Thirteen books have been recognized by the Newbery committee in the past three years, and eleven of them have been historical fiction. The irony, of course, is that historical fiction is not a genre that kids ask for–at least, not in explicit terms. In fact, I daresay that from a child viewpoint historical fiction is not a genre at all.
That’s not to say that children don’t like historical fiction. It’s just that the parts of the story that they typically respond to have little or nothing to do with setting, and more to do with plot and character. Take the historical fiction novels that we’ve mentioned thus far–CROW, THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK, WILL SPARROW’S ROAD, THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE, WONDER SHOW, SOPHIA’S WAR, and CHICKADEE. It’s hard to sell those books to the same reader in the way that you can sell a wide variety of fantasy and mystery books to a single reader. At least, that has been my experience.
Most of the aforementioned books have a New World setting which makes them eligible for the Scott O’Dell Award. Personally, my vote would go to CHICKADEE in spite of the fact that Erdrich previously won for an earlier book in the series, THE GAME OF SILENCE. However, I actually think the award will go to CROW. Other historical fiction titles with an American setting include MAY B by Caroline Starr Rose, PROMISE THE NIGHT by Michaela MacColl, KEEPING SAFE THE STARS by Sheila O’Connor, and JUMP INTO THE SKY by Shelley Pearsall. I’ve read the first of those, and enjoyed it, but can’t recommend it for more serious consideration.
Joining WILL SPARROW’S ROAD with an Old World setting (not to mention many shiny starred reviews) are THE WICKED AND THE JUST by J. Anderson Coats, THE UNFORTUNATE SON by Constance Leeds, SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN by Margi Preus, and JEPP, WHO DEFIED THE STARS by Katherine Marsh.
I’ve read the first several chapters in THE WICKED AND THE JUST and was enjoying myself–such an interesting period of history!–but I put it aside when I saw that Nina wasn’t very enthusiastic. Maybe I should revisit it?
Now I did read THE UNFORTUNATE SON all the way through, and this is one that I would need to reread again, because I became very disinterested in the early going, and found my attention wandering quite frequently, but–curiously!–the more I read, the more engaged I became. Like THREE TIMES LUCKY, this is probably one that I would have reread immediately if I had been on the real committee so that I could get a better handle on the book, and know just how serious I was about its chances.
Given the committee’s preference toward historical fiction in the recent (and not so recent) past, perhaps we should lavish more attention on some of these books–but which ones?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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