Locker Combinations is a brand new Book Case feature! Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan will guest blog about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field.
November 9, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a night of anti-Jewish riots in Nazi-controlled Germany and Austria that began what would later be known as the Holocaust. Between this anniversary and the annual commemoration of the end of World War I (Veteran's Day, November 11), November is an ideal month to think about—and read about—the past.
Young adult (YA) literature offers lots of insights on history, including great examples of both fiction and nonfiction. At first glance, books like the 2013 Sibert Medal-winning Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin make nonfiction seem like the best way to talk about history. However, according to a recent study reported in the journal Science, reading literary fiction can “expand our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us recognize our similarity to them.” If the mission of learning history is not just to memorize names and dates but also to empathize with people from the past, then YA historical fiction seems ideal for meeting this goal.
YA historical fiction can take lots of different forms. Some, like the Revolutionary War-era The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson (vol. I, vol. II) and Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson, about the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic of the eponymous year, simply are engaging stories set in distant times and places.
Others combine historical fiction with elements of fantasy and the supernatural, like The Diviners by Libba Bray and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, or historical fiction with the suspenseful twists and turns of mystery, like The Caged Graves by Dianne Salerni and What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell.
Still others juxtapose stories of the present and the past, like Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, set partially in the present day and partially during the French Revolution, and In Darkness by Nick Lake, in which a contemporary Haitian boy’s story runs in counterpoint to that of Haitian independence leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.
And some, like the magical realism-infused The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, take place in a past so recent—in this case, 1996— that adult readers will recognize elements like VCRs and cordless phones . . . maybe from their own teen years.
What makes YA lit such a great match with historical fiction? For one thing, several qualities that characterize a terrific work of YA lit also define an excellent work of historical fiction: namely, immediacy and the focus on an individual narrative. For example, Elizabeth Wein’s harrowing but hopeful Rose Under Fire follows a single (fictional) teenage pilot into the depths of Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany. By only focusing on what Rose, the narrator, personally experiences, Wein trades a big-picture perspective for one that’s narrow, individualized and intense—just like any other story with an authentic teen voice might be. (In an author’s note, she balances this highly focused viewpoint by mentioning the concurrent stories she doesn’t tell because her character didn't encounter them.)
The teen years are a time for many firsts, like first crushes, first dates . . . and first serious research papers. YA historical fiction can help teens understand why visiting libraries, assembling bibliographies and other such steps are valuable parts of the research process. Again, Rose Under Fire provides a good example. Wein explains, also in her author’s note, how her explorations of topics ranging from aircraft technology to conditions in wartime factories enhanced Rose’s story. Her inclusion of an extensive list of primary and secondary sources reinforces the importance of thorough research.
And finally, the best works of YA historical fiction inspire teens to bring ideas from the past into their present lives. Ravensbrück prisoners took any steps they could to tell the world their stories, and any book about them honors their wishes in some way. But the fact that Wein chose to write for teens in particular is significant. Teenagers’ unmatched levels of energy and passion, combined with their ability to tell the world for many decades to come, make them ideal stewards of this important task.
Each year, fewer and fewer survivors remain to tell their own stories of the 20th century's major wars. Historical fiction is one way to keep memories alive . . . and YA literature is one place to find excellent works of historical fiction.