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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Historical Fiction Rears Its Ugly Head

I had hoped to be able to comment on THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG, but I have been unable to retrieve my copy from the student, and my hold at the public library has not become available yet, so my commentary on that book will have to wait.

Historical fiction, as many of you already know, seems overrepresented in the Newbery canon–with CALPURNIA and HOMER being the latest additions–especially since the genre is reportedly not very popular with students.  I think those rankings of reading preferences can be misleading, however, because historical fiction often has other elements that draw students.  For example, readers of BUD, NOT BUDDY probably identify the book as a funny book rather than a historical one.

While I personally thought A SEASON OF GIFTS was the most distinguished historical fiction of the year, I never expected it to earn Newbery recognition for a variety of reasons.  While we were busy wrangling over that book, perhaps we allowed CALPURNIA to slide by unquestioned, but now Debbie Reese has asked us on child_lit to consider the "Injun oath" that is invoked several times while Sue Giffard has likewise asked us on ccbc-net to consider the near invisibility of the African American characters that would have run the cotton plantation that Calpurnia lives on.  In retrospect, do these elements strike you as problematic?

And finally, when THE STORM IN THE BARN won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, there was some interesting discussion on Oz and Ends about whether that book successfully fits into the genre.  In light of the final post on the subject, it might be interesting to see where WHEN YOU REACH ME fits on the spectrum of historical fiction, because while the setting is historical, it does not feel akin to either CALPURNIA or HOMER.

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. One person’s invisible is another’s visible, I guess. In my review at Tea Cozy (I suspect I cannot link?), I mention how Calpurnia is privileged by her race. And that Calpurnia mentions such things as Octoroons & the “colored children” who do pick cotton. And thought that Kelly told us what a girl such as Calpurnia would know and not know (or care about and not care about), yet gave enough for the reader to think about.

  2. I’ve been sharing the medal winners and honor books with my students and have come across the same issue with When You Reach Me. According to the definition we use (takes place at least 30 years prior to date of publication), it does qualify as historical fiction. Since I was only a couple years younger than Miranda in 1979, it doesn’t feel “historical” to me. However, because of the time travel element, we probably wouldn’t offer it for either historical or realistic fiction assignments.

  3. I was disappointed in that aspect of Calpurnia Tate, thought the housekeeper character was a token (to revisit that issue!), though an extremely well-drawn out one. But ultimately agree with Liz B’s take on it, and decided I just didn’t want to touch that one.

    I was more frustrated by Homer P Figg. On p.75 Homer tells Reed “we’re even” for saving each other…but they never risked the same thing to save each other. Homer risked nearly nothing; Reed risked capture and an entire mission that held other lives in stake. And on p.80, Homer says “They tricked [my brother] and sold him like they sell a slave.” Well…enslaved Africans were actually treated much more cruely and inhumanly than Homer’s brother. Now, I realize this is all about degree and perception…and that these thoughts in Homer’s mind are actually probably true to his character. But they’re meant to be taken at face value by the reader, and they irked me.

    In both books, these issues are small in the scheme of things, making it difficult for me to bring them up and avoid being typecast as a kneejerk PC critic. But I do think it’s important to bring up these sorts of questions–as Jonathan did with WYRM, though I disagreed with him there–and be able to discuss them civily. Sometimes oddly hard to do.

  4. The only definition of historical fiction that makes any sense to me is “a book set in a specific time period earlier than the date of publication”. Why the arbitrary thirty years? Why the stricter definition JL Bell has? I was interested in his argument, but it didn’t convince me. Certainly a book doesn’t have to be only historical fiction, but can bridge genres. And it seems like one could draw a comparison to fantasy, where there’s “fantasy” and then there’s “high fantasy”.

    I’m going to suggest that When You Reach Me may not “feel” as much like historical fiction to you simply because the time period is so familiar to you. But the book contains many references specific to its time period, and would have to be changed fairly significantly if it were to take place in the present day.

    My thoughts about race in Calpurnia Tate were similar to Liz’s, although I didn’t quite put them into words; more to the point, there were other issues to discuss. The book was closer to Newbery quality than A Season of Gifts was (IMHO) and so some of the discussion room was taken up by issues of plotting and writing. I was disturbed by the use of the word “octoroon”, which I didn’t think was necessary and was perhaps inappropriate, and mentioned that in my original review.

    In any case, I agree about the overrepresentation of historical fiction in the Newbery canon.

  5. Wendy, why were you disturbed by the use of “octoroon”? Were you also disturbed by the use of “colored”? For historical fiction, often terms that are offensive to use were not so at the time; or, were used by certain peoples of certain classes. And since race was a part of the story (in my reading, part of Calpurnia’s privilege) but not “plot A”, as it were, I think that story lets the reader know, up front, just how different times were, between the term used and the fate of the woman. Given its fairly gruesome and the husband gets a slap on the wrist, I’m surprised that its said race is invisible. Not plot A, agreed; but not invisibile.

    If it’s a historically accurate term, should it not be used?

    Definition of historical fiction is a tricky thing. LITTLE WOMEN fails the test of “x years before publication date,” but I don’t see anyone labelling it contemporary realistic fiction, even though it would have been an apt term at the time. I believe in library school we were taught “fifty years before publication.”

    For teens/kids, I think anytime set before they were born is historical fiction.

  6. Peni Griffin says:

    I think you have to let characters use terms like “octoroon” in order to bring out the nuances of historical racism as opposed to modern racism. Because the legal systems of the time treated as real an imaginary classification (race), vital distinctions were made based on a person’s pedigree. How an individual fared in the world depended in a large part on how white or black she was, and keeping track of who was an octoroon, who was a Creole, who was mulatto became vitally important.

    In Texas, where it was illegal for a black person to be free without approval from the state legislature (!), while people of Mexican descent were free and might occupy a middle ground between slave and white populations or become part of the white elite depending on their wealth and education, we find long, drawn-out court cases to determine issues such as whether such-and-such a person, held as a slave, was a Mexican, an octoroon, held illegally by heirs after being freed by a former master’s will and given a set time to leave the state. These people would continue to be held as slaves while their cases were resolved. No, I don’t know how they paid for their lawyers! It would be interesting to find out.

    Our modern squeamishness about the issue prevents the day-to-day complexities of historical racism from being examined and understood; thus making it harder to recognize and deal with the complexities of modern racism. That is not a good thing.

  7. Laurie (Six Boxes of Books) says:

    Liz B asked, “Wendy, why were you disturbed by the use of ‘octoroon’? Were you also disturbed by the use of ‘colored’?” Wendy (my sister) and I have not discussed Calpurnia Tate since I read it two weeks ago, but I was also disturbed by that word so here’s my answer.

    On page 2, the phrase “our quadroon cook” is used. The word “octoroon” is used later in the book. I’ve read a lot of vintage children’s books, mainly published in the 1930s-1950s. Many of those books use language that was inoffensive at the time. Some of those books I still recommend to children today (if they are still in print), sometimes with a caveat about the “old-fashioned” language or ideas. Others, while I love them and have them in my personal collection, I would not recommend to children today. I am used to considering this when I look at older books: how are women and racial minorities depicted? Present-day authors of historical fiction, though, I expect to be historically accurate without being actually offensive to present-day readers. It is possible to do this.

    I find the words quadroon and octoroon very, very sad because they are part of a racial consciousness that attempted to measure race with bizarre precision. Those words remind me not just of America’s racist past, but of the Nazi examination of a person’s number of Jewish grandparents to assess how Jewish they were. (Please note that I am referencing Nazis in a historical context, not just dragging “Nazi” into the discussion.) I find the words quadroon and octoroon hideous. I think it would have been quite possible for the author to use a historically accurate word, perhaps “colored,” which I do not find as offensive, to convey that the character Viola is nonwhite.

    Young readers today are likely to understand what “colored” means in reference to a person in Texas in 1899. Young readers today are unlikely to know the word “quadroon.” It might send them to a dictionary. It might lead them to search online; Google offers Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster as the top two hits. So you get a crash course in “hypodescent” (learned that word from Wikipedia just now) while you are on page 2 of a book that’s not primarily about race. This strikes me as a grim prospect for young readers.

    I have not yet talked to any young readers of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate; I’m sure some of you have, and perhaps you could share their reactions to the racial language, if any. Encountering the word quadroon and then octoroon cast a pall over my own reading of the book.

  8. Peni pretty much sums up my point of view about the use of terms that are uncomfortable today in historical fiction. While it is upsetting, I would find it equally upsetting for a child to read a book where the nastiness of racism was softened to the point where they wondered, “what was so bad about it? the books I read didn’t show anything bad.”

  9. My thoughts are similar to Laurie’s. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m not in favor of artificially cleaning up historical fiction, either in the past or as it’s written now; pretending racism doesn’t exist; any of those things. But I don’t think the words “quadroon” and “octoroon” were well-used in this book. What do they add? What do they take away?

    The terms are offensive in both definition and the manner in which they’re used in real life. Yet reading Calpurnia Tate, a kid would have no idea of that. Not long ago one of my co-workers used the word “mulatto” about a patient and had no idea that that was an offensive word–in fact, didn’t really believe me when I said it was. In the end I said “Take my word for it, okay?” and we left it at that. This is the reality of the world we live in.

    As these words are used in the book, they don’t contribute to the conversation about racism in Texas at the turn of that century. All they do is put racist vocabulary in children’s mouths.

    I don’t make statements like these lightly. After all, I’m in a neverending debate with Debbie Reese about Little House on the Prairie. I think I’ve considered all the nuances here.

    Actually, there was something else that bothered me in Calpurnia, too–I thought there were several rather cruel statements made about a mentally challenged child. For instance, “I had a piece of pathetic quilting so primitive that it looked like it had been done by Toddy Gates, Lula’s addle-brained brother.” Again, I didn’t think this added to the book in the slightest; it was just cruel. Toddy is in another passage made to sound like an animal. And in one passage that I think is just poorly edited, it seemed at first like Kelly was suggesting Toddy’s hydrocephalus was caused by his mother drinking alcohol, which is a vile thing to imply (really, after the fourth time I read the passage in astonishment, it’s kind of clever–Calpurnia wonders if Toddy has water-on-the-brain because his mother drank too much WATER while pregnant, which is very scientisty of her–but I think many kid readers would also think she meant alcohol. Would be very curious, if any of you can ask kids who have already read this how they read that passage).

  10. I think that if you treat a subject with a light hand you can be more effective in provoking thought in the reader. The danger is that some or even many readers might *horrors* miss the point. This drives gatekeepers to push for a heavier and heavier hand which they then decry as didactic. It is a delicate balance to strike and as you strike it I think you need to consider how much you should respect the audience. As a writer, I tilt way way way far in the direction of having faith in my audience. Perhaps Kelly feels the same way.

    Whearas *mulatto* is a term difficult to understand without further information, “octaroon” and “quadroon” especially when used in conjunction with one another have their meaning embedded in them. I think this information about the treatment of human beings based on their pedigree is developmentally appropriate for the audience of CALPURNIA and is not conveyed by the word “colored.” I think they will understand entirely what Kelly is trying to tell them. I think Calpurnia saw what she could reasonably be expected to see and understood what she could reasonably be expected to understand and that the *readers’* understanding is not limited by hers. I expect readers to draw parallels between Callie’s lack of options and the much more dire condition of the cook and the field laborers.

    Yes, some won’t. Is it acceptable for a writer to say that she is writing for those who will?

  11. Wendy said: “All they do is put racist vocabulary in children’s mouths. ”
    Is putting racist things into a young heroine’s mouth a bad thing? Why wouldn’t Calpurnia be a racist? She was raised in late 1800s rural Texas, a child of wealth and privilege. It makes perfect sense for Kelly to depict Calpurnia as racist and insensitive to the mentally challenged . Characters with flaws are more interesting than those without. Calpurnia is a smart young girl but she is also a product of her time and place. Remember, in the early 20th century many smart/analytic minds like Calpurnia’s were convinced (in part by Darwin’s work) that eugenics was a reasonable practice. Why should 19th century characters be held to 21st century standards? Wouldn’t it verge on anachronistic if Calpurnia thought about race in a modern/PC way?

  12. Not Calpurnia’s mouth, Eric. Readers’ mouths.

    This is going to put your backs up, and I’m not going to ask that you change your points of view to mine. But I feel like people are not thinking about the arguments put forth here, because I feel like I’m getting the same old arguments back. If there’s a chance that any of you are having knee-jerk “don’t be so PC” reactions, please step back and consider.

    I’m not asking for Calpurnia to be a 21st-century girl in a 19th century setting. I’m not asking for her to be feminist or anti-racist or a champion of the mentally challenged. I would be irritated if she displayed modern sensibilities. (Of course, there were people who believed in all of those things in 1899, but that’s not the issue. Calpurnia wasn’t one of them, and that’s all right.)

    I’m not asking authors to have their characters call black and mixed race people in their historical fiction books “African American” or “people of color” or any of the other currently acceptable terms. That, too, would be annoying and, in a way, offensive.

    I am saying that I think the words “quadroon” and “octoroon” add nothing to this story–are, in fact, gratuitous. I stand by the point that children do not know these words, I doubt that most can or will figure them out by parsing the root, and I am sure they won’t get the offensiveness of them even if they figure out what they mean. I don’t think that’s disrespectful of children. I think that’s realistic.

    What is the point of including them in the book? What does it do other than introduce children to racist terms, without context to show that they’re racist? For US, adults, it might help set the time period. Since kids are unlikely to know these words, it doesn’t have that effect.

    What does it add to the book when the mentally challenged child is described as “mooing”?

    Why don’t we respect children enough to give them books that treat people respectfully?

    Would the book be less good if it didn’t include the terms “quadroon” and “octoroon”? Would it be less authentic? If we started listing all of the terms Kelly could have used that would be authentic to the time but didn’t, that would be a long list. “Pickaninny” doesn’t appear, for instance.

    No one needs to defend Kelly’s right to use any particular term. The question is whether those terms add to the book. I think they only take away from it.

    Why does it make sense for Kelly to portray Calpurnia as insensitive to the mentally challenged? She could have been, just as many people now show that kind of insensitivity. But what’s the point of putting it in the book? Calpurnia doesn’t learn any lessons about eugenics.

    Would you be so forgiving of a realistic fiction book that featured a protagonist who had cruel thoughts about mentally challenged children and say “if you’ve ever met a fifth-grader, that’s how they really are”? I have a hard time believing that such a book would even see the light of day.

  13. Wendy,

    I don’t think your arguments are too PC. I just disagree with them. I think the language adds depth to the book and really, really important context to Calpurnia’s situation. I don’t have your worries about the readers running out to use their new vocabulary words, but I can see where you are coming from.

    The thing is, I see the readers who are going to wade through Calpurnia on their own as being exactly those who can make these connections and reach the deepest understanding of the book. I think Kelly has pitched perfectly to her audience. The ones prone to missing the implications here are the ones who won’t read the book unless some cruel teacher (like, Jonathan, for example) twists their arms up behind their backs. And in that case, I trust the teacher to ask appropriate leading questions, like Gee, do you wonder if there are ANY people of Mexican descent in the state of Texas? What about Native Americans?

    We are recycling the same position statements, though and I don’t think I have any more to add, so I think I’ll stop.

  14. Huh; my post got eaten by the Internet.

    Basically, I don’t want to rehash. I agree with what others have posted.

    Just want to add, that I don’t read the terms used, or the context used as gratuitous. Far from it; it helps deepen the story. Ditto for the inclusion of the brother.

    And if a child does read this and want to know more about how racism was legal? And consider how todays politics are influenced by those old laws and prejudices? I think that is good.

  15. Laurie (Six Boxes of Books) says:

    I want to clarify one point in my comment above. When I said, “Present-day authors of historical fiction, though, I expect to be historically accurate without being actually offensive to present-day readers,” I did not mean books that intentionally depict the pain or horrors of racism. For example, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis and Day of Tears by Julius Lester are two of the finest historical novels I’ve read in recent years. Both contain scenes and language that are “offensive” and horrifying to present-day readers. But I felt the racial terms used in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate lacked context and detracted from the story.

  16. Coming back one more time to say that I think it’s very important to see that two people who are probably fairly like minded can still have two very different experiences of a text. Must making judging the Newbery fun.

  17. Wendy-
    Yes, 30 yrs is an arbitrary number just like 40 or 50 or whatever. It’s just a way for me to help my students understand that, just because something takes place before they were born (which is now post 2000) it’s not necessarily historical. On further reflection, I wouldn’t call WYRM historical fiction, not because I clearly remember 1979, but because historical fiction should be a snapshot in time. A book like The Wednesday Wars (which takes place just 10 yrs prior to WYRM) makes use of its time period and setting. It’s not just a story about a boy growing up; it’s a story about what was happening to many families/communities in the 60s and early 70s. Miranda’s story could have taken place, with a few changes, 5 or 10 years later.

    Part of our discomfort with some pieces of historical fiction comes from how accurate that snapshot is. If Calpurnia Tate or A Season of Gifts had been written during the time period they’re set in (I know it’s a stretch, but stay with me) the author might be defended or a least forgiven for being a product of his/her time. But we “know better.” Can someone writing today be allowed to reproduce words or ideas that were once commonplace but no longer accepted? I guess that’s the question of the day.

  18. Debbie Reese says:


    Yes, we do go back and forth on LITTLE HOUSE. The phrase in the book “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” — I think it wasn’t in common use during the time the book is set.

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