Historical fiction ftw!

Posted on January 15, 2008 under historical fiction, kidlit, public history

The winners for the big children’s book awards have been announced, and this year, history won.

The most exciting news is that Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters, Sweet Ladies has won the Newbery!  This terrific, original book is a series of dramatic monologues from characters in a medieval village.   It’s a surprise and a pleasure to find that such an unusual book, and a history book at that, was this year’s winner. (If you’d like to read more about the judging, Monica Edinger, who served on this year’s Newbery committee, has been writing thoughtfully about the process all year.) Schlitz, a librarian at a progressive private school in Baltimore, wrote the monologues for fifth graders doing a unit on the middle ages, and was persuaded to send the book in to publishers.  Schlitz is also the author of one of my favorite books of 2006, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, about spiritualists, ghosts and orphans around the turn of the century (what’s not to like?).
One of the Honor books (and the Coretta Scott King medal winner), Elijah of Buxton, is also a historical, as is The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the genre-busting illustrated novel which won the Caldecott.

This indicates not necessarily that better historical fiction is being written, but that excellent historical fiction for kids can be acclaimed and honored as much as fantasy or realistic fiction.  Hopefully this will spur the publishing of better historical fiction for kids, rather than “kids’ historical novels getting a pass,” not being subject to real critical scrutiny, as Gail Gauthier has suggested.  And as Roger Sutton recently noted, historical fiction can seem just as exotic as fantasy to kids. So why is it not as widely read and widely sold?   There’s an air of stodginess that clings to historical fiction as much as it does to our small museums.  Let’s air it out.  Historical fiction is perhaps the most visible and widely distributed genre of public history, and we should be reading, recommending, supporting, and even writing it!