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YA Genre Class: Historical Fiction

May 17, 2012

Tonight’s class topic was historical fiction. (Incidentally, I will also be doing my final project website on historical fiction,  so I was keeping very, very careful notes.)

First of all, what IS historical fiction… when does history start? 25 years in the past is a benchmark that came up in the readings.  Which would make… 1987 the start of historical fiction.  That’s weird on any number of levels. Including the fact that, as Jennifer, our instructor, pointed out, there hasn’t been enough change to make for a real shift in perspective,  between Then and Now, in creating a sense of place. Noting- part of that segment of the discussion was the fact that some books of the 80s are being released with updates, little things like a computer here, a cell phone there (what would the Babysitter’s Club become with cell phones???) which I think, at best, insults current teens’ intelligence, and at worst, does a number on their body image.

Historical fiction is about creating a sense of the place and the time- sometimes extending over a family saga, sometimes creating the background for what feels like mostly another genre- suspense, fantasy, romance. Interesting point that came up in the reading. Historical fiction can appeal because it has a sense of hope sort of permanently embedded in it. No matter how cold it was at Valley Forge, or how grim conditions were during the Holocaust… looking back, means we survived. No wonder I like it so much.

Now, loving to read historical fiction (YA or adult) is not the same as knowing what a librarian working with teens needs to know, about how the genre and its appeal fits together. So… I have emerged from class somewhere between giddy with delight as a reader (I might have had not-decaf before class by accident, for which I apologize to my classmates) and completely mind-blown at the intriguing puzzle of actually being a librarian with middle school kids or teenagers.

Some things that sound like common sense apply: paying attention to a person’s body language when you approach them to offer help, use constructive language rather than negative language. It surprises me how often the things I’m hearing in librarian classes mirror the things I was taught about being a good personal trainer. It comes down to customer service and listening. (I need to work on listening, I think, instead of just bursting at the seams with information and enthusiasm. Ongoing battle, that.)

Had a great discussion about what is and is not historical fiction, and where one genre ends and another begins.

I think time travel should count as historical fiction because the point is to explore the past. I do not think alternate history should count, because the point is it’s not the past. I’m clearly going to have to dig up some research

Touched on some more discussion of the State of YA today, including adults reading YA, and what that means for a teen library space, characters of color (absent or being whitewashed out, see all the nonsense about Rue in the Hunger Games) and finding good resources for book recommendations.

I need to think about how book reviewing is different when it’s for YA librarians, for teens themselves, etc. I’ve reviewed historical fiction on my blog at various points. Wonder if I’d go back and rewrite, knowing what I know.

All sorts of interesting teen reader tricks for fishing out information. Asking about movies, to get a barometer of how much sex and violence a young teen might be ready to handle in a book. Asking about books a teen hated, which sometimes gets a more definite response.

Also: I am going to read Lonesome Dove, when the semester is over. I promise. (I do not think I have ever read a Western!)

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