Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ingredients of Good Multicultural Historical Fiction: Language

Language is a gold mine of possibilities, and multicultural literature often has the opportunity to explore two or more languages in the same story. Add the dimension of time and the work pushes to new levels of richness and complexity. That’s the good news. But how do you know if an author has pulled it off?

Characters from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds often bring foreign languages or dialects to narrative. One quick way to check an author’s use of language is to flip to the back for a glossary and pronunciation guide. This can indicate the quality of the work as well as familiarize you with the vocabulary. A guide is great for teachers and parents who plan to read a book aloud. Not only will the reading flow, but your correct pronunciation will show respect for other cultures. Your listeners will intuitively pick this up and hopefully model it.


Authors have a tricky job when using foreign words. They may have provided a glossary, but how do you know they have applied the words accurately? A good clue is if they are a native speaker, have lived in the country where the story is set, or acknowledge assistance from native speakers. If the story is contemporary enough, ask someone from that culture what they think of the book.

How Many and Which?

Sometimes an author inserts too many unknown words. A paragraph of untranslated Latin makes me tetchy at best and usually stops the story cold. Sentences and words in context solve much of this problem and are a good stretch for readers and listeners: “Did you like the play?” “¡Si, me gusto!” Familiar terms are the best foreign words to use in a story: mother, father, yes, no, please, and thank you. Words for hello are always winners because many people already know them: hola, bonjour, kon’nichiwa, etc. We’re collecting gold dust here.


It is important that a conversation spoken in one language but presented in another does not sound broken. They are speaking seamlessly in their own language. For example if a person says in Spanish “Tengo doce años,” “I am 12 years old,” it would not be translated in English as “I have 12 years.” (It is another matter if the character is speaking English and this is how they say it.) This is pretty straight forward. Or is it? It is a truism that something is lost in the translation. Connotation and eloquence are embedded in the syntax of language. Sometimes a direct translation captures this best.

"...language is not just words, but ideas and culture." --Byron Shorty

In addition, there can be no direct interpretation for certain words or concepts. The Navajo word hózhǫ́ is such a word. More a state of being than a thing to be defined, hózhǫ́ has to do with being in balance with the universe and carries notes of beauty, harmony, peace, happiness, and contentment, as well as goodness. In cases such as this, the author may choose to use the foreign word directly and have a character define it specifically or in dialogue.

Word play

If possible, an author can use language in such a way that the indigenous reader will pick up on double meaning. Here’s a spoiler: In a story I am writing, a Navajo girl runs away from boarding school to tell her family that her brother is sick. Her grandmother says, “you ran for your little brother.” In Navajo, the word for help literally means “to run for.” I have placed this in the text because I was lucky enough to stumble on the term, and I hope it will be a small nugget for Navajo readers to discover.

History comes alive and sparkles with good language use. Multicultural historical fiction can lead to a gold mine of new vocabulary and ideas, connecting readers to unknown cultures, past and present. Let me know if you have more to add to this conversation!

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, May 26, 2015

Becoming a Knight: Then and Now

Becoming a knight in the middle ages was a long and difficult process that usually began when a noble boy turned 7 years old. The boy was then sent to live in the family of a relative or another vassal of their father's liege lord. Here he served as a page for about 7 years. He learned to wait on tables and did menial chores such as running errands and polishing armor. In some households, pages also attended school and learned to read, write and do sums.

When his voice started to change, the boy graduated from page to squire. Squires spent less time doing chores and more time training for warfare. Oftentimes their knights gave them horses and weaponry and had them ride into battle with them.

At the end of his training, the squire participated in an elaborate ceremony and "earned his spurs." He was now a knight.

He has no shining armor and he won't be riding a horse into battle, but my son John "earned his spurs" last Saturday when he graduated from West Point and joined the Long, Gray Line.

(Yes, I know that this picture is a proof and I'm not supposed to reproduce it. My son is a procrastinator when it comes to pictures.  I got this proof long after the invitations went out in the mail.  I have sent in the order for legal copies, and I hope the company will forgive me for not waiting for them to come before posting this.)

If you want to learn about what it is like to be a cadet at West Point, try the middle grade novel Battle Dress, by Amy Efaw. A West Point Class of 1989 graduate, Ms. Efaw provides an insider's look at what the first six weeks of training, better known as Beast, is like. Her protagonist, a brave and determined girl named Andi Davis, is screamed at, belittled, and worn down during the long, grueling training that is designed to break cadets and then rebuild them into soldiers.

If you want to learn about what it is like to be a squire or a page, try my novel On Fledgling Wings. Nathaniel Marshal is the spoiled and coddled son of a Somerset knight.  He is used to being able to bully everyone into doing things his way.  But when he leaves home to become a page, he enters a world where he is bullied and he must grow up quickly.

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grade social studies teacher and the author of three historical novels for middle grade readers.  You can learn more about her books and follow her blog at

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Different View of War

They say history is written by the victors, but most of us know that everyone loses something in a war. And those people who actually lose land or control over their lives or are drafted into a new way of life – they have stories too. You have only to read I Am Malala by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai, or Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank to get a firsthand look at how war changes young lives.

When I researched my novel, Bull Rider, which is about how ranch kid Cam O’Mara’s life is turned upside down when his brother, Ben, returns from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and amputated arm, my own perceptions were changed. This is perhaps, the best kind of growth an author can hope for. It’s not easy, but having your own view of the world broadened is a good thing. Hopefully it makes the book fresh and honest. One of the things I discovered, was that although I assumed Ben would be angry about his injuries and probably mad at the Marines, when I interviewed people who worked with injured veterans they all said the same thing. Most of the service men and women wanted to get well and go back to their jobs, back to their buddies. The truth in that changed my book. Still there are few “winners” in war, and the O’Mara family sacrificed much. I was honored to write their story, and hope my fictional characters reflect some truth.
Here are some of my favorite books that offer a different view of war:

Winter People by Joseph Bruchac tells the Abenaki nation’s side of an attack during the French and
Indian War.
·        Linda Sue Park’s When My Name Was Keoko gives a Korean girl’s account of that country under Japanese occupation in World War, II.
·        Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury shows the attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath from the perspective of a Japanese American family living in Hawaii.
·        Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis to learn about the little known stories of African American women serving in World War II.
·        Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate follows a Samali boy, a refugee from the war in that country, as he tries to adjust to his new life in Minnesota.

Wars produce a lot of stories. Most of them aren’t about the winners or the losers, but about the people whose lives are changed forever.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"One of Our 50 is Still Missing" by Mary Louise Sanchez

On April 29, 2015 The Associated Press released an article written by Maureen Magee and published in the Nation's Report Card stating that 8th-graders are weak in history, civics, and geography. Their scores barely budged from the 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress. Twenty seven percent of eighth graders scored proficient in geography; twenty three percent scored proficient in civics; and eighteen percent scored proficient in history. Michelle Herczog, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said the results "point to a need for immediate action." She said "that tackling issues such as terrorism, human rights, race relations, and poverty require a deep understanding of the historical and geographic context." Ms. Herczig also said this poses a question to our nation. How do we maintain our status in the world in the future if our students do not understand our nation's history, world geography, or civics principles or practices?

I can certainly relate to people not knowing their geography and history and included this in my unpublished middle grade historical fiction story, The Wind Called My Name, which is set during the Great Depression. In the story, the local Wyoming girl asks the protagonist where she's from, and the protagonist answers, "New Mexico", which is misinterpreted as Mexico through much of the story.

About ten years ago we visited Gettysburg where they advertised you could get your ancestor's records if he fought in any of the Civil War battles. Since I knew my ancestor's name and where he fought, I excitedly approached the desk to get my records. The woman at the desk asked what state my ancestor fought in and I replied, "New Mexico." Her response was, "That's not in the United States." Unfortunately, this is a common identity problem for the state of New Mexico. In fact, the magazine, New Mexico, even has a monthly column called "One of Our 50 Is Missing", where people submit various anecdotes about New Mexico's mistaken identity.

The U.S. government may have added to New Mexico's identity problem when they kept the mission of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico during WWII a secret. The first atomic bombs were designed and manufactured here.

Goodreads image

Ellen Klages the author of  The Green Glass Sea,which won a Scott O'Dell Award in 2007, does a fine job of presenting the events surrounding the Manhattan Project as it was experienced by the people who came to work in this northern New Mexican town during WWII. Here is a summary of the book from Goodreads.

It is 1943, and 11-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is traveling west on a train to live with her scientist father—but no one, not her father nor the military guardians who accompany her, will tell her exactly where he is. When she reaches Los Alamos, New Mexico, she learns why: he's working on a top secret government program. Over the next few years, Dewey gets to know eminent scientists, starts tinkering with her own mechanical projects, becomes friends with a budding artist who is as much of a misfit as she is—and, all the while, has no idea how the Manhattan Project is about to change the world. This book's fresh prose and fascinating subject are like nothing you've read before.

Another middle grade historical fiction book which highlights the role Los Alamos, New Mexico played in WWII, and takes the reader back to that time, is The Secret Project Notebook by Carolyn Reeder.
Goodreads image

This is my Goodreads review of the book.

Franklin Madden, age twelve, has a new home and a new name, Fritz, at a secret location in New Mexico during WWII. His dad's a scientist at the lab there, but that's all Fritz knows until he starts adding clues to his secret notebook, so that he and his new friend, Kathy, can decipher what the lab work is all about.

I found it interesting to see what family life might have been like for the scientists and regular civilians at Los Alamos, New Mexico.


Readers of these historical fiction books will gain much historical knowledge about the part Los Alamos, New Mexico played in our country's history. Both books can also bring to light the fact that New Mexico really is the 47th state admitted to the United States, even though our government might have preferred to think of the state as missing during WWII.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Robert Lee Murphy--Maps Are Essential To Historical Fiction

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When I commenced writing The Iron Horse Chronicles, I decided that each book had to contain a map to help orient the reader to the terrain through which the characters act. From an early age, I appreciated the inclusion of maps in the books I read. As an adult reader, when given a choice, I select a book that contains a map over one that does not. 

Out of curiosity, I went to my local library and “researched” all of the books available that day for young readers to check out. Admittedly, my so-called research was not scientific, but I am convinced that it is good enough to prove my point. 

Henderson Libraries Logo

The Paseo Verde branch of the Henderson, Nevada, libraries flags the spine of their books with a notation for “Historical Fiction.” I pulled each of the 114 historical fiction books present in the stacks on the day of my "research" and checked for maps. Not to my surprise, I found only 25 contained a map. That’s only 22%.

On the other hand, virtually every fantasy novel I examined contained a map. The author of fantasy fiction must create the landscape through which the characters will move. The resulting map aids the reader in not getting lost. For example, the Paseo Verde library on the day of my "research" displayed fifteen fantasy novels written by Brian Jacques. Each included a magnificent map helping the reader to visualize the locale of the action.

As a middle grade historical novelist, I do not believe it is right to assume my reader already knows the geography involved, perhaps because of other school studies, or assume the reader will have the initiative to find an atlas for self edification. I doubt that happens often. I owe it to my readers to help them.

Finished Map by Robert Lee Murphy and Phyllis Mignard
Original Sketch Map by Robert Lee Murphy
I was fortunate in having the assistance of an outstanding illustrator who took my rough sketches and turned them into works of art that the publisher has included in each book as a two-page spread. Phyllis Mignard, my friend and fellow member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, prepared the maps for both Eagle Talons and Bear Claws.

Soon, I hope to engage Phyllis in polishing the map for Golden Spike, the concluding volume in my transcontinental railroad trilogy. First, I must finish writing the book and draft the map.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Sara K Joiner: Insights from Historical Fiction Writers

In April I attended the Texas Library Association's annual conference in Austin where there were sessions about historical fiction for teens and adults.

The first session was called "The Many Facets of Young Adult Historical Fiction" and featured Andrea Cremer, A.C. Gaughen, Michaela MacColl, Ashley Perez, April Lindner and Stacey Lee.

To kick off the session, each of the authors was asked why they thought historical fiction is important.

Lindner: "Fiction is a lesson in empathy. It's the closest thing we have to a time machine."

Gaughen: "It's exploring the voices of teen girls which have been historically almost universally ignored."

Perez: "It's the voices from the margins."

MacColl:  "I got all my history as a kid through historical novels."

Lee:  "Recovering the historical record of women is difficult, so historical fiction is the place to engage that voice and illuminate ideas in new ways."

Cremer:  "As an historian, you're not allowed to change history, but as an historical fiction writer you can."

Their answers got me thinking. Why do I think historical fiction is important?

One of the reasons I read historical fiction as a child is that it was closer to my life experience. Even though I had a telephone, television and rode in a car, my life was still closer to Anne Shirley's Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Neighbors didn't live close, and I knew everyone in my small hometown.

Even though I didn't have any relatives who had died in World War II, I still understood Sally's experiences in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume. We had a party line on our phone, and my father worked in the city and came home on weekends.

But that's probably not the main reason I read historical fiction as a child. I loved the stories! It was that simple. I don't think you need to be able to relate to a character's experience to have a connection with the book, but it probably does help.

Why do I write historical fiction?

I think it's interesting to see how people, especially girls, deal with the strictures of the societies in which they live. This is also true in contemporary fiction, but I think historical fiction provides insights into how far we've come as a society and lays the blueprint for how far we still have to go.

In my upcoming novel, After the Ashes, Katrien's life goal is to prove Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. That's quite a goal for a thirteen-year-old girl living on Java in 1883. She has a supportive father, but her aunt wants her to be more ladylike. Katrien has to navigate the expectations society holds for her, and she finds it easier to navigate the wild jungle surrounding her home.

I hope Katrien's story touches readers. I hope they find connections to their own lives, but most importantly, I hope they enjoy it.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes, coming in the fall from Holiday House. She is also the children's coordinator for Brazoria County Library System.