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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Oldies But Goodies:The American Revolution, 1775-1783 by Mary Louise Sanchez

The American Revolution encompasses many individuals, groups, ideas, and themes in North American history.
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However, students can't drink from a fire hose just like they can't read everything about the American Revolution; but they can read about a few topics in well written historical fiction books.
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Each year the National History Day Project suggests a theme for study; and they also advise that students narrow their topics within the theme. 

Here are some narrow topic ideas suggested for the 2012 National History Day Theme: Revolution, Reaction, and Reform in History.

Reforms before the war: Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Intolerable Acts
Reactions before the war: Boston Tea Party, Sons of Liberty
Reforms after the war: Constitution replaces Articles of Confederation
Reactions after the war: Shays' Rebellion, British reaction to loss

The "Oldie But Goodie" historical fiction books below also narrow the scope of the American Revolution into manageable bites. Students can learn causes and effects of a singular event. They can learn what led to the revolution (politically, socially, economically, and militarily), and what the effect was on its participants. They could also learn why the event was revolutionary.

Because the American Revolution is studied in school, many book rooms have multiple copies of various books about the American Revolution. Since students like to delve into subjects where they have some choice, perhaps the school librarian or classroom teacher could present the topics included in the books, and let the students choose the topics that most interest them about the American Revolution.

 What topic about the American Revolution would you most like to explore in an historical fiction book?

Avi. The Fighting Ground. Harper Collins,1984. 160 pages.  ISBN 0-397-32074. Grades 4 and up.

Thirteen-year-old Jonathon has a romantic image of the war taking place near his New Jersey home in 1778. He disobeys his father and joins some townspeople to fight for the patriot cause. The fight lasts one day and minute by minute we see Jonathon's reaction to war from his problems carrying and loading the heavy gun; getting captured by the Hessians; and encountering a murdered husband and wife who have left their young son orphaned. Jonathon later learns the family was French and that makes him question who was responsible for the murder. Scott O'Dell Award (1985); NCSS/CBC Notable 1984 Children's Trade Book in Social Studies.
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Collier, James Lincoln and Christopher Collier. My Brother Sam is Dead. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1984. Newbery Honor (1974). Tim Meeker's brother Sam has joined the American Revolution and Tim's father supports the British. Now Tim must make a choice between the Revolutionaries and the Red Coats.
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Fast, Howard. April Morning. Crown, 1961. 

A fifteen-year-old boy joins his town's militia when his father is killed and the British are marching on his town. April 18, 1775, The Battle of Lexington changes one boy's life and a nation's history. 
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Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain. Houghton, 1943. Dell, 1995. ISBN 0-440-44250-8. 272 pages. Grades 5 and up.

Johnny Tremain is a silversmith's apprentice in Boston. Another apprentice, jealous of Johnny's skill, causes him to be terribly burned by molten silver. Because of his shriveled hand, Johnny must find other work. As a rider for the Boston Observer, Johnny becomes interested in the Revolution and participates in the Boston Tea Party and other revolutionary acts. He also learns to accept himself, wounds and all.
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