I can hear the groans now. And the teeth sucking. And the sighs. Wait… is that my own PTSD? But I digress.
Everyone knows that if you don’t learn history you are doomed to repeat it. Usually, that only applies to the bad things. Or at least, that’s the selling point. Repeating good things is not necessarily doom, last I checked. I wish I could be doomed to good, positive things. Sign me up!
Seriously, who wants to be that kid who pulls out a baggie of celery stalks and baby carrots when everyone around them is mowing down pizza and fries? But as I said, it’s all in the delivery and presentation. Now, there are actually sneaky ways to get your kids to eat veggies. They’re hidden in juice box blends, apple sauce, and even pasta.
And that is how we can get youth, reluctant or not, to consume history… we hide it in plain sight behind an expertly eye-catchy and well-designed cover, and within a tightly plotted, unputdownable story with unforgettable characters. Who doesn’t love a good story? It’s like when you eagerly anticipate talking to your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving because you love the tall tales. And he’s got a million of ‘em. The very best history teachers are the ones who can teach it in such a way that the people throughout history become characters, each being the protagonist hero or heroine in their own plotline. That’s what makes them truly come alive.
Similarly, the YA author’s job in historical fiction, as well as any other story, is to transport the reader, dropping them in to a lush, fully realized, three-dimensional landscape with characters and stories so compelling that the reader completely forgets that they’re reading about history. They’re learning without even knowing it, similar to how Karate Kid learned his martial art craft by waxing the car and painting the fence.
Sometimes a YA story will dive into the head of a historical figure to offer a close view of what it might have been like to be that person in that period. Other times, authors will create a character that bears witness to real historical events. The end result is that the reader arrives at the end of the story with a deeper understanding of time, place, context, and significance. In that way, it’s similar to sliding on a virtual reality viewer and taking a walk through a particular moment in history… all the while having fun. It’s just like when you serve your child their favorite spaghetti and meatball dish made with veggie-infused pasta and of course, a primo red sauce chockablock with veggies they never even saw coming.