the fact that to modern readers, history may seem fantastical. As Tracy Barrett says, “To most people the Bronze Age is as fantastical a setting as Venus!”

Dunkle says, “I think the fantasy elements were what sold the books. They certainly were the elements that made me want to write them.” However, “A number of reviewers also mentioned the setting favorably. But I was surprised when an amateur reviewer on the Web called the book historical fiction rather than fantasy. Her review stated, ‘This is how it would have been if the legends of werewolves were actually true.’”

Stop by tomorrow for part two on Fantastic History.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.