Thoughts on YA Historical Fiction

In my small-town school system, I grew up getting a very White-washed version of history.  It was the same curriculum taught from different angles each year, and I quickly came to dread History class altogether.  I do, however, have a very vivid memory of the Historical Fiction texts I read (The Cay and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle to name just a couple).  As I got older, my disdain for History classes grew, but so did my love for Historical Fiction.  What YA Historical Fiction did for me was fill in the gaps of History I imagined were missing from my textbooks.  It grounded me more fully in the realities of the past through intersectional characters with diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, it expounds on stories that exemplify what students do learn in History class. 

English teachers, in some regards, are partial teachers of History, too.  We introduce students to texts from the past and explore with them the social context that it was born from.  As I consider the timeline of YA Historical Fiction on Epic Reads, I can’t help thinking how underdeveloped this genre still is; there are few titles here from before the 1200s. Great strides have been made in recent years, though, and a lot of those strides made by female authors, as this list shows.

This genre inspires the voice of the oppressed, those who want to shed light on a story or perspective that otherwise would not be seen; as a matter of fact, many texts on the ‘Banned Books’ list arrived there for doing just that.  In this regard, I think students have a natural draw to them (or at least some) because of the stigma that has been built around them. However, it is also necessary to emphasize the function of this genre in our classroom libraries.  Yes, it is Fiction—but it is also grounded in history, in imagined realities based on very real ones.  We have to approach the genre with the idea that what we are absorbing could have and may have been experienced by a combination of people, or a single silenced and anonymous voice that never had the opportunity to share.

As someone who still has to make a very conscious effort to educate myself on the events and people hidden in the gaps my history education left, I see now that YA Historical Fiction devotes itself to shaping young readers perception of the present just as much as it does the past.

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