Today we welcome not one, not two, but three talented middle grade writers to From the Mixed-Up Files… . Authors Eric Pierpoint, J.B. Cheaney, and Stephanie Bearce are helping us turn back the clock by answering the question: How does writing and researching historical fiction or non-fiction for middle-grade readers differ from writing for adults and how do these writers strive to bring history to life for young readers?
To me, writing historical fiction for younger readers means creating more action and adventure around the facts. What appeals to adults may be boring to middle-graders, so whatever goes into the book must be done in a balanced way that keeps the level of excitement going. There are times where I like to really press on the gas, and then slow it down to make certain points in a different rhythm. I was once told that reading my books was sort of like watching a movie, that they are cinematic. They’re right! I never want to preach history and give too much of a lesson. I’d rather make that history come alive through the eyes of a young person who is caught up in the action of the story. For example, my main character could be in the middle of a scene where our founding fathers are discussing an important topic like prisoner exchange during the Revolutionary War. Rather than explain in long passages to the adult reader the history of prison ships, for a younger audience, my young character would be captured and taken aboard the infamous HMS Jersey and have to figure out a way off. I think it is better to increase excitement while using historical fact rather than spend too much time writing long explanations.
It doesn’t, much; you just leave out the more lurid details. Researching historical fiction is not just about getting the background facts right; it’s also getting a sense of the people who lived and though in ways we can’t fathom. What was important to them? What did they do for fun? What do we dismiss that they considered of first importance? I think it’s just as important to get those things right for children as it is for adults, because traveling to another time is as mind-expanding as traveling to another country. Kids need to have their minds expanded!
On a more practical level, research is vital for plot development. When the idea for a historical novel is conceived in the author’s fertile brain, she already has a basic idea of the history arc and can match it to her story arc. In 1918, where I set I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, Isobel’s father is serving in France during WWI. I already knew that America officially entered that war in 1917, but didn’t know about the Hollywood war bond rallies (where Isobel impersonates a boy scout), or Charlie Chaplin’s wandering eye (which makes Isobel so nervous about her mother), or D. W. Griffith’s decision to leave Hollywood (which will shift the purpose of Ranger’s film project). Those bits of information added texture and distinctiveness, not to mention important plot developments.
I love this question because as a teacher it is something I have really worked hard to understand. Teaching or writing about history for children is very different than it is for adults. While an adult may be able to remember different decades, and the styles or fads of each one, a child has a much shorter time perspective. A decade may be longer than their entire life.
Dates and numbers don’t give children any clue as to what was happening at that time period. As adults we read the date 1776 and we can immediately picture men wearing knee breeches and white wigs. Mention Rome in 100B.C. and a grownup knows it’s the time of togas and Roman baths. But those numbers all have to be given context for children.
It’s important to describe what technology was and was not available during the time period. Writers and teachers need to help them understand that during World War One the radio was a brand new invention and airplanes had only been invented a few years earlier. Details about how people lived and how it is different from other time periods are important to give children a sense of the changes that have happened over time. It means telling every story with the idea of how it is different from the modern world of the child.
It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun one!