Historical fiction dramatizes and humanizes the sterile facts of history.
Discovery Children’s Literature
Historical fiction is the term used to describe fiction that is set in the past. Considered a subgenre of realistic fiction, historical fiction is distinguished by accuracy: all elements in the story must be realistically portrayed for the time period depicted.
Most historical fiction falls into one of three categories. The first category includes fictional characters and may also include created events. History is used as a backdrop for the story. For example, The Slave Dancer (Paula Fox, 1973) demonstrates the miseries of the slave trade. The story is told from the point of view of a 13-year-old white boy who is kidnapped by slave traders to play his fife on their ship. The second type of historical fiction consists of partly fictionalized stories that feature people who actually lived and documented historical events. Underground to Canada (Barbara Claassen Smucker, 1977) is an example of this type of historical fiction. This novel tells the story of the underground railway, used to transport runaway slaves through the United States and into Canada. Although the major characters are all fictitious, the book includes references to Alexander Ross, a Canadian abolitionist. The third type of historical fiction is based on the writer’s actual memories. The Little House series (Wilder, 1953) is an example of this type of historical fiction: the books are based on the author’s own memories of growing up in the American Midwest.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine if a book should be classified as historical fiction, realistic fiction or biography. Sutherland explains how to determine if a book is historical fiction or realistic fiction: “does the author create a vivid picture of another historical period and is that picture vital to the telling of the story?” (384)
If the answer to that question is no, then you probably have an interesting story, but not an example of historical fiction. Books such as Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery, 1908) and Little Women (Alcott, 1867) are examples of realistic fiction, not historic fiction, as they were written as contemporary fiction.
To decide if a book should be considered historical fiction or biography, consider whether the book contains fictionalized elements. Works that contain aspects of fiction, that is made up characters and situations, should be considered historical fiction. Biographies should be based totally on fact.
Another point that may prove puzzling is determining the time frame for historical fiction. Many critics believe the cut off point for historic fiction should be the end of World War II. However, as we continue to move through this century we need to revise that date. For most children today even the 1960’s seem remote, although most adults would be reluctant to label books set in that decade as historical fiction!
Hillman suggests the following categories for time periods in historical fiction:
- Ancient World
- Medieval World
- Exploration and Colonization
- Westward Expansion and Industrialization
- Early 20th century (169)
But regardless of the time period the story may be set in, the appeal of historical fiction is best summed up by Donelson and Nielsen:
Most of us read historical novels because we are curious about other times, places and people; we also read them because, most important, we want adventure, suspense and mystery. (189)
Themes in historical fiction
The themes found in historical fiction are as broad as history itself. Many works of historical fiction explore themes that have been concerns of people throughout history. For example, the upholding of love and honour is a common theme. Stories about people searching for freedom are also found. A love of the land and the independence that brings may also be found. Whatever the theme is, it needs to be expressed in terms that are relevant to today’s young readers. In addition, it should provide insight into and an understanding of the past.
Evaluating historical fiction
Hillman offers this assessment for historical fiction, “historical fiction must be credible, with all the elements working together to depict a genuine, believable story.” (172)
Authenticity is the key to well written historical fiction. In order to create an authentic historical story, authors of historical fiction often undertake extensive research. They will spend hours combing through old records and newspapers. They may also conduct interviews and visit historic sites and museums. All the details in a story must be accurate – the clothing, housing, food. “Because historical fiction is rooted in history, an infrastructure of accurate historical fiction is necessary.” (Jacobs and Tunnel, 105)
Furthermore, authors must make their story’s time period come to life for young readers. The sights, the sounds, sometimes even the smells, combine to create a living picture of life in another time. Revealing the story through the eyes of a young protagonist is very appealing for young readers. Jacobs and Tunnel point out that the traditional study of history typically ignores children and –
... therefore, the gap between themselves and the dusty past widens. A young protagonist who is inserted into ... the difficult period of the Great Depression allows young readers to experience history through the senses of someone who views life in a similar way – as a child. (107)
Historical fiction also places special demands on how the author treats the literary elements of setting, characters and plot:
The setting is an integral part of historical fiction. Settings must be historically accurate. Successful writers of historical fiction must provide enough details to interest their young readers and to paint a clear picture. However, authors must not overwhelm their readers with too many details.
Young readers must be able to believe that the characters in historical fiction are real people just like themselves. Most writers of historical fiction don’t use historical figures as the main characters unless they can actually document conversations and events. Instead, the main characters are often fictional characters, closer in age to the reader and historical characters take on secondary roles.
Characters must also be authentic for the story’s time period: they must not exhibit any contemporary actions or values.
Well written plots in historical fiction arise naturally from the story’s time period. The author’s description of the conflict contained in the plot helps “readers to understand the values expressed during a time period and the problems, moral dilemmas, and social issues faced by the people.” (Norton, 524)
Writers of historical fiction must also be skilful at creating dialogue. Most authors take some liberties with the language their characters speak – to hold their reader’s attention. Books filled with archaic dialogue will soon bore or confuse a young reader. On the other hand, the use of too much modern language can break the mood of the story.
In summary, Russell states that well written historical fiction:
- tells a good story,
- conveys the flavour of the historical period,
- authentically captures the people of the period, their values and their habits,
- uses dialogue to make the characters sound authentic but not artificial,
- faithfully uses historical knowledge to avoid distorting history,
- fairly and sensitively portrays different sides of the compelling issues of the period, and
- gives us insight into contemporary problems as well as helps us understand the problems of the past. (149)
In contrast, Donelson and Nilsen tell us that a poor historical novel may have –
A story that could have happened any time or any place. The historical setting is for visual appeal and to compensate for a weak story.The Value of historical fiction
Anachronisms in which the author illogically mixes up people, events, speaking styles, social values, or technological developments from different time periods.
Awkward narration and exposition as the author tries to teach history through characters’ conversations.
Oversimplification of the historical issues and a stereotyping of the “bad” and the “good” guys.
Characters who fail to come alive as individuals having something in common with the readers. They are just stereotyped representatives of a particular period. (190)
“The greatest value of historical fiction is that it allows the reader to experience the past.” (Rothlein, 41) Readers of historical fiction can learn about events that changed the course of history; they can gain an understanding of their heritage and begin to sense the flow of history. They can see how people have worked together in the past and they learn how present and future are linked to actions in the past.
They learn that “history consists of many people who have learned to work together.” (Norton, 523) Historical fiction is often used to supplement the teaching of history in schools. Jacobs and Tunnel believe that history textbooks are not effective in “helping children make meaningful connections with the past.” (102) Historical fiction, on the other hand, allows the reader to experience the past on a first hand basis:
As children live through historical events or periods in the books they read, they learn what life was like and what people felt and often must consider the problems and issues of the day.
Issues in historical fiction
Norton asks these questions:
Should historical fiction reflect the attitudes and circumstances of the times? Or should historical fiction reflect the changing attitudes toward people of all races? (554)These questions are particularly pertinent to the historical novels that depict minority groups. Authors of historical fiction believe that they should remain faithful to the historical context of their stories. This belief may lead them to write stories that depict certain peoples in unflattering light or stories that retell unpleasant experiences from our history. Jacobs and Tunnell believe that children should not be served “sugar coated” versions of history. They point out that much of our history is indeed “unsavoury.”
But the lessons history has to teach us will go unlearned if we are forever softening the message ... In the immortal words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (107)Appendix: Criteria for evaluating realistic fiction
The following shows the evaluation criteria for realistic fiction developed by Mary E. Norton.
Norton offers the following criteria for evaluating realistic fiction:Appendix B: Should history be rewritten?
1. The content should be presented honestly. Sensationalizing and capitalizing on the novelty of a subject should be avoided.
2. A story should expose personal and social values central to our culture, at the same time revealing how overt expression of those values may have changed.
3. The story should allow readers to draw personal conclusions from the evidence. The author should respect the reader’s intelligence.
4. The author should recognize that today’s young readers are in the process of growing toward adult sophistication.
5. The language and syntax should reveal the background and nature of characters and situations.
6. The author should write in a hopeful tone. A story should communicate in an honest way that there is hope in the world.
7. Children’s literature should reflect sensitivity to the needs and rights of girls and boys without preference, bias or negative stereotypes.
8. If violence is included in a story, the author should treat the subject appropriately. Does the author give the necessary facts? Are both sides of the conflict portrayed fully, fairly, and honestly? Is the writing developed with feeling and emotion? Does the author help children develop a perspective about the subject?
9. A story should satisfy children’s basic needs and provide them with insights into their own problems and relationships.
10. A story should provide children with enjoyment.
This appendix contains two articles which explore the effects of political correctness on the writing of historical fiction.
An educator speaks...
Masha Kabakow Rudman
My six-year-old grandson is biracial and I worry about how the world will treat him. Fortunately he goes to a local public school where they care very much about affirming diversity and helping children feel proud of their heritage. Recently the school held a read-in of African-American authors’ works, and illustrators’ works, too, and I was invited to do the reading. In the kindergarten class that my grandson attended, I read one of Ashley Bryan’s books – Turtle knows my name. Afterward, Sam came to me and said, “Grandma, you should have read one of the books I’ve written because I’m an African American author.” So of course, I read his book aloud too. He’s learning that he is valued and competent, and that his rich heritage is something he can draw on. Every child has a right to that. It’s important for us to provide children with information about their history that is accurate and respectful.
Children deserve to be told the truth. They also need to be taught to search for it. Truth is defined in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as “the body of real things, events, and facts.” But of course it doesn’t stop there. The dictionary goes on to say that truth is “fidelity to an original or to a standard.” So the question becomes Whose reality? Whose standard? Whose truth?
Let’s go a little further in looking at today’s topic. Political Correctness. What an insulting term, cleverly coined in order to make a manipulative political statement and to provide an automatic putdown. I looked up the word political in the Oxford English Dictionary. One of its meanings is “in a sinister sense: scheming, crafty, cunning”; it involves “having regard for the interests of politics rather than the questions of principle.” And I think therein lies the definition of political correctness. Whenever, and I hate that term by the way, somebody says it’s “politically correct,” the indication or accusation is that principle doesn’t exist and that something is being done purely for political reasons.
Let’s think of an example of vocabulary that might be labelled “PC” ... how about the use of the term woman instead of girl for a mature female? Language is very powerful, and relegating a woman to the status of a girl, while some people might consider it flattering (“You look so young”), in actuality is demeaning and disempowering. In some cases, such as the use of the term African American to replace black or Afro-American, which effectively replaced Negro, which replaced colour, words are used in an attempt to build a certain kind of self-image and stance toward the world. It almost always turns out that this kind of changeover is controversial, with some members of the group itself disliking the new terminology, and others advocating strongly for it. Admittedly, part of the pressure comes from groups who are attempting to establish a certain kind of power base. But certainly some of the push is a result of a people’s reclaiming a heritage, and, therefore, affirming an identity. What to one group is a demonstration of respect, referring to people in the way they want to be called, to others, is “political correctness."
Some of the people doing this labelling are disturbed by any attempt to modify language. Some are uncomfortable with anything beyond a Eurocentric outlook; others genuinely underestimate the effect of language and semantics on popular understanding and attitude. On the other hand, there are some people who are honestly afraid that the use of new language and ways of thinking about people can turn into censorship. They worry that only the new terminology will be accepted by publishers and other people in power. They are rightly concerned about cutting off debate and mindlessly conform to vocabulary without the commitment of principle.
What I would like to encourage is the assembling of a library collection of all sorts of viewpoints, vocabulary, and political, moral, and intellectual stances. I’d like us to get deeper into the issues of truth and values and investigate how we can bring to children the challenge of examining different attitudes and positions without fear of being stigmatized as racist or sexist or accused of caring only about political correctness.
That is not to say that all language and ideas have equal value. I firmly believe that we must help young readers to identify cliché and stereotype in order to help them make astute judgments about the quality of the information and literature they are being exposed to. Let’s look at typecasting and its effect on us. Please take a minute to turn to your neighbour and exchange with him or her what your heritage is. Then I’d like you to name one or two stereotypes that bother you, that you know people have about your heritage. If you can’t think of any about your group, ask your neighbour what he or she has heard about your group’s characteristics.
For most of you that was an easy thing to do. Some of you identify with more than one heritage, and that’s fine, and some of you are fortunate enough not to have been marked by stereotypic thinking. But most of us have felt, if not victimized, then perhaps wounded, or at least annoyed by some of the automatic assumptions because of our heritage. And it doesn’t even have to be negative! I’m Jewish. And I don’t like to cook. I feel even less competent than I might if I were not Jewish and therefore not expected to enjoy cooking. But there it is. Sometimes when I tell people I don’t cook they don’t believe me, because, after all, I’m Jewish. Ascribing characteristics to an individual solely because of membership in a group is unfair and dehumanizing, even if the intention is to be complimentary (all Irish people are poetic; all Africans have rhythm; all Asians are good at math).
Literature can go a long way toward cementing or dispelling stereotypes. We need to be careful to discern when characters and situations in books are affirming negative and typecast images and then to talk about it with young readers. Let’s do a little demonstration of the power of stereotypes, in this case literary ones, and the necessity to go beyond them. What does a princess look like? (Answers are almost always: blonde, blue-eyed, petite, passive.) How about a prince? (Tall, dark, and handsome, of course.) Now let’s describe stepmothers. (Ugly, mean, abusive, wicked.) Do you really believe that? Maybe not intellectually, but you surely do viscerally. My mother died when I was seventeen. She was my best friend and I missed her sorely. About two years later my father married a woman who was funny and feisty and bright and competent. I have never been able to refer to her as my stepmother. I’m an adult, and I know the difference between fantasy and reality. I also recognize the legitimacy of the term stepmother. But that image of the wicked stepmother is so strong inside me that I can’t go beyond it. I call her my second mother, or when I don’t want to go into any lengthy explanations, simply, my mother. Terminology represents how we feel and what our attitudes are.
How do we help children go beyond these literacy templates and hurtful societal stigmas? One way is to amass a collection of books that challenge assumptions. There are many Cinderellas from all over the world; for example, Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella story from China, Rough-face girl (from Algonquin Native American lore), “Askenbasken, Who Became Queen” (from Denmark) (“Askenbasken, who became queen” in The Cinderella Story, ed. Philip Neil (New York: Viking, 1989), 52-57), “Cenerentola” (from Italy) (Rose Laura Minicelli, “Cerenentola,” in Old Neapolitan Fairy Tales (New York: Knopf, 1963, 24-34)), and Korean Cinderella are a few of the hundreds of variants that can help us in terms of what Cinderella looks like and how she behaves. Ed Young, who did the gorgeous illustrations for Yeh-Shen, went to great lengths to research the origins of the story. His work always represents accuracy and authentic depth of understanding of the culture he’s portraying. Rich examples of different sorts of beauty, like the daughters in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, or the young girl in Honey I Love, are also useful to blast any one-sided conventional notion of beauty.
Becoming immersed in a variety of literature prepares young people to become open to differing ideas and ways of looking at the world. Whether it’s fantasy, fiction, or nonfiction, it’s essential to acknowledge that multiple viewpoints exist. Furthermore, documentation and honesty are needed in presenting any story to make it work even when it’s not labelled “history”.
Now let’s examine the word history. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it primarily as “narrative of past events, tale, story. A learning or knowing by inquiry...” and goes on to explain that in early use the term meant “the relating of incidents either true or imaginary”; only later did it become “the relating solely of what was professed to be true.” It evolved to be “that branch of knowledge which deals with past events, as recorded in writings or otherwise ascertained; the formal record of the past, especially of human affairs or actions; the study of the formation and growth of communities and nations.” This was particularly interesting to me because much of my history instruction had to do with wars. We “did” the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. It’s as if as a country we had lurched along from war to war, ignoring our growth as a community and as a nation and the roles different groups in the United States had in contributing to our development.
In a letter to the editor of one of our local newspapers recently a woman faculty member in the History Department at Harvard wrote in because a history teacher at Amherst Regional High School had died. She paid tribute to a history teacher she had had in high school. She said, “I liked history before I met Mr. Heffley, but I loved it after he had shown me the drama that infused the study of history. Suddenly the dates, names, and places seemed worth knowing because they were set within a context of rich and complex experience. In Mr. Heffley’s class the Industrial Revolution wasn’t just an event about which to memorize details. It was a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to unravel, a phenomenon that mattered even now, well over 100 years after the fact. I learned from him that historians disagreed, that they made use of fact but relied on interpretation, that they constructed their tales of the past from a mass of tangled evidence. I came to see that past generations spoke to us all and offered the wisdom and pain of their experience through history. Most of all, I began to understand that human beings, once every bit as alive as we, lived again through the study of history.” Ellen Fitzpatrick, letter to the editor, Amherst Bulletin (June 11, 1993): 1.
So what are some “trends” now in historical fiction? “Story” figures importantly in history. And it is very much through story and literature that we transmit important values, philosophy and information to young people. One of the dramatic instances of how the current approach to history has incensed some people and delighted others is the revisiting and rethinking of Columbus and his voyages. Children have been invited to see many sides of this milestone in history.
For example, Michael Dorris’s Morning girl introduces us to a close and loving Taino family on the eve of Columbus’s landing, helping us to see how important to their culture their hospitable and courteous values were, and hitting us hard with the realization that once those strangers’ ships landed it literally meant the end of life for this family and their entire community. Milton Meltzer’s Columbus and the world around him and Charlotte and David Yue’s Christopher Columbus: how he did it reflect careful research and evenhanded looks at the specifics of all the voyages and the talents as well as deficiencies of this shadowy man.
The February 1992 edition of Language Arts included an article by William Bigelow called “Once Upon a Genocide: Christopher Columbus in Children’s Literature,” containing fifteen titles of books about Columbus, all of which he sharply criticized for their lack of historical accuracy. (William Biglow, “Once upon a Genocide: Christopher Columbus in Children’s Literature,” Language Arts 69 (Feb. 1992): 112-20) That wonderful periodical, Book Links in September 1991 featured forty-six books at all levels about several aspects of the Columbus voyages and with varying views. (Barbara Elleman, “The Columbus Encounter,” Book Links 1 (Sept. 1991): 6-13) The cornucopia of titles published during the quincentennial went a long way to help adults as well as children rethink the whole era of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century exploration and the way it had been presented to us as history.
The New Yorker had a cartoon last year that captured the sense of the new thinking: it depicts a young man apprehended by police officers, protesting loudly, “ARREST ME? WHAT DO YOU MEAN ARREST ME? I DISCOVERED THIS APARTMENT, AND IF CLAIM ITS CONTENTS FOR MYSELF AND MY FAMILY!” The analogy is not exactly perfect, but it will do. Children need to learn that there were civilizations in existence in this so-called New World and that to “claim” someone else’s land was, in a sense, to steal from the indigenous inhabitants of that land.
On the other hand, we learn all the time about conquering armies and the taking of land by invasion and force. After all, that’s how we got Texas, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico. However, Columbus wasn’t billed in the past as a conqueror or invader. He was thought of as an explorer and discoverer, a valiant and even noble man who changed the world. Well, in a sense he did. Again, the New Yorker had a cartoon depicting some native people on the shore, watching Columbus sail in with his three ships. One turns to the other and says, “This marks the end of Western Civilization as we know it.” And he was right.
But I suspect you’ve been “Columbused” to distraction this past year, so I’d like to look at some other aspects of history to aid in my quest for truth and how to present it. In the recent book The Story of ourselves: teaching history through children’s literature, edited by Michael Tunnel and Richard Ammon, Terrie Epstein points out that what some people call “the western migration” to others was the “eastern invasion.” (Michael Tunnel and Richard Ammon, eds., The story of ourselves: teaching history through children’s literature (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993.)
James Lincoln and Christopher Collier’s My brother Sam is dead changed forever the way many people look at the revolutionary war by giving readers a picture of an ordinary family caught in the everyday ugliness of the war. In this book no one dies valiantly, and justice is not served. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt did the same for the Civil War and demonstrated that just because people were on the “right” side of the war, they weren’t necessarily good people. Conversely, not everyone fighting for the South was a villain. In both of these authentic and forceful books the causes of war and its consequences are not oversimplified. The complexity of the human involvement as well as the political questions are explored with craft and elegance.
Jean Fritz has enlivened history with her profiles of famous Americans, and has helped young readers to see that history contains passion and humour through everyday events pertinent to their own young lives. Milton Meltzer and Russell Freedman are among the talented authors of nonfiction who disseminate history through a combination of narrative and documentation and introduce issues that invite thought and investigation. Julius Lester’s body of work about slavery represents a point of view not often included in the classroom. To be a slave, Long journey home, and This strange new feeling strongly affects readers’ understanding of what the institution of slavery was about. Ann Turner’s work captures a sense of history poetically, and generally from a very intimate perspective. Dakota dugout and Grass songs represent the voices of pioneer women. Mildred Taylor’s saga of the Logan family represents us with the history of the Depression era in Mississippi as nothing else can.
Katherine Paterson re-creates twelfth-century Japan in Of nightingales that weep, focusing through the eyes of a young woman on the civil war raging at the time – and also incidentally helping us to understand transformations of what one considers to be beauty. Mid-nineteenth-century Lowell, Massachusetts, comes alive in the book Lyddie, and we feel the tension and sorrow evoked by the war in Vietnam when we follow Park on his quest to find his father and himself at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Park’s quest. Walter Dean Myers has offered an on-the-spot raw look at that war in Fallen angels through Richie Perry’s experiences with his group of fellow soldiers.
One aspect of history that I am particularly absorbed with is the Holocaust. For a long time it was characterized mainly by its representation in one autobiography: The Diary of Anne Frank. It was interesting for me to read recently that Otto Frank tried in vain for a long time to get it into print. He was turned down by numerous publishers who told him that no one would be interested in an ordinary girl’s diary, and besides that, the topic was terribly depressing. It is our good fortune that he persevered.
Now there are hundreds of books on the Holocaust, aimed at different age levels, and providing many perspectives, upsetting stereotypes, and telling a variety of stories. In addition to those that describe the years of Hilter’s domination, the mass murders, and the concentration camp era, some of the books include information about the pre-Nazi time, and several tell of what happened after the war. Some are terribly explicit about atrocities, the fight for survival, and the cruelty of neighbours and former friends. Many, on the other hand, detail incidents of courage and compassion. In a number of the stories the characters survive, often against all the odds, and several books powerfully deal with the survivors’ dilemma. Some of the books are hopeful, others are bitter and angry. The main characters are Germans, Danes, other Europeans, and Americans. Jews and Gentiles are represented.
There is even one book, Gentlehands, by M.E. Kerr, that introduces readers to a character who seems sensitive, refined, and loving – he’s even a grandfather – who turns out to have been a torturer in the concentration camps. The illustrations can be photographs, drawings by professional artists, and paintings by children. The genres include poetry, novels, autobiographies, nonfiction, time travel, and allegory.
The time travel book is Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s arithmetic, which starts from the premise of an assimilated, modern Jewish American child who hasn’t wanted to think about the Holocaust. She is transported back to the midst of the horror, and the reader experiences the event with her. The comfortable contemporary setting makes the drama even more potent through the contrast with the journey into the past.
The Newberry Award winner Number the stars, by Lois Lowry, is told very much from the perspective of Annemarie, a Danish child who takes part in the harbouring and eventual transfer to Sweden of her Jewish friend, Ellen. It is Annemarie’s story, so it makes sense that she is the active one whose feelings and thoughts with the reader is most in tune with.
Lisa’s war, by Carol Matas, tells of the same circumstances, the Danes’ assistance of about 6,500 Danish Jews in their escape to Sweden. This time, however, the protagonist is a Jewish girl. The story is told in the first person, and includes much that the Jews themselves did to aid in their own rescue. Both stories are valid and truthful and provide a kind of balancing effect for the reader.
But a balanced view is not enough. Anti-Semitism, like any racism, doesn’t die; it just sleeps. It can too easily be awakened. Depth and breadth of understanding occur only when children are invited and challenged to question, explore, discuss, and confront how authors handle the issues and events making up any historical era.
If we want children to gain an understanding of any period of history, we can’t be satisfied with one or two books. We have to communicate that we only get at the truth if we are comprehensive and wide-ranging in our search for it. That’s how we avoid censorship, too: we don’t want “mind-control” from any faction. We need to sort through as many points of view as we can possibly find. We want high-quality well-researched literature with stellar characterization and plot. We want multiple perspectives. We want the richness of story.
With that combination our young people can value differences, appreciate literature, and learn from history so that it can affect current and future behaviour. They will want to search out what is respectful, honest, principled, and truthful. Then their statements about past and current events and their understanding of issues in today’s society will not contain even a tinge of conforming to political pressure or paying surface lip-service to matters of deep concern.
The allegory Terrible Things, by Eve Bunting, thankfully brought back into print by the Jewish Publication Society, dramatically brings home many points I’ve tried to convey. It is part of the wealth of books now available on the Holocaust. It is aimed at every age level and urges readers to learn from history. Its implications form the conclusion to my comments.
The story tells of a group of woodland creatures living in harmony until the day the “Terrible Things” invade. These “Things” are formless and nameless. They systematically remove each species from the forest, with none of the others offering resistance, and the white rabbits, in particular, assiduously avoiding any sort of protest or confrontation. In the end, even the white rabbits who have considered themselves impervious to harm, are eliminated. Only the littlest of the rabbits escapes and he sadly concludes that if he and the others had banded together, perhaps they all could have survived. He leaves his home, vowing to spread the word about what he has learned. He hopes someone will listen.
Thank you for listening.
Masha Kabakow Rudman is Professor of Children’s Literature and Director of Elementary Teacher Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Children’s Literature: An Issues Approach, the third edition to be published in August, 1994.
Bibliography of works cited
Adams, Edward B. Korean Cinderella. Seoul, Korea: Seoul International Tourist Pub. Co., 1982.
Bunting, Eve. Terrible things: an allegory of the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Collier, James Lincoln, and Christopher Collier. My brother Sam is dead. New York: Scholastic, 1974.
Dorris, Michael. Morning girl. New York: Hyperion, 1992.
Frank, Otto. The Diary of Anne Frank. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953.
Greenfield, Eloise. Honey I love: and other poems. New York: Harper-Collins, 1978.
Hunt, Irene. Across five Aprils. New York: Pacer, 1989.
Kerr, M. E. Gentlehands. New York: HarperCollins, 1978.
Lester, Julius. Long journey home. New York: Scholastic, 1972.
____________. This strange new feeling. New York: Dial Books, 1982.
____________. To be a slave. New York: Scholastic, 1968.
Louie, Al-Ling. Yeh-Shen: a Cinderella story from China. New York: Putnam, 1990.
Lowry, Lois. Number the stars. New York: Houghton, 1989.
Martin, Rafe. Rough-Face Girl. New York: Putnam, 1992.
Matas, Carol. Lisa’s war. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
Meltzer, Milton. Columbus and the world around him. New York: Watts, 1990.
Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen angels. New York: Scholastic, 1988.
Paterson, Katherine. Lyddie. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.
____________. Of nightingales that weep. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
____________. Park’s quest. New York: Lodestar, 1988.
Steptoe, John. Mufaro’s beautiful daughters: an African tale. New York: Lothrop, 1987.
Turner, Ann. Dakota dugout. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
____________. Grass songs. New York: HBJ, 1993.
Yolen, Jane. The Devil’s arithmetic. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Yue, Charlotte and David Yue. Christopher Columbus: how he did it. New York: Houghton, 1992.
A Writer speaks ...
Diane Stanley is the author of Shaka, King of the Zulus (Morrow, 1988), Bard of Avon (Morrow, 1992), and Charles Dickens, the man who had great expectations (Morrow, 1993).
I think there is no question that the doctrine of political correctness has had a significant impact on the publishing industry, especially with regard to children’s books. While virtually anything goes in adult books, as long as it is reasonably well written and someone thinks there is a market for it, those of us who write and publish books for children recognize our obligation not only to entertain them but to help them develop socially desirable values. Since those values shift from time to time, so do the messages we send our children.
The doctrine of political correctness is one of the most influential, and also perhaps controversial, social movements of the day. It seeks to bring a more tolerant, inclusive and earth-friendly society, a universal goal of great value that we all embrace. It has raised the consciousness of America in amazing and wonderful ways and has had a real and positive effect on society as a whole. The publishing industry has played a large part in this new awareness, and the result over the past ten or fifteen years has been the production of better, more thoughtful books that reflect the diversity of our country. But in any sweeping social movement, there are bound to be excesses, and there is no question that reflect the diversity of our country. But in any sweeping social movement, there are bound to be excesses, and there is no question that political correctness is thick in the air these days. Authors and publishers, already sensitive to the nuances of language and concerned about these issues because of their own beliefs, are doubly careful for fear of being somehow misunderstood. And so we censor ourselves.
I would like to explore some thoughts about writing history in the age of political correctness and some of the ways this self-censorship has affected me personally in the writing of children’s books.Works Cited
First, let me say I think political correctness has brought about some important changes in the way history is written. It asks us to take a second look at the record, not only at what has long been accepted as fact, but also at the traditional interpretation of those facts, and to try to correct the record for bias. History has always been written from the point of view of the authors, who unconsciously select from the record those facts that support their beliefs while ignoring those that contradict them. This has usually meant that the history of any country was at the mercy of the dominant group. Today historians are more likely to search out parts of the story that were never told because they were not considered important enough at the time, to reevaluate the contributions of minorities and women which were ignored by a society which did not value them. However, we must be careful not to create new myths and falsifications in our zeal to get rid of old stereotypes and bias. It is the job of the historian to demythologize the record, and though history and biography can never be as pure as science, we must set our standards high in the hope of at least coming close to the truth.
There is a strong feeling today that, wherever possible, books about people belonging to a certain culture should be written by members of that culture. Certainly we all know our group best, and trying to step into the mind of a character whose life is very different from our own can result in a bad book. We may impose stereotypes on the character, or make mistakes, or miss some important part of their worldview, which will make the book ring false. Because of this, I felt I was treading on dangerous ground when I decided to write a book about Shaka, king of the Zulus. Did I have the right to tell his story? I wanted to very much. There are few books on African history for American children, and Shaka was an important and fascinating figure. Since he lived two hundred years ago and in Africa, I felt that any other American writer would have to approach his story just as I did – through research. I decided to risk it.
As always, I tried to present the story in as balanced and honest manner as I could. But there was now an added pressure to present Shaka in as positive a light as possible for fear that someone would think I was disparaging him out of ignorance or prejudice. Shaka, like many other great national leaders, accomplished his goals through making war on his neighbours and taking their land. While this is out of keeping with our current sense of morality, facts are facts, and those facts should only be judged by the standards of the time in which the character lived. For much of history, including Shaka’s time, such conquest was the road to glory.
Looking back on the many decisions I made in the course of writing the book, I remember one in particular that was influenced by political correctness. I chose not to include an anecdote that, while not central to the story, shed light on Shaka’s emotional life in a most poignant way. If I had found the same story in my research on Peter the Great, I would have used it.
Shaka had heard from some Englishmen about a certain Rowland’s Macassar Oil. It was because of Macassar Oil that Victorian ladies draped little lacy “antimacassars” over the back of their chairs to protect the upholstery. Some of this hair oil contained a dye that darkened gray hair. Shaka believed that anything that could turn gray hair black again must have magical rejuvenating properties and he became obsessed with obtaining some for his beloved mother, who was old and frail. He sent ambassadors to the king of England for some. Alas, the Englishmen of Cape Town did not take his request seriously. The ambassadors never got to England and, to Shaka’s despair, returned with no Macassar Oil.
This story would have been a perfect lead-in to the subsequent death of his mother and his reaction to it by sliding into madness. But I was afraid that this story made Shaka look foolish and reinforced ancient stereotypes. Both from an artistic and historical point of view the story fit, but because I was reaching out of my own experience to explore another culture, I did not feel comfortable using that story.
To generalize from that specific incident, the writing of a book involves a series of tiny decisions, one after the other, some as small as the choice of a single word, others more important, such as which slant to take, what to tell, and what to leave out. It is very difficult not to let political correctness join the forces of intellectual honesty and artificial judgment in making those decisions.
I am currently working on a biography of Cleopatra. Because she was the enemy of Rome, much valuable source material was destroyed shortly after her death. The most intimate and complete source that remains was written by Plutarch, and it presents her primarily in relation to the two men in her life, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Cleopatra has been maligned as a sexpot and I have certainly set the record straight: she was an intellectual, a most forceful woman, and not beautiful at all. Nevertheless, as far as we can know the details of her life, the big events are unquestionably connected to her unions with the two most important men of her day. So I have to tell it as it was – I cannot put a feminist agenda on the story.
An interesting sidelight is the Newsweek article of some years back focusing on Afrocentrism, and particularly the book Black Athena. Looking for a catchy headline, the editors of Newsweek came up with “Was Cleopatra black?” Anyone who read past the cover would have discovered that those same editors did in fact realize that not only was Cleopatra not black, she wasn’t Egyptian either: she was Greek. Now the issues raised in Black Athena have nothing to do with Cleopatra, though some of the more extreme proponents of Afrocentric views claim she was black. No single source I have encountered has indicated anything besides the historically accepted view of her origins, and we can trace her parentage back more than three hundred years. In the end, you just have to trust your research.
My next book after Cleopatra is about a whaling voyage. Both the editor and I were somewhat worried about the subject, because we obviously regret the fact that whales were hunted to the brink of extinction. We feared that in even approaching the subject we might seem insensitive to the whole issue of endangered species.
Nevertheless, it is a vivid peace of American history and one worth knowing about. It will be mentioned in the text that those voyages often took as long as two to four years, the reason being that they had to go all the way around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. Why? Because there were scarcely any whales left in the Atlantic. Would I have made a point of mentioning this if it weren’t for political correctness? Probably I would, because it is part of the big picture, but in the politically correct nineties, it had to be there.
In preparation for this book, I have been reading a number of true narrative accounts of whaling voyages, and it has been fascinating to observe that in the nineteenth century, whales were perceived as fierce and malicious creatures, whereas today they are sentimentalized as “gentle giants of the deep.” The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes, and it is a fitting analogy for the challenge facing anyone writing history today. We must always try to find that middle ground. We must approach our work within an agenda, politically correct, or otherwise. We must attempt to write a reliable account well supported by fact, to consider it in the light of its context, and, we hope, to tell it well.
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