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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Historical Fiction

Thirteen books have been recognized by the Newbery committee in the past three years, and eleven of them have been historical fiction.  The irony, of course, is that historical fiction is not a genre that kids ask for–at least, not in explicit terms.  In fact, I daresay that from a child viewpoint historical fiction is not a genre at all.

That’s not to say that children don’t like historical fiction.  It’s just that the parts of the story that they typically respond to have little or nothing to do with setting, and more to do with plot and character.  Take the historical fiction novels that we’ve mentioned thus far–CROW, THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK, WILL SPARROW’S ROAD, THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE, WONDER SHOW, SOPHIA’S WAR, and CHICKADEE.  It’s hard to sell those books to the same reader in the way that you can sell a wide variety of fantasy and mystery books to a single reader.  At least, that has been my experience.

Most of the aforementioned books have a New World setting which makes them eligible for the Scott O’Dell Award.  Personally, my vote would go to CHICKADEE in spite of the fact that Erdrich previously won for an earlier book in the series, THE GAME OF SILENCE.  However, I actually think the award will go to CROW.  Other historical fiction titles with an American setting include MAY B by Caroline Starr Rose, PROMISE THE NIGHT by Michaela MacColl, KEEPING SAFE THE STARS by Sheila O’Connor, and JUMP INTO THE SKY by Shelley Pearsall.  I’ve read the first of those, and enjoyed it, but can’t recommend it for more serious consideration.

Joining WILL SPARROW’S ROAD with an Old World setting (not to mention many shiny starred reviews) are THE WICKED AND THE JUST by J. Anderson Coats, THE UNFORTUNATE SON by Constance Leeds, SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN by Margi Preus, and JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS by Katherine Marsh.

I’ve read the first several chapters in THE WICKED AND THE JUST and was enjoying myself–such an interesting period of history!–but I put it aside when I saw that Nina wasn’t very enthusiastic.  Maybe I should revisit it?

Now I did read THE UNFORTUNATE SON all the way through, and this is one that I would need to reread again, because I became very disinterested in the early going, and found my attention wandering quite frequently, but–curiously!–the more I read, the more engaged I became.  Like THREE TIMES LUCKY, this is probably one that I would have reread immediately if I had been on the real committee so that I could get a better handle on the book, and know just how serious I was about its chances.

Given the committee’s preference toward historical fiction in the recent (and not so recent) past, perhaps we should lavish more attention on some of these books–but which ones?

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. PROMISE THE NIGHT has an African setting, not an American one, and wouldn’t be eligible for the Scott O’Dell. The ways of that committee are capricious and difficult to predict, but I’ll think about it a little more. MAY B might be a good candidate (as well as CHICKADEE, as you mention). CROW might be too heavy on the history and too light on story. By the way, the Old World / New World thing–well, hopefully the O’Dell committee will drop that phrasing soon.

    I liked THE UNFORTUNATE SON, but (justified or not) think of it more as historical fantasy than historical fiction. It falls under “worth discussing but not a winner” for me, and certainly under “worth reading”. I was about to protest what you say about kids and historical fiction, but I see what you mean–kids don’t say “find me some historical fiction” or “I just love historical fiction”, they say “I like to read about the pioneers” or “I like World War Two books”. In general, I mean. I don’t think that’s ironic about the eleven winners/honors, though–if we’re going to run with that point, it actually means that the canon is more diverse than it looks, if we stop thinking of “historical fiction” as a genre.

    Since I was a champion of HEART OF A SAMURAI, I’m looking forward to SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN. KATERINA’S WISH (Czech miners in Colorado, 1900) and BREATHING ROOM (TB patients in Minnesota, 1940s) are two others that both the Scott O’Dell (particularly) and perhaps the Newbery committees will be looking at. BREATHING ROOM, in particular, has a sort of specific, heavily documented style with a good framing story that might appeal to the Scott O’Dell people. And NO CRYSTAL STAIR is surely an O’Dell quality book. I always crave more Scott O’Dell winners from Latin America; I haven’t read THE WILD BOOK yet.

  2. I am currently reading My Family for the War by Anne Voorhoeve, which was published in German in 2007 but is now available in English in 2012. I’m not sure what the rules are regarding translations that come out several years after the original publication date, but it’s a Holocaust book about a topic I haven’t heard much about – a girl sent to England on the Kinder Transport to stay with English Jews for the duration of the war. She is lineally Jewish but her family has been Protestant for two generations. Of course that’s not enough for the Nazis, and the main character’s parents send her away while they remain in hiding in Holland. I’ve only just started it, but wasn’t the last Holocaust book that got Newbery recognition Number the Stars by Lois Lowry? That was quite some time ago.

  3. I would recommend some attention to JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS.

  4. HITLER YOUTH got a Newbery Honor in 2006. Translations aren’t eligible, but it sounds like a good book, so thanks! This is the first buzz I’ve really heard about JEPP… will have to look into it. I think you’re right, Jonathan, that there’s probably going to be SOME historical fiction on the list and we haven’t been talking about it much.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says

    I believe Monica wrote enthusiastically about JEPP on another thread. Thanks for seconding the book, Nancy. I swore I had a copy laying around somewhere, but I put a hold on it regardless.

    Kristin, yes, translations are ineligible and even if they were not Voorhoeve would still probably run afoul of the American citizenship/residency requirement. However, ALSC does have an award for translated books–the Batchelder Award–so look for that committee to recognize MY FAMILY FOR THE WAR.

    Wendy, thanks for the corrections and additons. I didn’t really think of NO CRYSTAL STAIR as historical fiction, and I would be pleasantly surprised by a Scott O’Dell Award, but that jury tends to stick with purely juvenile titles, so I’m not holding my breath. I also think it’s unlikely that they will make the award inclusive of all historical fiction settings. We’ll see.

    The thing that makes historical fiction a hard sell is that it’s not branded as such very well. For example, there are not many series–at least not like there are in fantasy, mystery, humor, and horror. Off the top of my head: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mildred Taylor, Louise Erdrich, Dear America. Others?

    Another problem is that we have some wonderful authors that consistently write fabulous books, but I’m not sure the readers crossover to the other books. Does the reader of CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY read THE LOUD SILENCE OF FRANCINE GREEN? The reader of A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO read THE RIVER BETWEEN US? The reader of BUD, NOT BUDDY read ELIJAH OF BUXTON? The reader of LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY read THE WEDNESDAY WARS? The reader of OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA read TURTLE IN PARADISE? The reader of THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE read CRISPIN?

    I’m not seeing that same kind of brand loyalty that I see in “real” genre fiction. I also don’t see many requests for period fiction unless they’re attached to an assignment. I do have boy readers that gravitate to every single American war, but they tend to prefer nonfiction more often than not. And, yes, if you look at the recent history of the award, we would do well to talk about more of these books . . .

  6. The only one I’ve read is MAY B, and the verse really bothered me. I felt like there was no reason for it to be told through verse, and it hindered all good will I had toward it.

    But I think that CROW, LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK, or THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE could very easily take an honor or the whole award. MALONE is the only one I’m really rooting for, though, and I’d like to see the committee branch out and award WONDER, BOMB, or SPLENDORS & GLOOMS.

  7. Oh, I didn’t mean that I think the Scott O’Dell should encompass other geographical areas–I mean, I think they should officially disavow the “New World” terminology while maintaining their “Americas” criteria (as O’Dell intended). “New World” and “Old World” are pretty… archaic.

    I do think there are tons of historical fiction series, but many are probably off your radar. Betsy-Tacy, The Keeping Days, All-of-a-Kind Family, the Grandma Dowdel books, Echo Company. May Amelia may shape up to be a series.

    I have yet to predict a Scott O’Dell accurately (it’s harder, of course, when there’s only one honored title), but the more I think about it, the more BREATHING ROOM seems like their kind of thing… if they decide it’s good enough. It’s firmly placed in history in two ways–the war and that period of TB treatment–and the two historical plots intersect in an interesting way. Is NO CRYSTAL STAIR really that much higher-level than last year’s DEAD END IN NORVELT?

  8. One of my second round nominations was JEPP so yes, I’m enthusiastic! So glad Nancy is too.

  9. I thought CROW was amazing, and the best of this year’s crop of historical fiction novels that also involve Civil Rights issues. BREATHING ROOM remains one of my top-three books of the year, and if it takes the Scott O’Dell as a dark horse, I couldn’t be happier. Also, for a verse historical fiction novel that does its job very well indeed, I’d put forward THE WILD BOOK.

    (SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN is sitting on my desk now, and I’m looking forward to reading it.)

  10. Of all those, the only ones I’ve read were THE WICKED AND THE JUST and LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK. W&J was good, but kind of petered out for me.

    At my last library, several classes had an assignment to read historical fiction once a year, so we did get that request. It usually was fairly easy to do, because there is a whole lot of historical fiction out there.

  11. Nina Lindsay says

    I’m still catching up on some of this reading; I’ll say that Jonathan reads my enthusiasm for WICKED AND JUST based on my Goodreads stars, where I grade on a curve. I just rated UNFORTUNATE SON the same. Both excellent in terms of being engaging reads, but both to me are a bit too flat and thin in literary chops for Newbery consideration.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says

    And I hasten to add that I was reading THE WICKED AND THE JUST to see if it needed to be one of our last couple shortlisted titles. It didn’t, and that’s the only reason I put it down, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not any less worthy than most of the titles proposed in this forum.

  13. The “New World” phrasing in the O’Dell criteria was O’Dell’s and Zena Sutherland’s. I can ask TPTB if they are interested in changing it.

  14. Jonathan Hunt says

    I don’t mind the New World/Old World dichotomy.

    Trivia question: How many continents are there?

    Hint: The answer depends on where you were raised.

  15. I was surprised to see that actually the official Scott O’Dell Award page has almost dropped Old World/New World already–it isn’t mentioned on the official nomination form. (The terminology is colonialist, and in my experience not widely used in academia for that reason–especially here where it would be inaccurate and, some might say, disrespectful to many of the cultures whose history is eligible.)

  16. Jonathan Hunt says

    FYI . . . JEPP has picked up a couple of late starred reviews, so it now has a total of three.

  17. As a child I was fascinated with historical fictions, and am still reading them as an adult- just finished reading a fantastic one tonight about ancient Egypt titled, “Shadow of the Sun” by Merrie P. Wycoff. I think you may be right- children tend to think about the plot itself rather than the history involved. However, I do have to say that for me, over time, I became interested in both. I love walking away from a good historical fiction feeling entertained, yet enlightened about the past.

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