Posts Tagged historical fiction

How Middle Grade Fiction Can Fuel Young Writers’ Search for Truth

In one of my Lit classes recently, students read I, Juan de Pareja, a Newbery Medal-winning novel by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. This fictionalized account of the life of Juan de Pareja follows his childhood in 17th Century Spain to his role as servant-turned-apprentice to master painter Diego Velázquez. It’s a great middle grade book for studying voice, historical setting, and imagery. Though only a few factual consistencies are known about the life of Juan de Pareja, the author built this novel based upon those few facts, or what she called a “kernel of truth” (The Glencoe Literature Library).

This idea brought up a connected discussion regarding how events in real life inspire realistic fiction… and conversely, how fictitious characters and plotlines remind us of the real happenings in our lives. We began talking about our own “kernels of truth”—stand-out memories, transitions and moves, objects and possessions that hold special meaning, gifts given or received… so many authentic experiences that contribute to the construction of one’s identity! We then complemented the novel study with a writing project that became known as the “Kernel of Truth” creative non-fiction assignment. Each student wrote about an authentic experience that in some way contributed to or connected with his or her identity. With some established parameters and brainstorming sessions, they were well on their way to authoring excellent pieces.

Creative nonfiction is a great genre for middle graders to explore as writers. They get to jump directly into the writing process without time-consuming research or structured main points; instead, they can write what they know. It’s a way to express true narratives, nostalgic anecdotes, tales of travel or adventure, and stories of personal interest while employing storytelling techniques like dialogue, setting, plotting, and figurative language.

Best of all, creative nonfiction writing can work with any novel, and it can support another level of connection between the reader and the text. In other words, just as I, Juan de Pareja inspired my students’ ability to seek individual kernels of truth, most other novels have at least one feature (setting, history, conflict, etc.) that will inspire your students’ true stories, and their own creative nonfiction.

For example, here are a few recent realistic fiction titles along with some potential leads towards CNF writing projects that might accompany them.

Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith – What experiences have you had witnessing the power of nature? What’s the most curious coincidence in your life you can remember? Have you ever discovered a connection between you and someone with whom you originally thought you had nothing in common?

Hunger by Donna Jo Napoli – Home can be a complicated word. What joy do you find in your home (town, city, residence, or whatever home means to you)? What, if any, frustration? What situations have you encountered or witnessed in which a choice that went against the rules seemed justified (for the good of others)?

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson – Any real-life mysteries in your experiences? What books have you read that have stayed with you long after you finished reading, and what does that book mean to you now?

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet – What unexpected turn of events has contributed to your own “plot twist”? What curiosities have lately caught your attention, like pigeon photography caught the attention of protagonist Gusta?

Middle grade students may wonder initially how a historical or fantasy could inspire them to write about something from their own lives in a CNF piece. Take the time to brainstorm as a class, and soon they’ll see how many elements and factors about the character’s life and story are possible points of connection with their own lives.  Depending on the readers in your class or library, you may decide to give the group a lot of freedom of topic, style, and length… or that it might be better to put some guidelines down on paper. Guiding questions like the ones above or general topics and suggestions can be especially comforting to the hesitant writer. Sometimes it takes prompting and parameters for imaginations to lose their inhibitions.

Hope these ideas are useful ones for your bag of tricks! Good luck and thanks for encouraging reading and writing in middle graders.

Nostalgia and Those Childhood Favorites: Which books are we just sentimental about, and which books stand the test of time?

Fresh or Frozen?

For many of us of a certain age, there comes a time where we want to impart to our children, or children we know, the culture that we got at their age that essentially made us “us.” What I mean is, when our child is nine, we really want them to love the books that we loved when we were nine. That we read over and over again. That we can instantly recall incidents and episodes from; as well as the smell of the couch we would lie on when we read it; the ache of our hearts and taste of our tears from the sorrow of a character dying, experiencing cruelty or even just going through heartbreak. The same goes for movies. Cue me excitedly putting on Grease for my then-nine-year-old daughter in the hospital room TV as she waited to be wheeled down to surgery for her tonsils to be taken out. Wow, bad idea on so many levels. She didn’t enjoy it, not just because she was a nervous wreck about the impending surgery, but also because she didn’t get it. The movie went right over her head—thankfully. (I was mortified to be watching it with her. And felt like the worst parent!) And let’s just say the film has not aged well in terms of values, in terms of feminism, in terms of #metoo, in terms of America as a white world, in terms of anything frankly. But happily, for the most part, many of the books I loved as a child I have been able to read to my children with more confidence in my parenting skills—and with the added bonus that my kids loved these books too.

What is the Common Denominator?

Jonathan Rosen spoke here on the MUF blog about his nostalgia for the books he read as a child which have inspired the spooky books he writes today. And Marjorie Ingall, who reviews children’s books for the New York Times and is a culture columnist at Tablet Magazine, while on the faculty of the TENT writing residency mentioned The Carp in the Bathtub “as a book that holds up for today’s kids and isn’t purely a nostalgia exercise for adults.” I started thinking about this idea of nostalgia when I was planning a tribute to Judith Kerr and the relevancy of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

A nostalgic-feeling cover of the All-of-a-Kind Family series from 2014

What other middle grade books from my own childhood stand the test of time—both for me and for my own kids? Is there a common denominator? When I first started writing my middle grade novel HONEY AND ME, my eldest daughter was at an age where I had begun to read to her some of my favorites as a child— Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family. My daughter is now fourteen, but I have been reading these to my sons too—currently ages eight-and-a-half and nearly eleven—and they’ve also loved them. One of the things I think connects these books is writers who deeply understand the magnitude of the smaller dramas of every day life, and are interested in the details of them. (What I particularly loved about the All-of-a-Kind Family books was that they did this about being Jewish, in a way that was both integral and incidental.) I very much try to bring this sensibility to my own writing.

If Not Now When?

Beverly Clearly’s Ramona books (the first one is from 1955), all the Judy Blume books, but especially the Fudge series (first one is from the 1970s) and All-of-a-Kind Family (first one is from 1951) all particularly still feel fresh and relevant. But I do wonder: could these books be published today?

I clearly like the old-fashioned—or lets say the character-driven and safe-feeling. But in my own writing I constantly feel like I come up against (probably rightly) what works for today’s audience. It would seem that with all the above books all still in print, the market generally does keep the books worth keeping. However at the same time, the fashions have changed so when it comes to what is being published today even when something has an old-fashioned feel to it, it’s still done in a modern way. I’m thinking for example of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser—it’s reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright’s beloved The Saturdays, but when I tried the episodic The Saturdays with my then-eight and ten-year-old sons they were bored—whereas The Vanderbeekers has a modern-feeling plot structure and they were immediately sucked in. (Just to say also, I think of my sons’ reading tastes as a litmus test—if they don’t like something it’s not necessarily conclusive, but when they do like something, especially novels that you wouldn’t automatically think to hand to tween boys, it is telling about the strength of that particular book.)

A range of eras in these covers from my personal evergreen library

 

…. Then again, just because something has gone out of print doesn’t mean that is deserved. I recently tracked down two 1980s favorites to read to my kids: This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman, about the antics of a duo called Bruno and Boots at their boarding school—which was still hands-down hilarious to both my sons and me; and Here She is Ms. Teeny Wonderful by Martyn Godfrey about a girl who likes to jump BMX bikes and to her utter dismay becomes a finalist in a national beauty pageant. I haven’t read this last one to my sons yet, it’s next on the list (we’re currently on Rita Garcia Williams’ One Crazy Summer: historical fiction and over their heads that they’re still enjoying)—but when I read it again myself I was delighted to see that notwithstanding the cover, it was still funny, fast-paced and feminist. I should also mention that the Bruno and Boots books (there were several sequels) I was able to find were a 35th anniversary edition, reissued by Scholastic in 2013, and the Kindle editions are still available for purchase.

Some things never change

So perhaps this is all to say: a well-constructed book with sympathetic characters, emotions you can relate to and dramas you feel invested in no matter how similar or foreign they might be to your own life, will always have the power to suck a young reader in so the pages keep turning. And long after they have turned the last page and closed the book, or perhaps even started the whole thing again from the beginning, —the story, the experience of reading it, and the memories of that experience—will become baked into their very being. And one day, many years later, they will wish to impart this multi-faceted cultural experience on to the important young people in their own lives. Just as we did to them.

A Novel Approach to Readers’ Advisory

Normally when a middle-grader comes into the library looking for a book, librarians will focus on a title’s genre and subject matter. They’ll try to match these up to the reader’s interests, such as mysteries, sports books, or science fiction. But it can be tough to pin down the exact type of experience that our readers are looking for. Dominique McCafferty, the Childrens’ Collection Management Librarian at Library System & Services, recommends using a different method of finding the right read, using the super genres developed by Neal Wyatt and Joyce Saricks in their book,The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (3rd ed).

The super genres that Wyatt and Saricks use focus more on the experience of reading. Their genres are: Adrenaline, Intellect, Landscape, and Emotion. Each of these can contain a number of different subjects and interests. In this post, we’ll show you how the traditional genre of mysteries can translate into all of these different super genres. We’ll also give examples of how to broaden your reader’s interests using these same categories.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgBooks in the adrenaline genre are the ones that readers will finish in one-sitting. Adrenaline books are all about speed. Tightly plotted, and fast paced, Thrillers, suspense, and adventure are among the traditional genre types in the adrenaline category. Mysteries like The 39 Clues are a great example of mysteries that fall into the adrenaline genre. They Cahills race around the globe to beat their greedy relatives to the clues. They’re adventurous because the Cahills often face danger from not only their relatives but also the environment and other enemies. Ultimately, The 39 Clues are mysteries because the Cahills work to figure out the clues that were left behind by their grandmother and solve the mystery of their family. But because of their fast pace and the thrilling adventure, the series also fits well within the adrenaline genre.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgMysteries would normally be found in the intellect genre. This is the genre of books that challenge the mind with language, puzzles, and science. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin would be a classic example of mystery in this genre with it’s puzzles and wordplay.  Books in the intellect genre can also have lyrical language. Science fiction also tends to fall into this genre because of the science and technology involved. In The Westing Game, a wealthy businessman leaves his fortune to the tenants of a neighboring apartment complex. But first, they need to solve the mystery that he’s left them. It’s a similar plot to The 39 Clues, but the focus in The Westing Game is not on adventure. In fact, most of the story takes place at the apartment complex. Instead, The Westing Game focuses on the puzzles left to each pair of heirs, making it an ideal selection for the intellect genre.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgIf mysteries are normally at home in the intellect genre, then the world-building genre would be the realm of fantasy. But not always. Books in the landscape genre transport readers to a wholly different realm. For example Kate Milford’s Greenglass House is the rich, spooky setting for her mystery of the same name. Sitting on the edge of a cliff, Greenglass House is an inn that welcomes smugglers. Mysterious guests pour into the inn during the winter months when it is normally quiet, and each has a story. When guests belongings start to go missing, it’s up to Milo, the son of the inns’s owners, and Meddy, the cook’s daughter to figure out the mystery of Greenglass House.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFinally, the emotion genre brings out strong emotions in its readers. Swoony stories of first crushes, touching family stories, and even horror stories all fall into this genre. Thornhill by Pam Smy is just such a horror story. Part graphic novel, Thornhill is a spine-tingling mystery about the last days of Thornhill Institute, and the new girl in town who is intrigued by its tragedy. In dual narratives, Thornhill tells the story of Mary, one of the last residents of the Institute who is bullied by the other girls, and much later, Ella, a lonely girl who becomes fascinated with Thornhill and the girl she sometimes sees still inside. Mary’s story is told through her diary entries, while Ella’s is told through black and white illustrations. It’s a spooky, atmospheric read, but it’s also a mystery, as Ella discovers the truth about the girl in Thornhill.

These titles would all appeal to mystery lovers, and the super genres help librarians narrow down the type of mystery a reader is looking for. But these categories help readers expand their horizons. For example, a reader interested in the fast-paced adrenaline genre might enjoy the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis. These historical fiction adventures place kids at the center of real life disasters. Or  they might like Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia. In this fantasy, a seventh-grader plunges into a conflict between gods, heroes, and monsters.

In the intellect genre, readers can be as intrigued by novels in verse like Aida Salazar’s The Moon Within. But they may also enjoy the STEM thriller, Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation by Stuart Gibbs.

These all-encompassing genres are a great tool for librarians to help readers narrow down exactly what they’re looking for. And they also help readers to find new books that might interest them.

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