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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Doomed to Repeat It

Doomed to Repeat It: Diversity in Historical Fiction, YALSA YA Lit Symposium, November 7. Presenter: Melissa Rabey, panelists authors Christina Gonzalez and Ruta Sepetys.

I love historical fiction. The book that made me fall for it was A Proud Taste for Scarlett and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg; the same book that started a lifelong love of English history and a fascination with the Plantagenets. The Tudors are so new money next to them! OK, topic. This bias means that I really don’t get it when people say kids or teens don’t read historical fiction. They do! Individual books may not have huge fandoms, but it is read. My theory is that when historical fiction began to be used to teach history in schools, the perception of some kids changed to view it as “homework” not “fun.”

Anyway, I was so excited about Melissa’s presentation! The Program Description says it best: “Historical fiction reflects the past successes and failures of all countries and cultures. Your library’s collection probably has a lot of historical fiction, yet those novels don’t always reflect the true historical diversity of your teen patrons. How often does it seem that all African-American history is limited to Civil War or Jewish history is mostly about the Holocaust? In this presentation, a variety of novels will be highlighted which give a new perspective on well-known events or shed a light on lesser-known times.” The authors and their work represented this diversity. Gonzalez’s book The Red Umbrella (Random House, 2010), is about Operation Pedro Pan in the 1960s; Sepetys’s novel, Between Shades of Gray (Philomel, an imprint of Penguin, 2011), is about the Lithuanian internment by the Soviets during World War II.

Melissa began with defining historical fiction for the purposes of her presentation (titles set before the 1980s) and addressed the slow improvement in the range of explored cultures in fiction. She then provided a phenomenal slideshow of booklists. I love a good booklist in a presentation; as I’ve said before, I use them as both a measuring stick for my own knowledge as well as a source of new books. Melissa has the list available (see links below) so I won’t repeat it here.

A couple titles I cannot wait to read: Puppet by Eva Wiseman, about the last blood libel trial in Europe in the late nineteenth century; Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli, about Italian immigrants in turn of the century Louisiana; and Blood Ninja by Nick Lake, about ninjas who are vampires.

Gonzalez and Sepetys spoke about their books and answered questions. Both books are based on family stories. Part of the fascinating discussion was about taking the family stories of relatives and turning them into novels.


Interview with presenter at YALSA Ning

Presenter’s Slides, with booklists, etc.

Melissa’s book, Historical Fiction for Teens: A Genre Guide (Libraries Unlimited, 2010)

Again, thanks to RIF for helping to make it possible attend the YA Lit Symposium!

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. Thanks for the kind comments, Liz! I had a great time putting together this presentation, so I’m glad it was enjoyed by the audience.

  2. Thanks for this post. I was disappointed I couldn’t go to that conference, just for that presentation alone! I’m so excited to have such a great list of books to work with.

    As a teacher who has used historical fiction in class, I just want to say that if the teacher is careful to choose the right book for her students, it can be an opportunity to turn kids on to historical fiction and even get reluctant readers excited about reading. But choosing the wrong book for students (or forcing them to do boring worksheets about their reading) can definitely lead to disaster. I actually started a blog for the sole purpose of helping teachers find the best historical fiction for their students ( I believe using historical fiction in classes can both make the history come alive for students, as well as give more power to the book by expanding on the truth it reveals about the past.

  3. I read Alligator Bayou for the GSTBAs and thought it very well done. Unexpectedly engrossing and with a sucker punch of an ending, I thought the writing did justice to the volatile situation. I highly recommend it.

  4. A big SQUEEEEEAL here for the E. Konigsburg book; not too many people know that book or enjoyed it quite like I did! WOW. Good to know these books are based on family stories (Well, not the ninja/vampire one…Not that I’m not still thinking that one will be highly entertaining!) – that really is where some of the best stories are found!

  5. I forgot to say, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver introduced me to Eleanor of Aquitaine. For that, I’ll always be grateful to E.L. Konigsburg–in fact, I told her when I met her at BEA a few years back that Proud Taste was my favorite of her books, even above From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

  6. Melissa, thank you!

    Melissa & Tanita: Team Eleanor all the way.

    Ann, thanks for the link.

    DogEar, thanks!