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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The History Trap — The Magic Mirror

Last post I mentioned that my Rutgers students read An American Plague and Fever, 1793 this week. They loved An American Plague. I asked them to read the first paragraph of each book outloud — try it. Jim’s first paragraph is like the opening of a horror film — it ominous, you feel the miasma, the fetid attmosphere, you are led into the story by how he establishes the mood. One student said he liked it, even though he never reads non-fiction. which he defined as “facts, facts, facts.” Well, much as I like facts, that would hardly be my definition of non-fiction — which leads to this post on the wonders of the past.

A couple of days ago my 10-year-old son was in a terrible mood, storming around, picking fights, being generally as antagonistic as possible. Marina and I could not quite figure out if something happened at school or if he was just on some downward cycle of aggression and anger. Finally, he fell asleep. Next day he was fine, not sure himself what caused the storm. Then, last night, he and I were reading his 5th grade Am Hist textbook, preparing him for a quiz on the causes of the Revolution. We were having great discussions on the meaning of “liberty” at the time, and he was ever more siding with the Loyalists and King George. We got to the Tea Party followed by the Intolerable Acts. He started to say, “what are you going to do, if the Americans are so agressive…” meaning, of course the British would punish them, when suddenly he remembered who he had been two days earlier. “History Trap” I screamed, and he laughed — caught in the mirror of the past. Seeing a pattern in American History, he saw himself, knowing himself, he undestood a pattern of action and reaction in American History.

History is a magic mirror — it is everything human beings have done, and so of course it often mirrors who we are now, or, as we go along in our lives meeting our daily crises, we see reflections of ourselves in past conflicts and dramas. The problem is that we have come to believe that young people will only see themselves in the past by identifying with young people in other eras — the textbook we read often began with little “you are there” scene setters, putting a young person at some key moment. But that is not how the mirror works. You don’t only identify person to person — you identify with emotion, with trend, with experience — with what it is like to be angry at a distant parent (colonists to King George), what it is like to try to bring order to bratty, annoying kids (King George to colonists — Sasha on safety patrol, or fighiting with his brother) . History gives us a way to see patterns of human behavior far enough away to allow us, safely, to see ourselves now.

Have you had that History Trap experience — where seeing a pattern in the past shows you something about yourself now? Do tell.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I’d like to respond to why your student was so enthusiastic about Jim Murphy’s writing. It’s because his writing appeals to all the senses. Two years ago I looked closely at several of Murphy’s books and found that one of the outstanding features is their multisensory descriptions. The reader develops a feel for the context he is writing about because the is alot to work with. In fact my article which appeared in Children’s Literature in Education in 2009 was entitled “History Writing That’s ‘Good to Think With”: The Great Fire, Blizzard! and An American Plague.

    To respond to your overall message about history beig a “magic mirror,” I think this is a great focus for discussion with children–actually all readers. It’s a way to connect with people from the past. Clearly, we share similar emotions and feelings with people from the past.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    That would be interesting to look at — which senses do various NF writers seek to evoke in readers? How? Clearly the past was in living color, full of its own aromas (or noxious odors), in full surround sound. Yet too often on the page it is literally disembodied. I might give that as an assignment to my students — to track which senses writers engage — in words, in images used in the book — and then which could have been used (since we don’t always have that information).

  3. “The problem is that we have come to believe that young people will only see themselves in the past by identifying with young people in other eras — the textbook we read often began with little “you are there” scene setters, putting a young person at some key moment.”

    Marc, I could not agree more — and I think we are doing young people a disservice if we believe — or expect — that they can only identify with history/events/people through this lens.


  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I read one of those to Sasha — a boy whose dad goes off to do something dangerous the night of 12-16-1773 (as in throw tea in the harbor). I asked Sasha if he’d rather read about a kid in the past whose dad leaves home to do something, or the adult who takes action, and he chose the adult. Seems pretty obvious to me. The exciting bit is taking risks and changing history — being a kid on the scene is an nice extra. It is all part of identity history — as if you can only be interested in “someone like you.” Why? I’ve always been fascinated with Christian medieval Europe, though I am Jewish. But I want to know about communities of belief — which was true of my paternal grandparents. We can take a step past one to one identification — and then the whole world opens up to us. “I am human, nothing human is foreign to me” — we’ve been saying that since at least ancient Rome — except now where we seem to say I am My Own Particular Age, Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Nationality, Religion, and Diet — Only Images of Me Interest Me. I’m being mean, but not entirely unfair.

  5. There is so MUCH I want to say in response to this and the last post that I’d prefer to have the chance to sit down to tea with all three of you and discuss.

    Coincidentally, in my Exploring Nonfiction course, before we dig in to discuss writing and style, I always read aloud the first few pages of American Plague, and have the students sketch what they see, smell, and hear as I read. I juxtapose that with the recording of Nicola Davies’s Big Blue Whale, without the pictures, to frame our discussion of nonfiction about history or science in terms of its appeal to our senses, and to the ways that it connects us to what we know through similes and metaphors that are beautiful but functional.

    As a reader, I’ve always connected with both nonfiction and fiction as an entry point into the past, but that depending on the topic or the books available, one becomes the scaffold for the other, and the pattern of reading is never the same, as I imagine it should be for young people. Offering students paired reading experiences is very valuable, as you do with AP and Fever, but I think it’s helpful to let the kids decide which one they want to read first, which one the scaffold, the way in, and which one further immersion.

    Right now, I have a five-year-old obsessed with American Girl books (in fact, is in costume while I write, pretending it’s 1944) , and because she loves living in the worlds those books create, we read them again and again despite my reservations as an educator and critic about their overall quality and authenticity.

    A gentle reminder, though perhaps here I am preaching to the choir, that not all historical fiction with strong female characters is anachronistic. Too much of girls’ and womens’ history remains unknown to too many, and thus, the stories most compelling to bring to life, feel forced, when in fact it’s the lack of understanding about roles on the part of reviewers and critics that is the problem. It’s the paradox of reviewing nonfiction and historical fiction thoroughly, right? How do you really know enough to do it on all the topics you confront? I think it’s maybe easier in nonfiction to reflect that history than it is to make the world come alive in historical fiction with dialogue that rings true to the time without sounding fake or infused with contemporary attitudes.

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I asked my students to read the Stephen Greenblatt review of Wolf Hall that I’ve mentioned here. He does the best job I’ve ever seen of describing what Historical Fiction can do, and where anachronism fits. Part of our problem in books for young readers is that we are thinking about how to use HF, where in adult that is less the issue. And I think those anachronism issues come up in two areas, one has to do with teaching — using HF. The other is, related to his review, the dream HF needs to be — what bursts the bubble of a dream, what makes the past feel so forced, so false, you cannot trust yourself to it? And that is a question that has a range of answers — it is not a simple binary pass/fail.

  7. Yes, in scanning it quickly, my favorite line is: “What matters is the illusion of reality, the ability to summon up ghosts.” What do you think is the (ideal) role of historical fiction in school life, particularly elementary and middle school?

  8. Marc Aronson says:

    see that is when the ghosts run into tombstones. The obvious idea is pairing — compare, contrast, critical thinking — classroom debate — was this novel plausible or impluasible, why or why not? Sam the Minuteman is a great book for early readers — it suits the time and the readership. In a way the problem is in the teacher not the students. If a teacher has a secure knowledge of the period she can guide students around the real and the invented, the plausible and the distorted. But if not she will be guessing, and likely to be too forgiving or too critical of the novels.

  9. I agree that it is all about the framing and the conversations that teachers prompt. I remember when I was looking to do more writing with my students while they studied the Middle Ages in Global Studies, I turned to Rebecca Barnhouse’s work on historical fiction for young people, Recasting the Past ( As a medievalist, she evaluated current young adult literature in the context of their history, and I used her recommendations as a guide for my reading and how I set up structures for students in class. I know Scarecrow Press did a few more in the early 2000s.