Riots, Revolts, Racism: Historical Fiction and 2023 Mock Newbery Candidates
Historical fiction has usually done pretty well in Newbery land. In the past 25 years, about 33% of the medal and honor books fit into that category. On the other hand, in the past three years only there’s been only one historical fiction novel out of the 16 titles chosen. All of which tells us absolutely nothing about this year’s likely winners, but it’s fun to look at anyway.
As I wrote my brief (for me, anyway) impressions of five of my favorites from this year, I realized they really don’t have that much in common in terms of style and approach, except that they fit under that broad genre label:
I MUST BETRAY YOU by Ruta Sepetys
I really appreciate the way this one brings us right into the unique time and place of 1989 Romania, but within the framework of one person’s unique experiences. First there’s the oppressive environment that Cristian tries to negotiate, then things accelerate with vivid threats of violence and death when the revolt breaks out. Cristian’s narration, looking back after the events, works really well: he comes alive from the incidents he describes and his interactions with other characters. And we get more layers from his narrative voice, which is sometimes rueful and sometimes reflective, conveying his sense of desperation, but also his hopefulness and how he gets caught up in the possibilities:
That’s right, I though I could outwit Paddle Hands.
The very idea – was it blazing ignorance or blazing courage?
In hindsight, a bit of both.
Ignorant courage, blazing. [p 31]
MAIZY CHEN’S LAST CHANCE by Lisa Yee
This is kind of halfway historical fiction. Maizy’s summer with her grandparents includes stories told by her Opa about his own grandfather starting in the late 1800’s. Those “Lucky” stories help Maizy and Opa bond in the present, and the historical instances of racism resonate with Maizy because of the current wave of hate her family deals with. The two narrative streams converge neatly when families whose lives were impacted by Opa long ago come to his funeral. There are several other threads too: the vandalism mystery, the conflict between Maizy’s mother and grandmother, and Opa’s illness among others. They all flow together pretty smoothly, with an interesting and varied cast of characters.
MY OWN LIGHTNING by Lauren Wolk
This one’s set in 1944, and readers get a good feel for Annabelle’s environment. But more than the historical setting, Annabelle’s narration is what really brings the book to life. Her descriptions of the physical world, especially nature, and the ways she sees people bring depth and fullness to her world. She doesn’t tell us everything she knows or all that she’s thinking, and uses language creatively, expressing important ideas without spelling it all out to the reader. Like when she’s trying to connect with Andy, one small step at a time, and tells him she’s tending the dogs:
“We’ll come back out to do that,” Andy said.
I wanted to say, We will? But I left it alone.
It was enough, said once. Said at all. [p 204]
NORTHWIND by Gary Paulsen
The late Gary Paulsen used third-person narration to Leif’s journey, mostly from the character’s direct point of view. There’s hardly any dialogue, and the text neatly mixes in stories and events from Leif’s past with the current events of his journey. The regular use of direct, clipped sentences reflect the moment-to-moment existence of the protagonist.
And it was all up to him. He could eat or starve, depending on his own actions, his own thought, his own plans.
The same as the whales.
Or the ravens.
Or any living thing. From whales down to mice. All thinking. All taking care of themselves, by themselves, for themselves… [p 170 (ebook)]
Those short bursts contrast with extended descriptions of nature and survival strategies, and somehow both styles complement each other. There’s character growth, well-paced action scenes, and thoughtful exploration of themes. Not for all readers, for sure, and you could argue that not all sections work as well as others, but worth considering especially for its execution of style.
WHEN WINTER ROBESON CAME by Brenda Woods
Built around the 1965 Watts riots, this is another book with a distinct narrative voice. Eden tells the story in a sort of free verse style, with mostly single-sentence paragraphs that bring a sense of immediacy to the story.
This time, hoping to avoid danger, we take the side streets.
But even closer to home there is trouble brewing, and
I know that what Penny feared is true.
This rebellion, riot, kind-of-like a war is spreading fast. [p 124]
You don’t ever really feel like characters or the author are looking back on the events from more modern times. The author trusts that most readers will understand the parallels between the historical happenings and current times, without any intrusions. Eden and Winter are the main characters, but we quickly get to know Eden’s family, the neighborhood kids, and the grown-ups they encounter. When they rescue Miz West, it’s tense and action-packed, but also ties in to Winter’s search for his family and Eden’s assertiveness when she decides to help her.
These are probably my top five that qualify as historical fiction so far, with I MUST BETRAY YOU at the top. But I haven’t yet read Kwame Alexander’s THE DOOR OF NO RETURN, which has rave reviews so far. Please share your thoughts on these, or any other historical fiction from this year…
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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