By Suzanne Morgan Williams
When I was a kid, I got a lot of my historical information from books like Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, and Black Beauty. Indeed, most of my ideas about English history came from Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, and other authors of historical novels. All of those books may not have been historical when they were published but they were to me. These days few kids seem to have a taste for 19th century literature and history may be slighted in favor of more “practical” subjects in school, so it’s up to today’s authors to recreate those worlds. Why?
History is important. It’s a cliché, but without a knowledge of the past, it’s all too easy to make the same disastrous decisions today. History does repeat itself. History connects us. Although our personal, family histories may differ, stories of war, empires, love, and family discord cross cultures. Who doesn’t admire a girl who follows her passion against all odds – whether she is Mulan or Joan of Arc? History gives us a depth of understanding. Try wrapping your mind around modern Utah without knowing the history of the Latter Day Saints or today’s voting rights issues without being familiar with Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights and women’s suffrage movements.
Text book history is official history. There aren’t enough pages in the books to include every event and everyone’s point of view. And texts are written (often decades ago), by academics (may be boring) and approved by committees (definitely political), to reflect the prevailing points of view of those people (probably middle and upper class). Historical fiction is an effective platform for adding balance and texture to state approved texts. Our books put a face on history. They catch readers’ interest in ways that textbooks can’t.
For example, read Winter People by Joseph Bruchac and tell me your view of Rogers Rangers and the French and Indian War doesn’t change, or Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and try looking at colonial Boston in the same light as before. Read A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, then go to an Asian art museum. Can you imagine the people who created celadon pottery centuries ago? Historical fiction can change perspectives and open young readers’ minds to ideas and worlds they’ve never thought of. Good historical fiction should raise questions and create space for empathy. We could all do with more of that.