Friday, December 15, 2023

The Making of History

As Teaching Authors end our year exploring our favorite books, I am focusing on historical fiction, and on the making of history. History often carries the stigma of being dry and irrelevant, says Y.S. Lee (The Agency 1: Spy in the House, 2010), but “the freedom of fiction is one way of exploring a subject that may seem intimating or remote. After all, it’s a kind of fantasy, a parallel world in which people act with recognizable human impulses and ideals but abide by very different rules.”

The genre of historical fiction is very broad, one that Mary Burns (1995) labels a “hybrid and a shape-shifter,” combining history with fiction.  Or, as Trevor Cairney (2009) suggests, historical fiction is where “literature meets history.” Avi, an award-winning master of the genre, offers that some historical fiction stays close to the known facts, while others are little more than costume drama. “Ultimately, what is most important is the story, and the characters.” Facts, according to Avi, do not make a story. “Believable people do…Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth less a stranger.”

Remember that historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. History tends to be written by those who survived it. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

I’m often asked how I go about researching my own historical fiction. Because I tend to write stories of forgotten heroes, even as I reveal familiar events, in new, unexpected ways my initial research focuses on titles that explore this other side of history, allowing me to experience those perspectives that were not allowed their own stories. History is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over their situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate. 

Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself (first published in 1861 by Thayer & Eldridge; L. Barsky, ed., The Townsend Library, 2004.) is a heart wrenching autobiography. Jacobs is addressing White Northern women who cannot comprehend the evils of slavery. Her story reveals in excruciating detail her journey from slave girl to free woman, how she navigates the horrors of her life in her fight to preserve her human dignity. Writing her story is Jacobs’ ultimate act of self-assertion.

The Autobiography of Solomon Northup: Twelve Years a Slave (first published in 1853 by Derby & Miller; S. Eakin, Eakin Films & Publishing, 2013.) is another gut punch of a read. Northup is a free man, a skilled carpenter and violinist. Offered a high-paying job as a musician, he traveled to Washington, D.C. Too late he discovered he had been tricked. Drugged and bound, he was sold as a slave, and sent to New Orleans. In her article, The Cultural Significance of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave , Mollie Lieblich explains:

Created as propaganda for abolitionism, slave narratives often conformed to reoccurring narrative structures and literary conventions. Authenticity was considered essential. Most pre-emancipation slave narratives include phrases such as “written by himself” or “herself” on title pages, as well as numerous testimonials, prefaces, and letters of endorsement by white abolitionists and supporters. The narratives usually began, “I was born,” identifying a specific birthplace but no date of birth, since slaves often did not have that knowledge. … Slave narratives proved that, despite the odds, many slaves managed to escape their degradation and learned how to read and write. After escaping their bondage and making contacts with abolitionists, they were able to tell their tale to others.”

Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016) is a modern classic (in my opinion), a thumping good read as noted by the New York Times, that illustrates this process of blending fact and fiction. She weaves these experiences of Jacobs and Northup into a new life in this story of enslaved Isabel as she continues her search for her sister, Ruth (began in Anderson’s award-winning, Chains, another of my favorite reads), and their flight to freedom.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, another master writer of historical fiction. Reading a blend of history and historical fiction helps me envision how I might bring my own characters to life.

Just a note, Teaching Authors is taking a winter break and our posts will resume on January 19.

Until then, I wish you a historical happy holiday!

--Bobbi Miller





Friday, December 1, 2023

My End of the Year Round Up

  I both love and hate doing the "end of the year books" post. I love sharing my favorite books with you, but hate picking just a couple.  In years past, I picked one book per category--picture book, middle grade and YA. This year I'm adding my new obsession--graphic four best books.

If I had to pick just one, it would be my YA selection, Artifice by Sharon Cameron (Scholastic.) It's been awhile since I've read something so engrossing that I had to ration my reading to an hour a day. Otherwise, I would've read for hours straight, ignoring appointments, phones and my family.

 The action takes place (mostly) over one week in Amsterdam, September 1943. Cameron based her book on the real lives of art forger Han Van Meergen and Johann van Hulse, a professor who is credited with saving 600 Jewish babies from the hands of the Nazis. The protagonist, however is seventeen-year-old Isa DeSmit. The Nazis have confiscated all the "degenerate" art (like Picasso and Chagall)from her father's gallery, essentially closing the business. The taxes are due on the gallery, which is also her home. Isa's mother is dead and her father, lost in grief, lives in another reality. Isa's best friend Truus has disappeared into the shadow world of the Dutch Resistance. With the Nazis snapping up art, left and right (real and fake), Isa decides to sell a forged Rembrandt, painted by her father, to Van Meergen's gallery, who in turn, sells it to Hitler himself. The money will pay the taxes. This sets off a chain of events that zooms from selling forgeries, to hiding Jewish children (and real Rembrandts) master to an encounter with a young Nazi named Michel who says he want to defect...but does he really? Cameron skillfully weaves a half dozen subplots, while asking"What is real?" in a world of forged art, secret identities, and collaborators. Artifice literally left me breathless and kind of exhausted...but in a satisfactory way. 

Middle Grade--Nothing Else but Miracles by Kate Albus (Margaret Ferguson Books)

OK, I'm biased. Having published a Middle Grade WWII era novel,  I fell in love with this story set NYC's Lower East Side. When their pop goes off to war, the motherless Byrne siblings, ages 17,12 and 6 (and their cat), he promises them that they will be safe. "The neighborhood will give you what you need," he assures them. "The neighborhood," a character in itself, proves Pop right. 

The story is told from middle child Dory's point-of-view, with humorous asides where the author directly addresses the reader. Although the Byrne's neighborhood conspires with the kids to avoid social workers and truant officers who could put them in an orphanage, there is still The Landlord. When their kindly landlord dies, his replacement wants the rent on time, no pets, and would turn the Brynes to the dreaded authorities if he discovers that they are living on their own. To complicate matters, oldest son Fish's 18th birthday is fast approaching, when he will be eligible for the draft. His shipyard job and Pop's military pay barely keep the family afloat. Dory can tell no one about the least not anyone human. Her "secret friend" is the Statue of Liberty. Dory lives close enough to Battery Park, that she often goes there to confide to "The Lady," whose weathered copper presence reassures her.

  This is historical fiction at its best. Not a single off note, or anachronism, or whiff of 21st century attitude or language kept me completely within Bryne's 1940's New York. Albus based her story on her own family's tales of this place and era. She is my new favorite historical fiction writer!

Picture Book--In Between by April Pulley Sayre and Jeff Sayre(Beach Lane)

I would've selected this as my picture book of the year, even if April Pulley Sayre wasn't a good friend and MFA classmate. I would choose it even if I didn't know that this would be one of April's last books before her untimely death in 2021.  

In spare words and lovely, close-up photography, the Sayres explore nature's moments of transition, the place between just hatched (or born) and maturity. Newly hatched birds, but not ready to fly. Frogs, no longer a tadpole, but not ready to leap from water to land. Although it looks like s picture book, it's a book for everybody, because all living things experience the "in between."  

Graphic--First Time for Everything by Dan Santat (First Second)

I am not alone in thinking that author-illustrator Santat's graphic memoir is something special. It won this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature and has been named School Library Journal's Best Book of the Year...and award season is just getting underway! (Santat won the 2015 Caldecott Award for The Adventures of Beetle: The Unimaginary Friend.)

I readily identified with eighth grader Dan. I too, was the "good kid," who did what adults expected and stayed out of trouble. Dan and I both felt "invisible" to classmates, but that didn't stop us from being bullied. (My personal definition of hell is reliving 7th and 8th grade for all eternity.) So Dan is far from enthused when his parents send him on a class trip to Europe. (I also went on a European "class trip" but I was 16.)

At first, just being in a different country makes no difference in Dan's life. He's stuck with the same classmates that made fun of him. He doesn't understand why the adults in his life thought the trip was a good idea. But as he travels through France, Germany, Switzerland and England, a series of events slowly change him. He discovers Fanta and fondue. He sneaks into a semi-final match at Wimbledon and by chance sees Stefan Edberg defeat the great John McEnroe And he falls in love.

Although the book is set in 1989, the dynamics and emotions of the trip are timeless. It could've been the same trip I took in 1971. (Although the absence of cell phones does make a difference in the choices Dan is forced to make.) Not everyone has the opportunity to take such a trip, but reading A First Time for Everything is the next best thing.

I hope some of you will share your favorite books of this year in the comments.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman