Monday, September 21, 2009

A dip into historical fiction

"It's historical," precedes most of my students putting down whatever title they've just asked about. And why not? So much historical fiction for young people is either saccachrine or dreary. And perhaps my intense concentration on the Newbery over the last year made me forget that historical fiction for kids and YAs could take place in any era other than the Middle Ages and the Great Depression, but it was a strange sensation to return to that genre twice in the past week. I began my trip into the past with the National Book Award Winner What I Saw And How I Lied by Judy Blundell.

Blundell rather gently evokes post-war Florida. The historical backdrop provides explanations for certain elements of the plot, surrounding an infantilized teen, familiar to students with hovering parents, whose stepfather, mother, and would-be lover are caught in a love triangle. As well as introducing the idea that certain part of the country were quite uninhabitable before "air cooling," but the history there is rather scant, along the lines of Revlon lipstick colors. Then I read Bliss by Lauren Myracle, an occult thriller set in 1969 Atlanta with the Manson family murders as a recurring motif. Bliss was much more about a time period (think of all the little consumer details from To All My Fans, With Love, from Sylvieby Ellen Conford) rather than the less period-conscious What I Saw.

I suppose I actually read a third historical novel for young people recently, The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff. The reviews I've looked at claim it was set in the 1850s, but I found scant little historical support in the forty percent of the text before I just couldn't take the HORSE anxiety. Instead, it seemed to be set in some amorphous medieval past. I preferred her post-apocalyptic How I Live Now.

All this begs the question: what I have been doing avoiding the genre? Anachronism, especially in dialogue or extremes of characterization, will cause me to throw a book down is disgust. I know many of my readers will feel a book isn't applicable to them if the central character doesn't send and receive a text message in the first three pages. Oh tempora, oh mores!

But how much of what we choose to read is a reflection of the current publishing market? Much of what I loved growing up (Gone with the Wind, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) was actually historical fiction, I adored the Sunfire series and champion Scholastic's Dear America books even to my high school students. And I have also realized that pretty much every adult title I have been reading (Margaret Forster, lately, and Julian Fellowes' Past Imperfect, which moves seamlessly between the 1940s, 1960s, and present-day, with technology intact).

Actually, if you had told me twenty years ago, most of what I was reading would be science fiction, I would never have believed it. But post-apocalyptic stuff is pulling me these days, and some fantasy and horror, genres I would have run from in the past. But I don't think I'm pushing myself as a reader as much as capable authors perhaps choosing to write for these rather lucrative niches? Just a guess.