Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 8, 2015

Historical Fiction for Young Readers

It was a joy to read and talk about historical fiction for young readers with three friends at the Forbes Library last night. Naila Moreia, who planned the evening, asked us about why we chose settings before the present. We agreed that a main goal was simply to show how people are basically the same through time, though we also like drawing from unique imagery. And get obsessed, get a ghostly tug or call. We spoke about the origins of ideas, with Burleigh Muten being transformed by a visit to Emily Dickinson’s homestead, which she tried to see through the eyes of the children she teaches for Miss Emily. Ellen Wittlinger remembered the panic she felt practicing “duck and cover,” in elementary school in the early 1960’s. She said, “Over the years I’ve learned that when something affects you so profoundly, there’s a book in it.” historysm Sometimes a period deepens a theme. Jane Yolen spoke about first writing her recent novel, Centaur Rising, in the present, but after realizing its fantasy elements wouldn’t work in an age of cell phones and Facebook, when secrets are hard to keep, revised it to take place in the 1960’s. That period brought up the topic of babies with flipper-like hands and feet caused by mothers taking medicine later banned, and the experience of a beloved child in this novel parallels the story of a centaur on a Massachusetts horse farm. Revision begun for one reason became a gift, lighting up the theme of differences. Some novels have a public strand and a private strand. In This Means War, Ellen Wittlinger showed a ten year old’s fear upon hearing about the Cuban missile crisis, while the theme of how wars escalates parallel a smaller war between boys and girls in the neighborhood. We discussed some intersections of history and fiction, our desire to look for shape and meaning, and how that may or may not match the historical record. We look for truth, we live with “maybe,” and try to make our process plain. 10404462_10153032150442658_7765404657686528056_n Thanks to all the organizers, the great audience who came out in weather in the single digits, and Heather Richard for taking pictures!



  1. I wish I could have been there. I would have asked lots of questions. It’s interesting the way Jane approached her story, setting in the recent past because today’s technology would get in the way. I’m finding myself doing the same thing, trying to write books that are “timeless” by putting kids in the country, but soon even that won’t work. Everybody has a phone, even in the sticks.

  2. If you had been there we would have had to move onward to a coffee shop, as the library was starting to close and still questions were unanswered. That would have been perfect. Jane said that her editor said she often sees writers putting their stories in the past because of pesky cell phones interfering with plots. Or the mountains, where service is clunky.

    • I wish I could’ve been there, too. I remember being deeply anxious about the duck-and-cover drills, sirens bleating as we crammed ourselves under our school desks, hands clasped behind our necks. It affects you–how could it not?–and finds its refrain in later, larger themes. This is the sort of thing I’d love to explore with other writers, in person, if I could.

      • It would have been lovely to have you there. Ellen spoke of how those experiences brought about the loss of her childhood’s sense of safety, and while creating a ten year old at the novel’s center gave her a 14 year old sister to showcase differences. And Jane Yolen also spoke of the moral nature of ten year olds, the old clear sense of right and wrong.

  3. It sounds like a wonderful evening! I love listening to writers talk about their inspirations. Thank you for sharing and giving us a taste of all the wisdom and talent that was shared.

    • Yes, I love hearing about inspirations which can often seem random and small, as well as precious or wide. You just never know!

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