Thursday, November 10, 2016

Historical Novelists Before Middle-Grade Became a Genre

Seventy years ago, when I entered the middle-grades for the first time (now you can calculate my age), there was no “Middle-Grade” genre for books. We, of course, read the traditional books by the same famous authors students read today—Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and Jack London, to name a few. Before, during, and following World War II, I do not recall that many books were targeted to an audience of young readers. There were exceptions, of course. Esther Forbes’s Newberry Prize-winning Johnny Tremain was and still is a favorite.

This leads me to recommend young readers take a look at two historical novelists who are largely forgotten today. Probably neither of these great authors were recommended by my teachers. Popular movies of the day based upon these authors’ novels perhaps guided me to read their books. I continue to reread them. They are cracking great adventure reads that teach a lot of history in the process.

Samuel Shellabarger (1888–1954) wrote his first historical novel in 1928. During his lifetime he wrote eighteen works of fiction. My favorite of his books is Captain from Castile, written in 1946, about Hernan Cortez' conquest of the Aztecs. A movie based on the novel starring Tyrone Power appeared in 1947. The reader learns about the terrors of the inquisition in Spain and the brutal subjugation of the native inhabitants of what is now Mexico.

Shellabarger's writing usually contains a love interest, but there is no explicit sex.

Another of my favorites is Prince of Foxes, Shellabarger's next book, written in 1947. Again, Tyrone Power starred in the movie of the same name in 1949. Here, the reader is immersed in the intrigues of Cesare Borgia and his infamous family during the time of the Holy Roman Empire before Italy became the country we know today.

In 1950, Shellabarger’s The King’s Cavalier appeared. I am currently rereading this book for the umpteenth time.

My other forgotten historical novelist is Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950). He produced thirty-one novels, plus numerous short stories, a few non-fiction books, and a play. Among my favorite books by Sabatini is Scaramouche, written in 1921, about a lawyer who masquerades as a buffoon during the time of the French revolution. This great novel has been made into movies more than once, but the one I remember starred Stewart Granger in 1952.

Sabatini, like Shellabarger, includes a love interest in his novels, but no sex.

Probably the most famous of Sabatini’s historical novels is Captain Blood, written in 1922. What middle-grade boy, or girl, does not like a roaring pirate tale? Sabatini is known for adhering closely to historical facts in his books; even though, like my approach to writing, his protagonists are fictional. Errol Flynn starred in the 1935 movie, which recently played on Turner Classic Movies. After watching the movie rerun, I reread this book.

Sensing that some folks may consider these books too long or too difficult for today’s middle-grade reader, I performed some “un-scientific” research into the readability of the novels.

The Hemingway Editor software program gives a random selection of the written word from Samuel Shellabarger’s Captain from Castile a “Readability Rating” of Grade 5. By comparison, various websites rate J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as Grade 5.5. My own Bear Claws rates as Grade 5 in the Hemingway Editor.

The books by Shellabarger and Sabatini are typically longer than most on today’s middle-grade bookshelf, but no more so than many of the Harry Potter books. The stories by my two great "forgotten" authors are so compelling I’ll bet they will be read from cover to cover.

My writing has been influenced by Shellabarger and Sabatini, but I do not profess to be in the same league as they. Still, my historical novel Bear Claws, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book Two, won the Silver Will Rogers Medallion Award for 2016, and the Wyoming State Historical Society awarded Bear Claws First Place in Fiction for 2016. Take a read and let me know what you think.

Golden Spike, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book Three, the final book in my trilogy about Will Braddock's quest to determine his own destiny during the time of the building of the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s, will be released by Five Star Publishing in mid-2017.


  1. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn are two of my all-time favorite actors! Even as a kid I loved watching classic historical fiction movies and reading classic historical fiction. In high school I was reading Drums Along the Mohawk, Gone With The Wind, Ivanhoe, Deerslayer, White Fang, and The Last Days of Pompeii. Shellabarger is new to me, but those books look interesting. I've read Captain Blood!

    Deb Watley

  2. Some old, new authors and their books for me to explore.