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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

But Is It Real?

Playing Dress Up, The Problem of Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction occupies a strange place in this world of our. On the one hand, ever since I began working in this field two decades ago I’ve heard how much editors, authors, parents, librarians, teachers, and, in fact, kids like historical fiction. From Time Warp Trio and Magic Tree House all the way to most YA time travel story, historical fiction is popular — on the one hand fiction supplies the spoonful of sugar to make the history medicine go down, on the other the experience of trying out the mores, the language, even the language of another time and place is both fun and an interesting challenge. Perhaps, I just realized, historical fiction is a metaphor for being a young person — where you are constantly playing dress up, trying on the languages, the attitudes, the behaviors of older kids and adults. Being an adult is a kind of simultaneous historical fiction — the adult is in your time period, but his or her life is foreign. Some day a version of it will be yours, so you can play time travel in experimenting with aspects of that life.

Historical Fiction is popular, in fact more popular than history. And yet, at a couple of recent events (including that fine Kennedy Library conf.) I have heard teachers and librarians express resistance to it. On the one hand, perhaps since the Dear America flap, there is the concern that a book or books do not make clear what is real or what is not. On the other, I hear of kids themselves (mainly boys) who themselves are distressed, Is it Real, they ask. The boys do not want to be fooled, to be hornswaggled, to be sold a bill of goods.

So, the question, Is it Real? When someone asked me about this at the Kennedy Library conf. I said, there are two meanings of "real" within that one question. There is the reality of a time period, a life, historical moment. And there is a kind of human truth — an insight in motivation and character. Historical fiction aims to capture both. Now motivations and character are not universal, they are not timeless. But fiction does give an author a way to envision and describe internal life that the historical record may not have captured. 
      Having made that argument, I was thrilled to see Professor Jill Lepore’s essay in the March 24 New Yorker, here’s the link,
I am not sure I agree with her in all the particulars, but I was pleased to see that she shared my sense of the dual truths of fiction and history.

So folks, please read her piece, and lets discuss it her, what do you say to the doubting teacher, the puzzled reader, Is it Real? And when does a book fall off the edge of the real, and how can you tell?


  1. This was a long article, but well worth reading. We discuss (and read) historical fiction in my methods class and talk about its place in the classroom. Many of my pre-service teachers are reluctant to use such books in the content area (stick to reading/language arts if you please). My best argument for it, comes in the form of the author’s note at the end of Julius Lester’s novel Day of Tears. In it he says, “History is not only an accounting of what happened when and where. It includes also the emotional biographies of those on whom history imposed itself with a cruelty that we can only dimly imagine. This book is another in my attempts to make real those who did not have the opportunity to tell their stories for themselves.”

  2. I should add that good historical fiction, if introduced as fiction, leads many kids to ask “What REALLY happened?” A good author’s note or epilogue is also helpful. Last year I read Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson with a group of middle school kids who couldn’t believe such an event occurred in the U.S. Then we dove right into Jim Murphy’s wonderful book, An American Plague. Perhaps, for the doubting teacher, the issue might be ameliorated if he/she worked with a librarian to find the right companion book, so that the history can be “made real.” The two books mentioned above are a perfect pair. I’m sure there are others out there. (Hmmm… sounds like an idea for a series of posts.)

  3. OOPS! I didn’t mean epilogue, but rather, appendix.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    One obvious suggestion is to pair HF and NF, as Tricia suggests. Just as Ted Hipple suggested pairing classics with YA fiction, it makes sense to pair HF with real history. Has anyone made up a list of good pairings by age and grade?

  5. Jeannine Atkins says:

    I think Jill Lepore’s article (which I loved, thanks for sending us there!) swiftly answers your last question about when a book falls off the edge of real: she says Margaret Seltzer, who recently and infamously claimed her made-up memoir about life in a gang was real, was just lying, while Henry Fielding, who called Tom Jones “a true history,” was playing. An author’s motives matter, and as you point out, some authors want to give you more of an inside view, one perhaps based on a historical record, but adding to what was left out of that record. From the time children are first read to, perhaps fairy tales or fantasy, many ask, “Is this true?” And a smart reader knows they’re not asking in a lawyer-type way, but perhaps asking if they should feel safe, or asking if the story matters. As parents, readers, teachers, I think we usually want them to keep asking that question and to find their own answers.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    Jeannine: I think your “read” of the question is very astute, but I think they are also asking about historical truth, at least some are. So encouraging questioning is great, but giving them historical information is equally important.

  7. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Yes, of course that’s right. And I love the idea of pairing novels with more factual books.