“A Little Bit Smart”

One of the many great things about being friends with librarians is that they can keep all your interests on file in the magical card catalog in their brains and pass along stuff that corresponds to those interests. Accordingly, a few weeks ago, I received a plain white envelope holding one of these gifts: two articles on historical fiction from Booklist. I’m going to talk about just the first one this week, since I think each deserves its own post.

The article deals specifically with young adult historical fiction and is titled (get this) “A Genre without a Readership?”

At least there’s a question mark.

I’ll take what I can get.

If you’ve spent any time around the children’s and young adult literature community in any capacity, this is not news to you. (Take a second for a quick sob, and then pull it together. That’s what I do.)

However, the article is not all doom and gloom. The author, Michael Cart, also argues that the strength of historical fiction offerings for young adults lies in their literary quality. He writes, “Some of our finest fiction falls in this category…In this context, it’s obvious that quality trumps quantity. For if historical novels are few in number, they are positively profligate in the richness of their content.”

I was discussing this with my husband, who with his characteristic tact—he actually is quite tactful, just not with me—said, “That’s because historical novelists have to be at least a little bit smart.”

Thank you, dear.

I think he’s right, though. While I’m not diminishing the work done in other genres, I do know that writing historical fiction comes with an additional set of challenges, not the least of which is the army of armchair historians waiting for you to slip.

There’s the world building, like in fantasy, but you have to make sure you’re being true to the world as it once existed.

There’s the constant friction of memory versus history. The world wasn’t necessarily exactly the way we remember it, but sometimes it’s tough to convince readers of that.

There’s the research. You have to know how to do it well, which means you spent long hours under a mentor who taught you how to “do history” or you figured it out through trial and error. Either of those means you’re probably just a little bit smart.

I was lucky to have good mentors.

The fact that publishers are often reluctant to publish historical fiction is, as Cart recognizes, no reflection on the quality of the work.

I think it’s a reflection of the fact that we don’t give our young people enough credit for being willing to try something new, for wanting to know what the world was like before they were born, for being able to recognize and crave literature of quality. (Again, this is not to say that there’s not plenty of great literature in other genres. There is, and I love a lot of it. Cart’s point is that, in comparison to other genres, a greater percentage of historical fiction is really good literature.)

If young adult literature is fundamentally concerned with answering the question, “Who am I?” then historical fiction is a natural fit.

History is the story of humanity asking the same question.



Cart, Michael. “A Genre without a Readership?” Booklist 15 April 2013: 51. Print.


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2 thoughts on ““A Little Bit Smart””

  1. I don’t know if I like historical fiction more or less than other fiction. If it’s good, I’ll devour it! I like the comment that young adult fiction is about “Who am I?” I guess that question stays with us our entire life.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jordan. To clarify, I’ve heard A LOT of people say that YA fiction tries to answer the “Who am I?” question, so that’s not my original thought. But it may be why YA lit is so popular with adults, as well: everyone’s trying to answer that question.

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