Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Get Your Dose Of Musings On Historical Fiction

One of the good things about falling way behind on your blog reading--maybe the only good thing--is that when a blogger is doing a series on a subject, you can sit down and read them all at once. You can do a study, so to speak.

I just finished one over at Oz and Ends on the subject of historical fiction. J.L. Bell began writing about it on January 8th and appears to have wrapped it up on January 15th. The Storm in the Barn, which just won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, got the ball rolling.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Days Of Old, When Knights Were Bold, And Voice Hadn't Been Invented

Farah Mendlesohn, an academic and critic who has written about fantasy, among other things, has started a new blog devoted to the work of British author Geoffrey Trease. In her first post at The Trease Project, Farah says Trease (who I'd never heard of), "set out to write a new form of history for children, which didn't focus on great men and women, but on the you and me of history."

Well, didn't that just speak to me. I've never gotten over my first history class as a college freshman, which was taught by a professor whose car license plate was stamped "Bodo," the name of a medieval French peasant living at the time of Charlemagne. Pretty much all I took away from that class was the importance of the so-called common man. That was enough.

Farah also spoke to me when she said she planned to read and blog about "everything Geoffrey Trease wrote (fiction and non-fiction) in the order in which he wrote it, at the same time, reading contemporary discussions about the teaching of history." Everything that's obsessive about me loved that.

I sought out what I could find of Trease's work and ended up reading The Barons' Hostage. It was originally published in 1952, so it will be a while before Farah gets to it, since Trease started publishing in the 1930s.

I found The Barons' Hostage kind of flat in style but also readable. In the article from British Children's Historical Novels, linked to above, the author says of him, "If there is a criticism to be made of his writing I would say that it lacks emotional depth; intensity wasn't his style, and his understated approach has its own strengths." I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head...lacking emotional depth and intensity and understated. I would say the book also seemed lacking in voice, though that might not have been a big issue in the time it was written. Nowadays when voice is so important in children's books, it was striking by its absence.

The Barons' Hostage tells the story how Edward I, while still a prince, was held hostage by his uncle, Simon de Montfort, who was leading a baronial revolt against Edward's father, Henry III. Two child characters are added for child interest, but as I read this book, I felt that the story about the kids was just an excuse to tell the rather charismatic Edward's story. In fact, if you follow the links on Edward I and Henry III and scroll down on the material it leads to until you find the name "Simon de Montfort," you'll find the basic storyline for The Barons' Hostage.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. When I was a kid, I loved historical kings and queens. By which I mean real ones, none of this fairy king and queen business. I probably would have sucked this book up. In fact, reading it a few weeks ago led me to research these two kings and Simon de Montfort, none of whom I knew anything about.

Reading this book and what Farah has had to say so far at The Trease Project has raised still more questions for me about what a historical novel should be, particularly what a historical novel for children should be. The whole story of children's historical fiction having its own history--how fascinating is that!?

Simon de Monfort has quite a web presence. And get this...his father, also Simon de Montfort, fought against the Cathars. The Cathars appear in the second book of The Youngest Templar serial.

How bizarre is it that I would be reading about all this linked stuff this fall? I love it when this kind of thing happens!


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bad Vikings! Bad, Bad, Vikings!

I picked up The Humming of Numbers when I saw it on the library shelf for one reason and one reason alone--I recognized the author, Joni Sensel's name from The Spectacle. Her book is a well-written historical romance with fantasy elements.

Aidan, an Irish monk-in-training, runs into Lana, the illegitimate daughter of the local lord, at his monastery where she's been sent to shape up. Though Aidan tries to conform to monastic life because he really wants to work there as a scribe, he has this little problem with what he calls hearing numbers--he associates numbers with people and things. Lana, on the other hand, doesn't make much of an attempt to conform to early Christianity. She's a sort of woods witch.

Aidan, of course, is seriously tempted by her. He manages to put her out of his mind much of the time because the day after they meet, Vikings arrive to do their raping and pillaging thing at the monastery and the surrounding villages.

Two things struck me about this story:

1. I found myself...ah...responding strongly to those freaking Vikings. I started thinking of them as Dark Age Nazis. I've read that Vikings raided because of economic need and that, eventually, many of them gave up taking slaves and robbing and settled in Ireland and northern France. What? It took them generations to think of emigration?

Vikings destroying an Irish monastary is kind of a classic situation if you've ever done any research on the tenth century. (Which I have, many years ago, for a book that's on life support somewhere here in the office.) They really seemed to love those places. So, for me the basic situation in The Humming of Numbers was very realistic.

2. One problem I have with romantic thrillers is that it's hard for me to believe that individuals would think of romance while they're running for their lives or dealing with death and dismemberment, etc. While The Humming of Numbers doesn't involve the kind of eroticism you find in Twilight, I did feel that Aidan's feelings for Lana were beyond his control and inconvenient. Thus, the romance here worked better for me than it does in many books.

I think The Humming of Numbers is stronger as a historical novel than it is as a fantasy. That's fine for me, since I prefer historical fiction to fantasy. I don't know if fantasy readers might be a bit disappointed, though.

Suggestion: This might be a good addition to a middle school/high school library that needs historical fiction to accompany classes.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Do Kids' Books Need Kid Characters?

Last spring, a few of us here at Original Content got into one of our lengthier discussions on the subject of adult characters in children's books. At that time, I said I thought adult characters could work in children's books, but I thought "that happens when the adult characters are outsiders of some type. Think Skullduggery Pleasant, for instance, who, as a skeleton, can't be said to fit into society very easily. Or at all. Our social order is run by adults, making children outsiders. Outsider child readers can connect with outsider adult characters." Other examples would be Howl from Howl's Moving Castle and Horatio Lyle in The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle.

Something all these kids' books have in common, besides an outsider and even over-the-top central character, is the presence of children or at least younger people to interact with those central characters. That makes sense, right? A kids' book ought to have some kids somewhere, wouldn't you think?

However, some people at the child_lit listserv recommended a children's series to me that has no child characters at all. Sure enough, the first two of the four Montmorency books by Eleanor Updale don't have any child characters interacting with the rogue-who-becomes-a-gentleman (of sorts) main character. They are historical novels about a Victorian era criminal who uses the London sewer system to get around while breaking and entering the homes of the well-to-do. He creates a new identity for himself with his ill-gotten gains.

What makes these books kids' books is the writing style, which is very straight forward, even quite simple in places. Characters often quickly work out problems in their minds, for instance. I think an argument could be made that the first book, in which the main character develops his dual identity as both the criminal Scarper and the gentleman Montmorency, is thematically YA because we see a character in transition, as, presumably, adolescents are. I thought the first book worked pretty well as historical fiction, too--the historical setting was well done without overriding the characters and plot.

The historical detail wasn't as strong in the second book, and five years have passed since the time of the first volume in the series, so Montmorency is getting further and further from youthfulness. (The third book, which I haven't read, takes place thirteen years later.) What's more, he isn't always the center of attention. The point of view shifts among three adult male characters.

I've been told by other adult readers that kids like the Jekyll and Hyde aspect they see in these books. I've also been told by one teacher that she's used them successfully with sixth graders. They might be good for helping less sophisticated readers on the high end of middle grade start to make the transition from children's to adult books.

I can't say, though, that they've sold me on the idea that a children's book can work without child characters.


Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Thinking About Octavian

Reading Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation, Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves by M. T. Anderson made me understand why some readers love serials. While I don't know if I could have read Volume II without having read Volume I first, I definitely could have read about Octavian for months. For years.

I love that the two volumes of Octavian Nothing were a historical fiction serial rather than the more common fantasy serial. Though in an author's note, Anderson says that these books resemble a fantasy novel. I think that's true in that historical novels and fantasies require extensive world building.

The first Octavian Nothing had an incredible premise. It was about a carefully nutured boy who slowly comes to realize he's a slave. The second book is about Octavian's war exploits. The story does slow down, which I find to be the case with a lot of books that deal with war and battles. There's a lot of hurry up and wait. But during the slow times Octavian is moving on. He is searching for and finding the personal history that had been denied him in the first book.

Book II has a feature that is almost as intriguing as the enslaved child in the first book. The Colonial revolutionaries are not heroic or noble by a long shot. No, we do not come off looking good here.

And the book even has a father/son thing going on! Octavian's tutor, Dr. Trefusis, ends up serving as a father(or grandfather--both terms are used)figure to him. This is not a role that he accepts out of the goodness of his heart, but one he seeks out. He wants this young man for his child. "Send my boys back. Send them back to me, save and sound, and I shall grant anything," he writes in a letter when Octavian doesn't return from a foraging trip.

This book has been out for a while and others have already written about the quality of the writing, the incredible characters, and Anderson's accomplishment in writing it. I can't add anything new. I will say that a lot of well-regarded historical fiction is very lop-sided. A great deal of effort is obviously put into the historical setting while the plot is something you've seen before and the characterization is barely there. That is not the case with the Octavian Nothing books. They have everything--setting, plot, character, voice (in abundance), point of view...You name it, it's there.

Training Report: Bad day. I did only one part of one segment. And I only did that because I wanted to be able to say I did something.

Yesterday, by the way, I prepared some materials for one of the Bridget Zinn fundraisers. I'll be contributing books to the middle grade book basket for the silent auction and raffle in Portland, Oregon on May 29th. An on-line auction is underway now.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Can You Believe It? I Found Still Another Dad Book

Four or five weeks ago, I was in a library and decided I wanted to read something I'd heard absolutely nothing about. I was going to pick a mystery book off the shelf. (By which I mean not the genre but a mystery to me.) I settled on When the Sergeant Came Marching Home by Don Lemna because it's set after World War II (historical novel) in Montana (where a family member lives). It was a good choice because though the book was reviewed in journals, including a starred review in Booklist, I didn't find a whole lot about it on-line. Most mentions came from library blogs, posting about new purchases.

When the Sergeant Came Marching Home is a retro boys' book. It reminded me of the Soup books by Robert Newton Peck, which were popular at Chez Gauthier a few years back, in that they're realistic tales about two young boys set in an earlier period in the twentieth century. My impression when visiting schools is that most kids no longer know who Soup is, and I wonder if any of those old boys-having- adventures-while-growing-up books are read much anymore. I still hear a lot (at least on-line and at listservs) about Little Women and Anne of Green Gables but not so much about Homer Price. So today's young readers may be ready for Sergeant's ten-year-old narrator Donald and his younger brother Pat.

The basic story line that holds these stories together involves Donald's dismay when his father comes home after World War II and moves his family away from the small city where they'd been living without him to a quite rundown farm. Rundown as in no electricity and an outhouse. Donald is so distraught about this turn of events that he can't bring himself to refer to his father as anything but "the Sergeant," his title when he left the military.

For those of us familiar with the old boys' adventure stories, a lot of the situations in When the Sergeant Came Marching Home will sound...ah, well, familiar. But they didn't seem stereotypical to me. I think, instead, I might call them classic. You have your outhouse story and your pain-in-the-neck minister Dad doesn't like coming to dinner story and your build a spaceship story. Plus you've got the red-headed Irish mom who doesn't take any crap from the Sergeant even though he did clear the Nazis out of Europe and the beloved teacher at the one-room schoolhouse.

Perhaps these tales go down so well because Donald can be very drole. The beloved teacher, for instance, "had actually trained for a singing career and had only been held back from it at the last moment by her voice." Plus the father-son story adds a little twist, making these adventures a little more than unrelated episodes.

Adult readers of this book can have some fun with a few of the characters. A squatter on the family's land, who may or may not have known Lawrence of Arabia, and a very funny neighbor in the market for "a good Christian workin' woman who don't take to fancy-dancing around and all that prettifying stuff" could, with just a little tweaking, become the guest villains on Law and Order SVU. I was reading along going, "No, kids, no! Don't go in there!" "No! Don't eat that!" "For the love of God, don't get in his truck!" Ah, but the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Heinous criminals were fewer and farther between back in the era in which this book is set. It was interesting the way I kept projecting my present day fears unto those quirky guys from another time.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More War! More Nineteenth Century Guys!

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger (The Qwikpick Adventure Society) is an ambitious book. Its authors are interested in doing a lot of things--creating a twenty-first century main character readers will identify with, providing him with conflict in the form of an enemy, covering moral lessons, and teaching some history just to get started.

Stonewall Hinkleman is the twelve-year-old son of Civil War reenactors who has outgrown any enchantment he had with that activity. While at a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas) he is transported back in time to that very battle, in progress. Also making his way back in time is another reenactor, one who hopes to change history. Stonewall has to stop him.

The historical portion of this book is its strong point. To be more precise, the battle scenes are its strong point. I found that interesting because, while I've visited a number of Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites, I'm not really interested in the military aspects of battle. I could care less which divisions were on what hill, when they got there, and how long they stayed. I'm interested in people.

Hemphill and Riddleburger provide Civil War era people of interest in Stonewall's ancestor Cyrus and the brothers Big Jim and Elmer. I was also quite taken with all the nameless men who stink because they've been marching for days, wipe blood from their faces, and fall down dead. Young Jacob who really doesn't connect at all with the white boy from the future is intriguing, though we don't see a lot of him.

I think Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run probably tries to do too much. The plot relating to the contemporary bad guy wanting to save the Old South, for instance, has trouble competing with the more powerful war scenes. The book has set itself up for a possible sequel at the Battle of Antietam. If Stonewall gets to fight another day, I'd love to see him more focused on the people of the past. I can see him going from battle to battle saving one particular character's sorry butt, enabling the guy to survive the war.

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run will be published next month by Dial Books.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vacation Reading: Book One, An Adult Mystery With YA Appeal

I took a sabbatic from reading kids' books while I was on vacation. And, yet, three of the books I finished have a kid connection of one sort or another.

For instance, On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith has what I would call a thematic connection to YA. On the Wrong Track is the second in the Holmes on the Range series, Western mysteries set in the 1890s. Our narrator is twenty-year-old Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer, a cowboy who wanders with his twenty-seven-year-old brother Gustav "Old Red."

Seems pretty remote from twenty-first century YA readers, doesn't it? Well, the thing is, Gustav wants to be more than an illiterate cowpoke of few words. He wants to be a deducifier like his hero, Sherlock Holmes. And his little (though physically quite enormous) brother, Otto, wants to write up their adventures and publish them like Dr. Watson did Holmes'.

Though these two red-headed brothers are twenty-somethings, they seem younger (to the extent that people who are handy with guns and foul language can seem young) because they're trying to determine who and what they're going to be. In this book, they run into a burned out, dime novel hero who is not what he once was and maybe never was. They have to deal, each in his own way, with a young, very intertriguing, woman. They are confronted with disappointment and all kinds of road blocks in pursuing their goals.

I'm not saying that On the Wrong Track is a YA book, but it deals with issues that are common in YA novels and that should have appeal for YA readers.

I also think that On the Wrong Track is a good historical novel. Many historical novels for younger readers are what I'd describe as unbalanced. A lot of attention has been given to the historical setting but characters are often underdeveloped or cliched and plots are weak. My own guess is that children's and YA historical fiction is viewed as being educational. Such books are supposed to teach something about the period and are given a pass on other elements.

The Holmes on the Range books, however, provide a strong setting, terrific characters who are at home in that setting, and real plots. Okay, a lot of those terrific characters use realisitic, coarse language, so you might not want to be the adult who hands off one of these things to a delicate twelve year old. But mid-teens will have heard it all before, and a good historical mystery could open their minds to the opportunities historical novels offer.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Possible Christmas Present

Last week we were talking about Christmas purchases of overlooked books published pre-2008. Yesterday I bought three of the books I mentioned and added a fourth. This book wasn't overlooked when it was published in 2006, but, boy, are its handlers making things difficult for it now.

Back when this clever combination historical novel, scifi time traveler story, and English procedural mystery by Linda Buckley-Archer was originally published in hardcover, it was called Gideon the Cutpurse with a marvelous two-piece cover. I'm sure there's a technical term to describe it, but the best I can say is that the top, hard cover had a jagged hole with an eye on the page beneath so that it appeared that someone was looking through a hole in a board. The title and cover were both very striking.

Unfortunately, the character Gideon the Cutpurse wasn't the protagonist. He was also an adult. He was also a nice guy, but not particularly charismatic, which is what you want in an adult character in a children's book if you're going to name the thing for him. And while I loved the cover, I can't recall any scene in the book that it illustrated. It may not have had anything to do with anything.

So I can see why the publishing powers behind this first in a trilogy thought it might be a good idea to make some changes with the paperback.

However, they changed the name to the generic and forgettable The Time Travelers: Book One In The Gideon Trilogy. And the cover...seriously underwhelming. Okay, now we know there are kids in the book, which we didn't before. Still, it just looks like another time traveling story for kids, while before it looked like something special, though probably no one knew what.

This paperback also carries a blurb: "For kids who love Harry Potter." What? I guess if you take the attitude that Harry Potter is fantasy and if you think that The Gideon Trilogy is fantasy instead of science fiction and if you believe that all fantasy is alike, then maybe...No. No. It just doesn't work. And it does such a disservice to this novel. Harry Potter fans are going to feel misled and people who've had all they can take of Harry are going to avoid The Time Travelers unnecessarily.

Now, note that they're calling this series The Gideon Trilogy. I'm guessing that's to maintain some kind of connection to the original title of the original book. However, Gideon isn't even mentioned in the publisher's description of the second book, The Time Thief. (Which, by the way, has just come out in paper.) Does he have a big enough part in the books to warrant having the series named for him? (I plan to keep reading them, so I'll let you know. Get back to ya on that.)

The first book definitely was good. The second has been nominated for a Carnegie Medal. It would be a shame if this series gets lost in the confusion of name and cover changes and over-the-top blurbs.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Some Graphic Links

Parenthetical.net has a few more posts up on Cybils nominess in the graphic novel category:

Little Vampire by Joann Sfar Oops. Dans Anglais

Johnny Boo by James Kochalka From Burlington! I love Seven Days!

Knights of the Lunch Table by James Cammuso.

under the covers has a post up on How to Write Comics, which both Bibliovore and I think ought to have some relation to writing graphic novels.

And, finally, Oz and Ends writes about
Sons of Liberty , a historical fiction graphic novel.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Few Words With M.T. Anderson

You can catch what might be called a mini-interview with M.T. Anderson at Blog of a Bookslut. Seriously, there are two question about Octavion No and one about the coming election.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Old Time California

I was looking for what you might call a traditional pirate book for younger kids when I picked up The Giant Rat of Sumatra or Pirates Galore by Sid Fleischman. It didn't serve my purposes, since the pirates were pretty much landlocked from the get-go. But it was a very decent historical novel that I think would be accessible for kids as young as say, third or fourth grade.

Our twelve-year-old narrator, known as Shipwreck, was saved by Captain Gallows and his pirate crew on the Giant Rat of Sumatra after the ship upon which he and his not very warm and fuzzy stepfather were traveling went down. Captain Gallows only preyed on other pirates and now that he has made his bundle, he's giving up the sea to go back to Spanish California in the 1840s and live as Don Alejandro. My knowledge of this period is pretty much limited to Zorro. But, I have to admit, The Rats of Sumatra has aroused a little curiousity in me for the era.

Gallows/Alejandro only dresses up in the good quality clothes of a Spanish landowner and not a black mask. But he has some of the same heroic attitude of the Z Man. He's seeking a sort of personal revenge--sans blood--against the wealthy landowner who had treated him and others like him badly when he was a child. If he can help a few others while he's at it, so much the better.

Notice I'm talking an awful lot about an adult character. In this book, the interesting, heroic figure is an adult, not the child. As a general rule, I'm opposed to that sort of thing. Kids' books are supposed to be about kids. But I've read a few books where this arrangement works. (The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, for instance.)

I think when a children's book with a dominant adult character works, it's because that character is an outsider in society. In the case of Gallows/Alejandro, he started out as an outsider child. He became a pirate, certainly living outside society's laws. But as a pirate who stole from other pirates, he was even outside whatever pirate society may have existed.

Gallows/Alejandro isn't assimilated into his society, just as the children who will read this book are not yet assimilated into adult society. Shipwreck, the child character, doesn't have a place anywhere, either. His mother, an actress (she must have been an outsider in 1840's Boston), may have been glad to see him get on the ship that took him away from her. We're not sure. And then he finds himself in a Mexican controlled land that is at war with his own country. Yes, a lovely narrative complication, but one that makes our child character an outsider in that time and place.

So there are logical reasons why this light, engaging historical novel works for younger readers.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Now This Is What A Historical Novel Should Be

When I was a young 'un back during the last ice age, we didn't read cliche-ridden, didactic historical novels designed to forcefeed us facts about significant events or teach us meaningful lessons about man's inhumanity to man. No, indeedy, my little lads. We read historical fiction for the thrills! Ah, how many dateless Friday nights we spent as teenagers reading about spunky, if not outright outcast, girls racing across war-torn Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Or girls fending for themselves during almost any period of English history. Or generation after generation of young people dealing with the disasters of one historical period after another in family novels that covered a century or more of time.

If we were able to bowl over our eighth grade social studies teachers with our knowledge of British monarchs, that was just the icing on the cake. But getting educated wasn't the point. We were feral readers! We weren't reading off any official book list! Book lists hadn't been invented!

By the time I got to page two of How the Hangman Lost His Heart by K.M. Grant, I knew that at last I had found the kind of historical novel that had led me to take all those college history courses. Hangman is a very wry and wonderful twist on those books I devoted so much of my adolescence to reading.

For instance, it has a traditional heroic leading man in Colonel Francis Towneley. He's a handsome, aristocratic soldier who has supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in his attempt to take the English thrown from George II. (This is the George II who you may have been reading about this weekend in accounts of British royalty in the military because George II was the last British monarch to lead troops in battle.) Colonel Towneley is everything a historical romance leading man should be. Unfortunately, he is hanged, drawn, and quartered in the first chapter. His niece Alice possesses loads of spunk, and she meets the very hangman who did Uncle Frank in when she collects his body. She can't get his head, though, because it has been cut from his body and needs to be exposed on a pike for a while as a lesson to other Catholics who think they'd rather not have a Protestant king.

But that night Alice decides she just can't leave good Uncle Frank's head bodyless and exposed to the elements, and she sets off to save him. Er, it. She runs into trouble and throws in her lot with the hangman, who may be missing some teeth, is definitely married and illiterate, and doesn't know how to ride a horse. They are being pursued by (among others) a handsome young soldier who is poor, afraid of heights, and brow-beaten by his major.

This is a wonderfully balanced book. It is not a historical novel that has only a setting. It does have a detailed setting in time and place. But it also has a great story. It has wonderful, developed characters. It has a traditional theme of man (and woman) against society. And this third-person narrative has plenty of subtle, dark humor.

If you really, really must have a lesson of some kind with your historical fiction, there's a lovely one here about the difference between unconditional and romantic love.

K.M. Grant totally lucked out because the real Colonel Francis Towneley, the last man hanged, drawn, and quartered in England, was her ancestor. In fact, you can read a very nice account at her blog of her family gathering at the chapel at Towneley Hall on All Soul's Day to pray for the Towneley dead, including Uncle Frank.

How the Hangman Lost His Heart received a starred review from The Horn Book in its January/February issue. Otherwise, I'm not hearing as much about it as I would expect to.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

And This, My Little Lads, Is How You Handle Stereotype. Or Archetype. Or Whatever Those Types Are.

One night at dinner I described Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett to a couple of family members.

"This girl wants to find her brother who had enlisted in the army so she disguises herself as a guy and enlists, too," I began.

A family member said, "That's been done."

"There's this really tough sergeant," I went on.

"That, too," he said.

"And an officer who doesn't know what he's doing."

"And that."

All of which is true. These are all elements that have been used in fiction before. It's what Pratchett does with them that's so terrific.

Monstrous Regiment is one of Pratchett's Discworld books, but you don't need much knowledge of that series to enjoy the book. (That's the difference between a series and a serial, my little lads.) I didn't totally understand the politics of the war that was being fought, but it didn't matter. What was going on in young Polly's regiment was engrossing enough that I didn't care about the bigger picture. Polly is in a regiment of brand new recruits, among them a troll, a domesticated vampire, and an Igor, which appears to be a zombie of some type. The zombies here are very adept at sewing and medicine, meaning they are a whizz at sewing body parts back on. They're even good at sewing on spare parts.

Are these "monsters" what make the regiment monstrous? Hmmm.

Polly's sergeant, Sergeant Jackrum, assures his recruits over and over that they are his little lads and he will take care of them. It appears that ol' Jackrum has been taking care of little lads for decades. Generations. This guy goes way past your run-of-the-mill screaming and spitting sergeant to become the stuff of myth and legend. At one point while I was reading the book, I wondered if he didn't have some kind of connection to hell. He should have been forced out of the army because of age long, long ago, but he's fought everywhere, knows everyone, and more than a few people owe him.

He is one incredible character, and Pratchett is always revealing something new about him.

Our lieutenant is as inept an officer as you could ever wish to find in a book, but he's saved from becoming a one-dimensional stereotype by his flashes of compassion and technical knowledge. Of course, it's not military knowledge, but you have to give a little respect to a man who knows anything at all and isn't afraid to put on a dress.

Except for the trolls, domesticated vampires, Igors, and the occasional werewolf, Monstrous Regiment reminded me of the historical fiction I enjoyed as a teenager. I read an array of hissyfic (none of it of an improving nature) but what I really liked were books about long ago young women who had adventures. The American Revolution and Civil War were good periods for girl adventures, but nothing beat the Napoleonic Wars for a time period when a young woman could find herself stumbling onto battlefields, fighting off stray soldiers, or doing a little spying.

Monstrous Regiment seemed like a takeoff of the books I was reading years ago, with a far better heroine who has no interest in ending up with a guy, the way so many of the heroines in my old books did. Oh, no. Our Polly can do way better than that.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Do Kids' Historical Novels Get A Pass?

I recently finished a historical novel from the beginning of this century written by an author whose work I was familiar with. The book was filled with one World War II cliche after another, to say nothing of a few stereotypical characters who appear in other kinds of stories. The writing was flat. It was such a chore to read it that I started skimming. Yet as I plodded along I thought I might give my copy to BDT, who's teaching sixth grade this year, for his classroom library because the book was, after all, historical fiction.

Jeezum, Gail, I said to myself. What are you thinking? That it's acceptable to encourage the young to read poorly written books simply because they include historical content? Then I began to wonder if that is exactly what is happening in the world of children's literature. I mean, over the last decade or so I've stumbled upon some less than stellar kidlit historical novels, some of them very highly regarded by others.

Take the book in question, for instance. Its child characters have no real storyline of their own. They are placed in a setting in which things happen to other, adult, characters. Three of the four dramatic moments in the book occur offstage. The first-person narrator tells us about them. In two cases, he doesn't even take part in the events. He doesn't even witness them. Another character tells him the important information (offstage) and then he tells us. Instead of being shown action we're told second-hand stories. Finally there really isn't a climax to the kids' story because they don't have a story. They're just sort of there while stuff happens to other people.

This is an award-winning book I'm talking about, and it appears to have received significant attention at the time it was published. A lot of people liked it a whole lot more than I did.

Or did they? Is it possible that the literary gatekeepers in kidlit believe that making sure children get a history lesson is far more important than the way that the history lesson is presented? And thus they are willing to turn a blind eye to stereotypical characters and situations, weak plots, flat prose, and any number of other writing flaws?

I am aware that some adult readers are so interested in the content of a book that they just don't care about how it is written. I understand and respect that. I sometimes even feel shallow for requiring more of a book than its subject matter. But child readers are never going to get a chance to decide that they prefer one kind of fiction over the other if they aren't exposed to books that include both good content and good writing.

Promoting unbalanced historical novels, books that are pretty much all history and no novel, isn't the way to do it.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

M.T. Anderson Month, Part II

As a result of the Adbooks discussion of M. T. Anderson this month, I finally read The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. I am going to have to struggle to control myself, because I'm afraid I'm going to start gushing. The book, itself, is pretty astonishing.

Octavian Nothing is the son of an African princess who is being educated by a group of American Enlightenment philosophers who might be described as having gone slightly round the bend. Octavian and his mother live among them, and he is being given a classical education. As a child, he is totally unaware that he is part of an Enlightenment research project. He is totally unaware that he is, in fact, a slave.

But he becomes enlightened on those points.

The book is written in the style of an eighteenth century collection of memoirs and letters. Three portions of the book are told in Octavian's first person voice, from his "Manuscript Testimony." He appears to be recalling his childhood and adolescence from an adult (though not aged) viewpoint. (I was under the impression that this was the mark of an adult book rather than YA, but that's just a trivial point.) One part is told from the viewpoint of a young New Hampshire soldier through his letters to his sister. (Though this young man is charming and I did enjoy this portion of the book, I wonder whether or not it was necessary to switch points of view. Once again, this is a trivial point.)

The writing style is demanding, but the character is so engaging and the story so compelling that I got used to it. Fast. In fact, I read books of this type as a teenager because I was a teenager so very long ago that there weren't a lot of YA books around. So I did dip into older books. It doesn't seem alien to me for teenagers to be reading something this outside their world. I'm sure that many are reading things just as demanding in their English classes, especially if they're doing Advanced Placement.

Perhaps I took to the book because I've done some research on the period and am still psyched about the Enlightenment and smallpox, for instance. Octavian Nothing makes clear that the American Revolution was a revolution that wasn't for everybody. It certainly wasn't for the American slaves, but it also wasn't for many small farmers living in wilderness areas. The Revolutionary Generation was very much into the status quo. They just wanted their status quo to be American, not British.

Excuse me for getting all rebellious, but as I've said before, I suspect I had ancestors running through the streets of Paris in the 1790s screaming "Off with their heads" in some kind of farm French. (Coupez les tetes?)

Anyway, loved this book. It's described as Volume 1, and Anderson is working on a sequel. Just before reading it I was thinking about the whole series/serial thing that is so popular now, and wondering if it appeared anywhere but in fantasy. Well, here we have at least a two-part series in a historical novel. We'll have to see how far it goes. Though, really, in a way the ending to the first volume is satisfying.

I hope my local bookstore has an Octavian party when the next book comes out. I'd go.

If you read the book and are curious about pox parties, read more. Thanks to Adbooks for the link. Also, M.T. Anderson was interviewed on NPR back in January. Listen for the interviewer's question about whether teen readers will be enlightened or frightened by the book. I thought that question suggested a lack of knowledge of YA, myself.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Now This Is A Historical Novel

According to legend, I had an ancestor of some sort who played professional ice hockey back in Canuckistan. He died young, however, under mysterious circumstances, and we Gauthiers learned our lesson. To my knowledge, no one in my family has been involved with a team sport past the kiddie leagues since that time. We had two competitive high school wrestlers and three martial arts students, two of whom made black belt level, suggesting that while we're not team players, we're very scrappy. But I don't have many relatives who even watch sports on TV, and if anyone knows what the heck the Super Bowl is about it's because he or she married into the family.

My point is that I can't help my lack of interest in baseball. I totally don't understand the romance of the game or why it has cult status. Putting the word "shortstop" in the title of a book is not going to be a draw for me. The word "samurai," on the other hand, might pique my interest.

And thus I recently finished reading the really fine historical novel Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz. I knew I wasn't going to be killing time reading a cookie cutter teen novel after I finished the first chapter, in which the main character's uncle commits ritual suicide and his father indicates that he'll be following him sometime soon.

Samurai Shortstop is a historical novel that is as strong on novel as it is on history. Gratz has a good story and well-developed characters to go along with his research. To me, this is what a historical novel should be.

One of the things that I think makes the book so good is that it deals with culture clash. According to the Author's Notes at the end of the book, Japan didn't open up to Western culture until the 1850's. By 1890, the time in which Samurai Shortstop takes place, the old Japanese ways were being displaced by all things western. Among those things was baseball.

Will young American readers get the zenny aspects of this book and "the way of the warrior?" Or will they find old Japanese culture too remote to be of interest to them? I don't think so because a great deal of what's going on in Samurai Shortstop deals with school life. Even though we're talking about a boarding school with a code of behavior unheard of in our time, it's still school. I also think young people understand the attraction of the new, and the young people in Samurai Shortstop are seriously attracted to the new sport of baseball.

At the same time, though, there is no doubt that these young people are from another time.

By the way, did any other readers catch the references to the original Iron Chef? In a chapter in which the Ichiko students have to start running their dining room's kitchen themselves, one character, while talking about miso soup (an Iron Chef staple), says, "If memory serves--" Every episode of Iron Chef opens with the Chairman using that phrase. Later, another character says, "Allez cuisine!" Again, a favorite expression of the Chairman's.

The Author's Notes I mentioned before are excellent, and Gratz includes a list of sources.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Seeking Balance In All Things

A few days ago, Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy passed on a question from another blogger--What is the recipe for good historical fiction?. I happened to be reading A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz at the time, so I gave the question some thought.

I like to see balance in most things, anyway, but especially in writing. All the elements of fiction--plot, character, setting, point of view, voice, and theme--need to be attended to equally. This is much, much easier said than done. That's why you end up with books that are said to be plot-driven or character-driven. And sometimes, particularly in YA, you end up with books that are all voice. The plot is ridiculous, the characters are stereotypes, but there's a voice that someone thought would carry the day.

With historical fiction, the author has to work a lot harder on the setting (time and place) than the other elements, but those other elements have to balance the setting in order to create a good book.

The elements are beautifully balanced in A Drowned Maiden's Hair.

I wasn't overwhelmed by the splendor of the historical detail in A Drowned Maiden's Hair the way I was by the historical detail in The Green Glass Sea but Maiden's Hair had a far better plot/story to go along with its early twentieth century setting. And the characters!

Young Maud, an orphan, is adopted out-of-the-blue by two elderly sisters who lavish her with new clothes on their way home to their large home, but then make her hide in the attic when guests come. Tough, smart Maudie has been adopted for a reason, and when she learns that reason she makes a sincere effort to play her part in her beloved new Aunt Hyacinth's plan.

Aunt Hyacinth is lovely, charming, witty, flirtatious, stylish, and smart. She's a wonder. And easily in her sixties. What a stroke of genious to make this heavy an older woman. (Think Blythe Danner)

Maud, herself, is a wonderfully controlled character. She is angry and needy and smart and stubborn and conniving and heartbreaking and bad and good and wryly funny. She has a voice, in spite of being a third-person character. The absolute easiest way to create a voice for a character is to write in the first person. Maud is really quite an accomplishment.

She is also a point-of-view character, by the way. She's in every scene. Everything is seen from her perspective.

So we have setting, plot, character, voice, and point of view. Hmmm. What does that leave? Oh, yeah. Theme.

Right and wrong, people. It's as simple as that. Good vs. bad.

So if you want a recipe for good historical fiction, take a look at A Drowned Maiden's Hair.

A Drowned Maiden's Hair, by the way, was the Cybils winner for middle grade fiction.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Historical Fiction

Like Mindy at Propernoun.net, I was a fan of historical fiction when I was a teenager. I suspect I was reading a lot of adult stuff, though, and probably a lot of historical romance. Mindy has a post on Historical Fiction for Teens that includes a link to an article called What Are the Rules for Historical Fiction? and a list of teen historical fiction titles. Actually, she has a link to an article at Chasing Ray on the subject, too.

When will I get a chance to read all this?


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Slice Of Life

I became very excited reading the first chapter of The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. In 1943, Dewey Kerrigan is on her way to join her father at Los Alamos, New Mexico where, though she doesn't know it, he's helping to develop the atomic bomb. It's a top secret location for a top secret project. None of the children living there actually know what their parents are working on, just that it's part of the war effort.

The period detail in that first chapter was marvelous. I got a definite "You Are There" feeling regarding Dewey's train trip. And while on her journey she meets a historical figure whose name I recognized. He's described. He's named. He seems engaging.

Okay, I found Dewey, herself, a little flat but maybe she was just a bit depressed. Her grandmother had just had a stroke and she was being "shipped" west. I thought I could get used to this young girl geek with her interest in and gift for gadgets.

Well, the period detail remains rich and well done throughout The Green Glass Sea. But there didn't seem to me to be much of a story here to go along with it. Dewey is an odd duck who enjoys being among the great scientific minds who have gathered at her new home. That's great. But instead of developing that, a conflict is set up with another girl who also has trouble with the in-kids in town. The set-up takes a long time. The girls don't actually start butting heads until halfway through the book, and their problems are resolved with a minimum of fuss and bother.

There's not much of a plot. Things happen without much causal relationship--it's more a list of events. People are really upset when Roosevelt dies, which I'm sure is historically accurate. But since he never appeared in the story prior to the announcement of his death--we never so much as see people listening to a fireside chat--it's hard to feel their pain. Another death is totally meaningless. There's no reason why it had to happen, and it really doesn't change day-to-day events.

And that historical figure from the first chapter? He's only mentioned in passing two more times in the story. Quite a bit of time and energy was put into him early on, only to have him virtually disappear.

But the setting for The Green Glass Sea is still marvelous. Klages creates a lost world where children could be left alone all day and into the evening while their parents worked to save democracy. Moms could puff away on Chesterfields as if lung cancer hadn't been invented. (Which I guess you could say it hadn't.) Twenty cents could buy a kid a Coke and a candy bar, and nobody worried about the caffeine and calories she was consuming. "The slice of life" aspect of the book is very good.

The Green Glass Sea has won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The book also began as a short story at Strange Horizons. (Don't read it until after you've read the book.)

I think it's only fair to mention, by the way, that I appear to be alone in my objections to Green Glass's plot. The book has been very well reviewed both in print and at blogs.

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