Thursday, January 29, 2015

Historical Fiction – Celebrating the Possibilities

By Suzanne Morgan Williams

The funny thing about history is that you aren’t aware that you’re making it. My daughter once asked, “How do you plan your life?” I answered something like, “You can have an idea of where you want to go, but honestly, you make one decision and then another and they add up, and there you are. Mostly life goes day by day.”

History too is sometimes created by the accumulation of random events added, perhaps, to the intersection of powerful people. Considering that every participant has a unique and often differing point of view, it’s amazing we can ever agree on some kind of shared backstory. But the idea that one narrative doesn’t define an era is exciting for authors.
Finding an untold point of view or a detail overlooked by traditional teachings can launch an entire book. Mary Cronk Farrell’s 2014 nonfiction book True Grit; How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific, is exactly that kind of story. Who knew about these nurses and what they contributed and endured in the Philippines? Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson adds details, insight, and humanizes the Civil Rights era and the years that followed through a stunning memoir. But what about historical fiction? What can it add to the conversation?

Fiction, in my mind, can be used to present truth in a way that the constraints of nonfiction may not allow. And yet it is fiction, made up, not true. And young readers may not know anything about the events a book is based on. So how can historical fiction books enrich and enchant the middle grade reader without confusing them? When kids read historical fiction how will they know what is fact and what is fiction? Chances are they won’t, so authors must do impeccable research. A good historical fiction book depends on solid facts, whether it is the method of creating celadon pottery in twelfth century Korea as in Linda Sue Park’s Single Shard, or the streetscapes of 1930s San Francisco in Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts. These details bring the books to life and lend them authority and authenticity. For readers who are familiar with the time and place, they underscore the book’s honesty. For young readers, they provide information that they will accept, probably without question, so the facts had better be right. These authors don’t change the facts. They use them to underscore their characters and add drama to their plots.

In my opinion the strength of historical fiction is in humanizing stories that may have been mythologized or sanitized, and bringing young readers squarely into the emotional lives of a character experiencing a historic event. Historical fiction can remind us that every war statistic represents a person and every economic downturn can devastate real families. It may present a point of view we never thought of – a slave in Boston during the Revolutionary War (Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson) or a Cuban teen who is sent to Miami during the Cuban Revolutions during Operation Pedro Pan (The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez). Historical fiction engages children in a way a few text book pages can’t, gets them asking questions they never knew they had and thinking for themselves. Keeping the facts straight while making the story unforgettable. That’s the possibility of historical fiction.


  1. There are so many possibilities for historical fiction stories, since there are many narratives for each era. Thank you for reminding us.

  2. Hi Suzanne,
    Thanks for the shout out! Hope you are well.