Historical Fiction: Hot or Not?
Posted by: Keir Graff
In yesterday’s issue of REaD ALERT, I asked, “But is historical fiction still hot?” I’ve gotten a wide variety of answers, which I’ll try to group into some kind of logical order. My apologies if I haven’t included your reply or if I’ve cut too much from it. (I’ve taken the liberty of linking book titles to their Booklist reviews.) I certainly welcome your comments.
Jen Baker writes that historical fiction is still hot but needs a little bit of help from its friends:
Lovers of traditional historical fiction are also still going strong and from my perspective as a fiction librarian at The Seattle Public Library, this genre is alive and kicking . . . One constraining issue in libraries that can prevent readers from finding great historical fiction is our propensity for interfiling this genre (and romance, too), unlabelled, with the general fiction. In a library the size of our Central branch, browsers often seek in vain. What are the chances of finding Kaligrodis on the Stephen King aisle? Librarians and booksellers: feature your historical fiction so we can find what we need; talk about historical fiction; make displays; blog. So many of us thirst for the great reads hiding anonymously on shelves spine out.
Nancy Reeder agrees that those who find it will find it to their liking:
The middle and high school students at my school may have be to led to it or assigned it, most seem to enjoy it. It is wonderful outside reading for history and social studies courses, especially when the teacher will allow each student to choose a title that appeals to him/her from the time period to be studied.
Jeanne Nelson offers a new definition of both “historical fiction” and “hot”:
For the school-age students who are my patrons, the date that divides historical from contemporary is very recent. Thanks to the tsunami of technology changes, most fiction is now historical fiction unless it was written recently with very contemporary content. A cell phone that doesn’t take photos is ancient, and the means of communication described in most novels is, well, historical fiction. Science fiction/fantasy may be the only genre that escapes this dating. Redefining historical fiction in this manner, the answer to your question is, yes, historical fiction is still hot. There is just a lot more of it.
Patrick Provant’s remarks suggest that the books of Bernard Cornwell may help historical fiction find new readers.
Dunno about other folks, but as soon as Bernard Cornwell releases a book, I have it on hold. His ‘Sharpe’ series set in Napoleonic times is just the right amount of gritty and adventurous, and is meticulously researched. His Arthur series is a very interesting take, ‘Stonehenge’ was just plain cool, and his current series set in Alfred the Great’s England (starting with ‘The Last Kingdom‘) fills the bill for page-turning action combined with the most accurate setting possible. I really don’t read much in the way of historical fiction other than his, being more of a sci-fi person.
Marguerite Crowley Weibel suggests an overlooked audience for YA historical fiction: adult literacy and ESL students.
For example, some titles that have been recorded for tape or CD make great family “read alouds,” allowing the adult with minimal reading skills to participate in such events. Two of my favorite titles in this category are Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” and “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan. Both of these books feature young girls as narrators, but there are many well defined adult characters as well, and they both deal with issues of continuing importance – racial integraton and migrant workers. Other YA books in this category will appeal to new readers who have advanced sufficiently to want to read “real” books. A few titles to mention include Patrician MacLachlan’s “Sarah Plain and Tall,” Julius Lester’s “Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue,” Francisco Jimenez’s “The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child,” Karen Hesse’s “Out of the Dust,” and Paul Fleischman’s “Seedfolks” and “Bull Run.”
Gail Piotrowski notes that, while her community/technical college library doesn’t purchase much fiction, her book group offers some anecdotal evidence of the genre’s health:
The “woman’s health” book club that I belong to chose Charity Girl (2008) by Michael Lowenthal as its April selection, and will be reading Molokai (2008) by Alan Brennert for June. While this may be an anomaly, both are works of historical fiction.
Erica Sommer Karcher, a senior buyer for Baker & Taylor, thinks that the outlook for YA historical fiction isn’t great, although personally, she’s a fan.
I was recently inspired by Ann Rinaldi’s PW article “In Defense of Historical Fiction” article to start a list of historical fiction for both middle grade and teen audiences that we will be promoting through our sales force. I often provide these theme-based lists, but this one “felt good” . . . I never liked reading history textbooks, but I’ll cancel my plans for a Saturday afternoon to find time to finish reading a great historical novel. It’s my way of “cheating” my way into knowledge of the past that was certainly taught to me in history class, and that I’ve long since forgotten.
Eva Calcagno, too, loves historical fiction as a tool for learning:
I drove to work today listening to Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell who illustrates the 15th century in all its stinking, mucky, violent glory. I learned more about the Roman Empire from reading Lindsay Davis than I ever did in world history class . . . History and Fiction are mirrors of reality – historical fiction gives us an opportunity to look at life in a much more interesting way than non-fiction.
One writer, Lisa Guidarini, took issue with using historical fiction to learn history.
I think my major problem with this “genre” is I may end up believing a “truth” that’s in fact a fiction. As an almost librarian (one course, plus my practicum to go!), I deal in facts – in real-life information I can disseminate to others. I don’t want fictional clutter blocking out known facts; I don’t like the line between truth and fiction blurred.
And we’ll end with the bad news. From Kimen Mitchell:
Here at Tarpon Springs H.S. historical fiction is NOT hot. I keep buying a few titles each year because I love it, but I have a difficult time selling it to my high school students.
And from Aimee Armstrong:
In my 8th grade classroom library of over 1000 books, about 140 of them are historical fiction. I have a lot of Ann Rinaldi, Midred Taylor, Dear America, and Holocaust books among others. However, they are the saddest and dustiest of all the books in my room. Although they are my favorite genre, they are not my students. I really push them in my book talks, but the only time that they are checked out is if that genre is assigned. In my 15 years of teaching they’ve never been the most popular. If students are going to read them, they tend to be my “readers”; my top students. My students’ most frequent comment about them is, “They’re boring.” Now, if Stephanie Meyer would write one, there might be more interest…
Ms. Meyer, consider yourself on notice.