Tag Archives: historical fiction

Jabberwocky Time Warp Tour

Today we welcome not one, not two, but three talented middle grade writers to From the Mixed-Up Files… . Authors Eric PierpointJ.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? 

Time Warp Tour





Eric Pierpoint (The Secret Mission of William Tuck)

The Secret Mission of William TuckTo 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.

J.B. Cheaney (I Don’t Know How the Story Ends)

I Don't Know How the Story EndsIt 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.

Stephanie Bearce (Top Secret Files)

The Cold WarI 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!

Want to win a #TimeWarpReads Prize Pack featuring titles from Eric Pierpoint, J.B. Cheaney, and Stephanie Bearce? Enter now!

Re-Engaging Disconnected Readers

Amy Vatne Bintliff is a teacher and researcher who has taught language arts and reading in traditional and alternative programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She has developed a wide array of programming for students who struggle with school. A passionate advocate for human rights and multicultural education, she believes strongly in listening to the voices of adolescents.

Amy VB

Amy is a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching and the author of Re-Engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education (Peter Lang Publishing 2011).
bintliff cover

I sat down to chat with Amy, who is working on a new edition of the book, adding a new chapter about her recent work with middle school students.

What turns kids away from reading?

For many students, the hectic schedules that they lead turn them away from reading.  They are so busy with athletics, jobs, etc. that they just don’t build in the time.  And then when they do have time to read in class, they often feel sleepy.  That makes sense, right?  We know that most adolescents need more sleep. Feeling that they just aren’t good at reading also causes disengagement.  I find that many students get one MAP score or STAR score back that is low, and their self-esteem just tanks.  No matter how much I tell students that those scores don’t represent their complete lives as a reader, they internalize those scores and carry a feeling of defeat with them.  That turns students away.

Why do you think books with social justice themes are appealing to students and how do you use them in the classroom?

I began using human rights education and social justice education early on in my career partly because that’s where my own passions are.  But then I began really observing how active my students were when they were discussing or debating themes of injustice.  Nearly every young person I have taught has felt the sting of injustice in some way.  At the start of the year, we begin debating what is meant by the word “justice” and “injustice”.  We look at modern texts, such as opinion editorial pieces, plus brief excerpts by philosophers, such as Aristotle.  Then we read about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain, Septima Clark, and others involved in social change.  We also each write a personal essay, journal or poem about times injustices have impacted us.  I also directly teach my students different frameworks depending on the text and student interest.  A few of the frameworks are:

Generally, students are presented with the frameworks and then have time to discuss them, choose an article, standard or stereotype that they want to explore more deeply, and present a group or individual project.

I then find some strong examples from literature, usually our class reads aloud to start with, so that we can explore with new eyes.  We then use the frameworks to analyze literature, current events, and our own responses to them.  Students begin to actively engage with text because they have a new vocabulary to back up their thinking.  When we get to Close Reading activities, students can say, “I found a gender stereotype here” or “What’s happening is going against the message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.  They feel empowered.  They also feel moved by the very human stories involved in the work.  Finally, we create service projects that allow students choice.  For example, last year, my students chose to teach Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Standards to 4th graders.  The service portion of a reading classroom engages them and helps lessen the feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness often associated with reading about social justice themes.

What is the role of diverse books in engaging young people?

Diverse books allow students to create imagined dialogue with people outside of their normal daily interactions.  These imagined dialogues decrease fear and build connections.  It builds capacity, teaches background knowledge, and allows students to reflect on how they are similar or different from narrators or main characters.  Diverse books also teach students that one person’s story does not represent a whole race, gender, etc.  As a teacher, I reiterate that each time we explore a piece of literature.

 What are some of your favorite books to reach disconnected students? 

The graphic novels, March Book One and March Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell are fantastic!  Students who never read full books in the past completed both.  What I love about these graphic novels is that they tie to other social justice texts or current events.  Even though the books may take some students only a matter of days to read, there are many weeks worth of connections and discussions to stem from the graphic novels.  I love that the history re-connected not only struggling readers, but also students who generally weren’t enjoying traditional history texts.

march 2 March 1

I have had great success with the novel Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  There is so much to talk about in this book such as bullying, coming of age, poverty, and equality.

ninth ward

I also love poetry books.  Some of my favorites poets for middle school students are Naomi Shihab Nye, Walter Dean Myers and Gary Soto. Paul Janeczko’s book Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades has some good teacher resources.  Also, many of the poets have lesson plans on their websites.

Reading Poetry

In a classroom with students at a range of reading levels, how do you both challenge advanced readers and engage those that are struggling?

I think one of the key things is to engage students with concepts and philosophies that are challenging no matter what their reading level.  If the theme of a story, such as injustice, is carefully selected, students can work with partners, or solo, on the text.  You then need to create space for dialogue so that all students have equal opportunities to share their thinking.  I also help students select books that match their interests and push students to new levels when they are ready.  My reading students select their books of choice and I build in time for independent reading in a comfy part of the classroom.  I work with three rotating stations:  guided reading where I teach new strategies, a writing station and an independent reading station.

In your video (embedded below), you talk about including physical activities in the reading classroom. Can you elaborate on that?

Movement is essential when working with reading students!  I have a whole array of brief “brain games” that I use between station rotations.  I play the game with them, so we build trust by laughing, setting game goals, and getting blood flowing to the brain.

Where can our readers find out more?

Teaching Tolerance’s Appendix D–A tool for selecting diverse texts

The Advocates for Human Rights—Free resources and lessons

The Howard Zinn Education Project—History resources that are great to use with historical fiction

Booklists from Teaching for Change and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).

Blue Birds: Insights from Caroline Starr Rose

BlueBirds_CVCaroline Starr Rose is a former history teacher and author of the starred novel in verse, May B. Her new historical middle grade novel Blue Birds (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Group USA, 2015) is set in 1587. It’s the honest and gripping story of Alis, one of the unwelcome English settlers on Roanoke Island. Kimi, a member of the Roanoke tribe, has lost both her father and her sister to violent attacks from the colonists. Despite language and mistrust, the two girls find friendship.

MUF: History clearly inspires you. When do you turn from research to story?

CSR: I am not an author who is oozing with plots and characters. Instead I start with an era or event that I want to explore, and I trust ideas will start to grow out of what I’m learning and from the “what if” questions I pose. I need to immerse myself in my study until I feel confident with the material. By the time I start thinking of story, it feels like a natural outgrowth of the history I’ve learned.

MUF: Alis is a brave girl, but also of her time, with chores and children to watch. And yet she is drawn outside of the protection of the settlement to the friend she has made. Tell me about building the tension Alis feels between the two worlds.

CSR: A large part of Alis stems from my exploration of my own experiences as a girl and teen. I moved back to the U.S. at the age of six, after three years in Saudi Arabia. I knew little about my own country or culture and was very much an outsider. My fifteenth year I spent on exchange in Australia. Again, when I came home, what was supposed to be familiar was actually foreign. I wanted to watch a similar tension grow in Alis, wanted her to be drawn into a new world but also come to see her own culture as an outsider might.

MUF: You really capture Alis’ joy in the natural world. I loved the wood carving and learning the word for blue bird, iachawanes. What was your inspiration?

CSR: Author Lucy Maud Montgomery was the inspiration behind Alis’s love of nature. Readers will know her as the author of the Anne Shirley and Emily Starr books. While both these characters deeply love nature, I would argue L.M. Montgomery was even more under its spell. (I’ve read her five-volume journal twice now and plan to do so every ten years. They’ve become a huge part of my writing and reading life.)

Iacháwanes was tricky. I wanted to find an animal indigenous to the Outer Banks that both girls might have encountered and that also had a known Algonquian counterpart. Because the Algonquian dialect the Roanoke and Croatoan spoke is now dead, there were a limited number of words to pick from. The eastern blue bird — iacháwanes — is actually the third bird I picked! When I found Governor John White’s beautiful watercolor (see here), I knew this was the bird my girls connected over.

MUF: You remain true to the terrible and violent history of what happened to both Native people and the white settlers but in a way that won’t frighten young readers. Did you struggle with that?

CSR: An unvarnished picture of history, one that doesn’t try to explain the ugly parts away, is always most impactful. I was worried some of these heartbreaking events might frighten young or especially sensitive readers, but at the same time I knew I couldn’t hide from what really happened. These young characters couldn’t, and I couldn’t do that to my readers, either. That said, I’m happy my publisher chose to label the book as “10 and up” rather than the typical middle grade 8-12.

MUF: There is a demand for diverse books, and yet it’s hard to write across cultures. How did you address describing the Roanoke experience?

CSR: Honestly, it was a very challenging, sometimes scary experience. I’m a non-Native author. I’ve written about two tribes that no longer exist, groups who left no written record and are the subject of very few reference materials. Have I gotten things wrong in some places? I’m almost positive I have. But I tried my very, very best to work with what I knew, as was absolutely my responsibility. It was also important to find a reader from the Lumbee tribe (possibly the modern-day descendants of the Croatoan) who was able to vet my work.

Ultimately, I had to trust my life experiences — I’ve been a girl, I know how profoundly friendship can shape a person — gave me a measure of authority to write about a character far different from me. Writing is a risky endeavor. There’s no room for playing it safe.

MUF: Verse expresses beautifully the connection between Alis and Kimi, especially when there are so few words they share in common. Why did you choose to write in verse?

CSR: I knew from the start this book would be in verse, partly because that’s what I’m comfortable with, partly because I find it such a great way to write historical fiction. Verse gives a reader immediate access to a character and her world. The extraneous is stripped away.

Once I realized the story needed to be told in both girls’ voices, verse added another layer of communication through stanza and line placement on the page. As the girls are drawn together, the words are, too. Verse is magical this way.

MUF: You have a picture book out soon too! Will you continue to write novels in verse?

CSR: Yes! Over in the Wetlands releases this July. Though my next historical novel, a story about the Klondike Gold Rush, is written in prose, I definitely will write verse again. I’m learning to listen to the best way a story can be told. Ideally I figure this out before I begin drafting!