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The past made present | Class #3, 2018

Next Tuesday (February 6), the YA literature class will be discussing several books on the theme The past made present,” considering both nonfiction and historical fiction:

  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
  • No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
  • The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & The Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
  • Marching For Freedom: Walk Together Children, Don’t You Grow Weary by Elizabeth Partridge
  • Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, the Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carol Boston Weatherford; illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Everyone will be reading One Crazy Summer; students will choose to read either No Crystal Stair or The Family Romanov; and they are being asked to explore (“browse”) one more of these titles: Claudette Colvin, Marching to Freedom, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer.

We welcome all of you to join the discussion on any of these titles or the topic at large.

•   •   •

Historical Fiction and Nonfiction

Historical fiction is a balancing act of storytelling and character development with real-world events. How do these different elements function together? How do the authors engage readers in both the lives of the characters and their time and place in history?

As Elizabeth Partridge tells us in her Horn Book post “Narrative Nonfiction: Kicking Ass at Last,” good nonfiction shares many of the qualities of good fiction; the best writers pay as much attention to narrative, style, and characterization as to careful research of the facts. Design is another important feature of much nonfiction. Which literary elements strike you most in the works for this week?

Respond to any of these questions and/or comment on the relationship and interplay between the two genres.


Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.



  1. As a child, I did not enjoy reading anything that felt like nonfiction. This was mostly because of well-intentioned librarians and teachers that put dryly written biographies and autobiographies in my hands, thinking that they were doing me a favor. I read the books, as I was an obedient child, and eagerly waited for the adults around me to hand me the next imaginative piece that contained surprise endings or alternate realities. In high school, we read historical fiction, such as The Scarlet Letter or The Last of the Mohicans (books where we had to study different time periods and cultures to help us make sense of the text). Nevertheless, these books were not enjoyable, and I regarded them with the same dread I reserved for nonfiction. This was partly because they were riddled with inaccuracies, and partly because my teachers taught them in lifeless ways.

    The books we read this week, however, reinforced the idea that I do like historical fiction, as long as it is executed appropriately. I was shocked at the power of the characters’ voices in the books. Delphine, in One Crazy Summer, is insightful. She also believes she knows much more than any eleven year old I have ever met (which adds to the hilarity of the story). For instance, when the girls arrive in Oakland, Delphine immediately believes that she will not like anyone who lives in that city. In the near future, she would meet wonderful, supportive characters, that helped shatter her original feelings. Still, I appreciated her child-like gut reactions (especially since Delphine did not have much of a childhood). The dozens of voices in No Crystal Stair, as another example, come together to tell the story of Michaux in a way that is profound and comprehensive. Because of the strong voices in these accounts, I had a thoroughly pleasant reading experience.

    To comment a little further on One Crazy Summer, I could not be forgiving of the relationship Cecile created (or failed to create) with her three young daughters. I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to understand Cecile’s position but could not. I think those moments stood out most to me, especially since I have an unwaveringly supportive mother. From the beginning of the book when Cecile is impassive at the children’s arrival, to the girls being made to eat takeout Chinese food over and over, to the girls being sent away daily, to Fern being called “Little Girl” instead of recognized by her name; each moment broke my heart more and more. The girls, at such tender ages, show resilience and grit. They take care of each other. These relationships were the saving grace of this book. They renewed me when the relationship with Cecile left me drained. I also appreciated the portraits Delphine painted of the Black Panther Party. In my personal interactions, I have noticed that many people know little about the group (except that they were “militant” troublemakers), and I can see how much of an impact this book could have in teaching students a side of history often left silent.

  2. Rose Connelly says:

    I have one big similarity and one difference with your response, Sia.

    My difference: I adored historical fiction as a kid. I honestly could not say exactly why, but I loved it. It captured my imagination somehow. Maybe I think history helped me make sense of human behavior in a way I struggled to do with characters in the present day? Or maybe because kids seemed to have more adventurous or dangerous or important lives in the past? Not that I think the past was better than the present (I’m a history educator now, I vehemently would not want to actually live in the past). But somehow on a personal level I connected better with Bud from Bud, Not Buddy than I did with Lela of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, because Bud seemed to have more important things going on in his life.

    That said, in a way, One Crazy Summer didn’t really feel like a historical fiction novel to me. That’s a strange thing to say, given how saturated the novel is with 60s detail, from the Black Panther movement to San Fran hippies to the woman at the airport carrying a “Jackie Kennedy” purse. But the emotional themes — a girl struggling to raise her sisters like a grown up after her mom leaves, black kids navigating the space between respectability politics and self-respect, a misunderstood Black resistance movement — all felt (sometimes horribly) familiar to present day.

    My big agreement: I also had an intense loathing for Cecile that I could never quite get over. Like you, I sensed that the book was trying to coax me to have some understanding for her—or at the very least, to complicate my initial impression. A lot of this book’s change is Delphine shifting her initial snap judgments— of the Black Panthers, of Oakland, of her role in her family. But Delphine is just so lovable, so upstanding, so caring, so sensible, so RIGHT as a family member, that I just could not forgive Cecile for not appreciating her. I spent the whole book thirsting for Cecile to get loudly, publicly shouted out for her neglect, and was almost disappointed at the brevity of Delphine’s final call-out moment (“I’m only eleven, and I do everything”). My inability to call up sympathy for Cecile troubles me a little. Am I judging her so harshly because she’s a woman? Would I judge a father the same way? I was confused by the story Cecile tells of how she ended up having three kids—was the implication that Pa was not her partner so much as her captor? Or am I reading more darkness into that story than there was supposed to be? Why am I supposed to appreciate this woman’s obvious flair and independence, given that it comes at the direct expense of the flair and independence of her daughter?

  3. Lauren K. says:

    I have never been much of a reader of nonfiction. However, that may change after reading The Family Romanov. I absolutely loved this book. Part of the reason for that was undoubtedly the subject matter — I was interested in learning more about the last years of the Romanovs, a story I was only familiar with through, admittedly, the Anastasia Disney movie.

    But another reason I loved this book was Fleming’s incredible command of literary elements, such that her book read so much more like fiction than nonfiction. This book was, at its heart, an intimate look at a family disconnected so fundamentally from the rest of society – a story that could have been at home in any fiction narrative. Fleming then juxtaposed this portrait with the sweeping changes of a bloody revolution and also interwove first-person narratives that added texture and color to the story. I was entranced by the ways in which these three strands enhanced one another, adding to a fuller, richer picture of the times. Fleming’s ability to draw the reader’s attention to the smallest details, such as the entrancing nature of Rasputin’s eyes, or the odd cadence of the grand duchesses’ letters, brings the larger, historical narrative–which could otherwise feel remote or boring to readers of young adult books–to life. I would absolutely teach this book in a classroom, and am excited about exploring some more quality narrative nonfiction in the future.

  4. Similar to Rose, I too liked historical fiction as a child. I read a biography about Sam Houston, of all people, in elementary school that I highly enjoyed, learned a lot from, and actually still remember quite a bit from. I tried some other biographies, but had difficulty finding the same quality of writing, which ultimately led me to other genres as a young adult. It was nice to have an opportunity this week to re-explore the genre and read books that had qualities of good fiction. I was most struck by the characterization in the novels that drew me in (or frustrated me) as a reader. In The Family Romanov, I was immediately drawn in by a czar who were shy and awkward. I wanted to learn more about the background of him, which simultaneously taught me more about the historical period and circumstances surrounding the Romanovs. Similarly, I was fascinated by Cecile’s character because I was frustrated with her lack of attentiveness towards her children. I’ve read about the Romanovs and the Blank Panthers in history textbooks, but the quality of characterization in the books from this week helped me have a greater understanding of the people within or behind movements and decisions.

  5. This week I was interested in how both texts I read navigated the intersection of plot and character development, each in unique ways.

    In The Family Romanov, the royal family members’ personalities were developed very explicitly–we quickly learned much about the personal nature, habits, and thoughts of the parents, Nicholas and Alexandra, and soon after, of all five children. As the audience, we understood the power and prestige of the Romanov family–author Candace Fleming showed us this through not only their dialogue and personal attributes but also by displaying how other characters–non royals–interacted with them. For me, it felt like Fleming first developed the characters and their intricacies and after that, the plot ensued in its own development as historical events unfolded.

    In addition to inviting readers to understand the inner workings of the royal family, Fleming was also careful not to fall under the “danger of a single story,” adding snippets of peasant and working-class life interspersed with the royals. Once again, Fleming was deliberate in first presenting each new character and then afterwards explaining the story and relevance behind that person.

    One Crazy Summer felt like it had almost the opposite effect in both its plot and character development. Whereas we knew pretty quickly that the Romanov family garnered high levels of wealth and prestige, in One Crazy Summer, the true identity and “meaning” of Cecile was not made clear throughout the plot development. It felt like the storyline was developing around this Cecile’s shrouded, hidden character and author Williams-Garcia chose not to reveal much about this mysterious and cold woman. Truth be told, I thought that the historical fiction aspect of One Crazy Summer would reveal at the end that Cecile was an extremely famous Black Panther (martyr?), maybe in part because of her deliberate attempt to mask her identity when out in public and her very secretive kitchen studio. In reality, she was a painfully insecure woman that had endured extensive hardship throughout her life, which had led her, unfortunately, to inflict similar hardship on her daughters.

  6. For me, historical fiction writers develop characters and stories in somewhat real settings, and at least some of the events are real. Therefore, just like fiction writers, they make up characters as well as their actions and emotions in certain contexts, historical contexts here, and develop plots based partly on history and partly on their imagination of what people then would have done in such contexts. Historical fictions engage readers in the way that they provide us readers an opportunity to have a life experience in an era that, though different, connects to our era in many ways, as those real-world events have shaped the world we are currently living in.

    Like others, I was really not a big fan of non-fictions in adolescence. I found many of them boring, and reading them is like rereading my history textbook. Historical fictions were better, though not too much, as I paid my attention mostly to the “fiction” part while skimming the historical context.

    After reading books for this week One Crazy Summer and No Crystal Stair, I realize both historical fictions and nonfictions can be as engaging as fictions. I like the way One Crazy Summer is presented through the lens of the twelve-year old Delphine. She came to know the Blank Panther first for breakfast, then for Cecile, the mother who abandoned her and her younger sisters. Delphine’s exploration of the Blank Panther, neither too much nor too eager, just served my interest as a reader not familiar with the historical context before reading. Personally, I feel really sorry for Delphine. She rarely enjoyed the love from her own mother, but acted as a mother for her younger sisters because of the promise she made to her father. For No Crystal Stair, the narrative style is fascinating. Compared to the third person perspective usually used in history books, the book includes the first person perspectives of many characters, which facilitates readers’ understanding of meaning and emotional content. This is also what Elizabeth Partridge mentioned in “Narrative Nonfiction: Kicking Ass at Last” that makes plot and nonfiction different.

  7. I don’t remember reading a lot of nonfiction for pleasure as an adolescent. Even in school, most of our English curriculum consisted of fiction. I would love to work with narrative nonfiction as a teacher, though! I think that the narrative aspects of the books we read this week made the stories much more relatable and accessible for young readers. I enjoyed both One Crazy Summer and No Crystal Stair – especially No Crystal Stair!

    I enjoyed the quick pacing of No Crystal Stair, and how the story allowed different perspectives and voices to be heard. Reading the book felt as if I were watching a documentary film with quick snapshots similar to quick interviews, pictures, and side news articles. Real life documents and the chronological order were also helpful elements of the book. Although there were a lot of relatable themes in both One Crazy Summer and No Crystal Stair, I think it would be difficult to assign any of these books for independent reading. I think both of the books I read this week required a lot of prior knowledge building on the teacher’s end. Supporting the books with addition lectures on the historical context and providing students with supplemental texts would make the reading experience much more meaningful for the students. I might even prefer using the books in a social studies classroom instead of ELA…

  8. Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah says:

    Do the ‘Magic Tree House’ books count as historical fiction? I think they do. They’re labeled under the category fantasy & magic on Amazon, but I’m sure there were some definite historical themes wrapped up in those books.

    I guess, what I am trying to say here is that as a young person I didn’t read many books which were explicitly “Historical Fiction;” it was just not a genre I was looking out for. I found myself mostly in the fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi aisles of the library, and would often pick out the first book in a series and work my way joyfully and efficiently through the rest. It wasn’t so much that I had a dislike of historical fiction, it was more so that there always seemed to be more wild and outlandish stories to read, and I hadn’t yet groomed the appreciation for the language of books, that might send me to other sections of the library.

    Reading Rita Williams-Garcia’s “One Crazy Summer” I feel this exact appreciation for the language of the text. Not only are the characters compelling in Garcia’s work, but the way in which Garcia describes the world through Delphine’s eyes leaves me mesmerized all the way through the text. To put it simply: “One Crazy Summer” is just really easy to read. Delphine’s narrative voice is powerful and moving, and as we are narrated through the text, the world of the time period opens up slowly and purposefully before us. The book isn’t so much about the ongoing historical events happening in the narratives, but about how those historical events can come to live in a young child’s head; especially in the head of a young child having to live as independently and assuredly as Delphine does.

    On the ongoing discussion of whether or not we (as readers) are able to experience empathy for Celine –
    in my case: no, not entirely, but I do understand her, and the stakes of living the way that she does during this time period, and that, in and of itself, is a great testimony to the writing of our author.

  9. Zheala Qayyum says:

    I also don’t remember reading a lot of nonfiction when I was young, but I loved historical documentaries. I found that One Crazy Summer had a much more relational content that I could relate with and the historical perspective was not as salient to me. There was a lot more depth in the struggle of the children and parentification of the oldest child. It also beautifully highlighted the experience of the children and their inner conflicts with identity and their idealized image VS the real image of their mother. The historical context added some interest to the story but I did not get a sense that it was essential to the story.

    The Romanov family is a lovely read and I am still getting through it, but it is written in a very engaging manner. It describes what is factual information with great narratives. It is a story I remember reading a lot about in children’s encyclopedias and unsolved mysteries when I was younger and I am enjoying the current reading. I do find that as much as I say I am not a fan of non-fiction, I have always enjoyed historical non-fiction, simply because they are stories and better still, they are about people who existed and really left a mark.

  10. Based on the comments here, it seems like nonfiction was not a popular genre among us as young readers, nor was it for me. I would imagine this preference for fiction extends to many young readers, not just those of us who ended up in the education field. I wonder why this might be, especially as we consider the relationship between nonfiction and historical fiction. How often do we even find that true stories can be even stranger and more enticing than fabricated narratives? (Think of the cliches we use: “stranger than fiction,” “you can’t make this stuff up,” “you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”) It seems that reality is loaded with fascinating stories; moreover, perhaps it is precisely the believability of a good work of realistic fiction that makes it so appealing. So why do we hold the belief as young readers that what is true must also be boring?

  11. Caroline Glaenzer says:

    The novel, One Crazy Summer, deftly interrogates how the personal and the political intersect. When three sisters are essentially shipped to a militant summer school by a mother who is unenthused by their presence, we see how large a role the Black Panthers played in 1968 California. We watch as Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern engage with issues of race, power, and justice. The author did a specifically excellent job of using historical details to make the era come alive. If used in a classroom, this book would be more effectively used, if teaching this era, with videos, pictures, and other media to help students engage with the story. It requires a great deal of background knowledge (What was the role of the Black Panthers? Who is Huey Newton? What was the significance of the posters they made?) to ensure that the full power of the story resonated in a classroom environment.

    The story, which is tightly wound around three sisters, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern. Their characters are vibrant – Fern is young and loyal, Vonetta fiery and outspoken, Delphine stoic and responsible. The author did an excellent job of making the reader feel as though we knew these three girls. Throughout much of the story, I was distracted by the role of Cecile. She is a villainous figure in many ways – she abandons her family and children, she seems to not care for their well-being and health, she refused to call her youngest child by her name. Though Williams-Garcia used effective dialogue to humanize Cecile at the end of the story, I still felt as though her story could have been expanded to make her a more compassionate figure. I was distracted by her neglectful nature throughout much of the story, and wasn’t sure why Williams-Garcia chose to portray her in such a way. I look forward to hearing what others made of the relationships in the story and whether they considered them impactful.

  12. Sabrina Alicea says:

    I personally love non-fiction text, so I found this weeks text really exciting. I really enjoy the ability to learn about true events and people. I listened to the Family Romanov on audio book and I felt like I was being transported back in time. I originally thought of the family as further in the distant past, but through this story I realized they were actually during the WWI era. In interacting with the actual book, I was able to see many pictures the family took. It was like a trip to another country in another time. I found this very exciting.
    As I flipped through the other text, I found myself getting lost in the text features, images, and captions. These text serve as great resources when wanting to understand a specific time and the events of that time. I would love to have any and all of these text around my classroom.

  13. Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer made me think about a recurring theme in the books we’ve read so far: family. Last week we read about Starr and her loving family, with parents who support her 100%; and Junior, whose parents, despite their struggles with alcohol, also show him love and support. However, I agree with Sia and Rose’s points about how they could not forgive Delphine’s mother Cecile, despite the narrative’s apparent attempt to sway us in that direction. This is in contrast to say, Cadence’s mother, aunts, and grandfather in We Were Liars. While we felt their loss, the focal relationship was among the kids, and by the end of the story, any character development among the Sinclair sisters and their father was secondary to Cadence’s individual journey. However, since Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern traveled all the way to Oakland to see Cecile, I was invested from the beginning in that parent-child relationship, and was saddened by her coldness and neglect.

    Regarding Elizabeth Partridge’s article, I agree that the term “narrative nonfiction” fits the genre better than “creative” or “literary nonfiction.” I think even using those terms can make the genre a lot less intimidating to possible readers. I think students tend to be afraid of “nonfiction,” thinking that it’s going to be boring or textbook-like in its presentation of facts. For that reason, I’ve think I’ve always connected more to historical fiction because I was able to personally connect to a character (as opposed to reading a basic biography, for example). As Partridge explained, this connection comes from narrative, not plot. I’m therefore glad to see that more narrative-driven nonfiction books are getting published, and I’d love to hear any recommendations for those popular in the classroom!

  14. Nick Kelly says:

    Like Sia, I also appreciated the portrayal of the Black Panthers in One Crazy Summer, perhaps because I just watched a documentary about them with my students and was feeling frustrated about how people often talk about them just as “militant troublemakers” as Sia said. It occurred to me that there is a potential in historical fiction to humanize people who history has demonized or ignored. Having our entryway to the Panthers be through one of their survival programs is a good example of the interplay between historical fiction and regular fiction. It is good historical fiction because it presents a little known fact that readers can bring up whenever they hear someone demonizing the Black Panthers: “Did you know that they provided free breakfast to kids?” It is also just good fiction because it provides a recognizable and comforting setting for a lot of young readers. No matter what else you hear about them, it would probably be hard to hate and fear the Black Panthers after having spent some time with them at summer camp through this book. As a history teacher, I am very interested in how this book could be used as part of a US History curriculum.

  15. Like so many of my peers have mentioned above, I read little non-fiction and in fact despised it. As a young reader, I sought out mostly fantasy stories, fascinated by the intricate world building and characters who inhabited lands and lived lives I could never imagine for myself. I wish that I had benefitted from the narrative non-fiction genre sooner. I had many well-meaning educators tell me that I had to read outside my comfort zone, and recommend dry biographies and soulless history book regurgitations that made reading feel like a chore. The benefit of narrative non-fiction is that it’s not just a recitation of facts in order, but it manages to build a world for you that you may not have known previously. In The Family Romanov, we get a glimpse at the personalizing details that let us understand who Nicolas II and his family were, and why they came to such an ugly end, with views extending beyond the palace walls to settle the narrative in a broader context. It allows you space to learn without feeling pedantic, and it’s an important balance to strike.

  16. I feel in One Crazy Summer, the author smuggled a story of the revolution in the package of a teenage quest for motherly love. I acknowledge the detached mother is a little unusual in literature but I wonder if indeed there are persons in the real life who values her individualism more than motherhood. I find myself trying to justify the mother’s distanced attitude by comparing it to another piece of reading in my home country. In the story, the mother was aloof to her only child and only at the last stage of her life she revealed she was intentional in neglecting her child because she had decided to sacrifice her life for the sake of revolution and wanted to protect her child from the agony of losing a mother.

    I tried to find traces to validate the detachment of the Cecile in One Crazy Summer, but I could not find any. The book gives me a sense of heaviness which I suspect comes with the backdrop of revolution. There is humanity we cannot take for granted in times of uncertainty. If I were an adolescent reading this book, I think I would feel very confused about what sense I want to make out of it.

  17. I have several connections to what Sedef wrote. As a child, I also do not recall independently reading much non-fiction nor historical fiction for pleasure. Yet, in school, I was taught through a “traditional” European-American canon, and so like Sia, was assigned the The Scarlet Letter (which I did enjoy) and The Last of the Mohicans (which didn’t ring quite authentically to me.)

    Now, however, as and adult and as a humanities teacher, I am an avid fan of historical fiction. Sedef mentioned she might prefer using our books this week in a social studies classroom instead of an ELA one. In fact, we use historical and non-fiction pretty extensively in our humanities curriculum at BAA. In 9th grade this year, open honors students were assigned Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (which covers a few centuries from the TransAtlantic Slave Trade to the Jim Crow Era). In previous years, we had read Chimamanda Adiche’s A Half of A Yellow Sun, which centers around the Biafra War in Nigeria. In our junior humanities class, students read Zietoun by Dave Eggars, recounting a real account of one man’s trials and journey during Hurricane Katrina. My favorite historical fiction text of all time though, is The Book Thief. We assign it to 9th grade seminar students every year, and it is a resounding success each time. Overall, I believe it is the way, when written expertly, narrative historical fiction or non-fiction, has the power to locate a grand historical event in a single relatable character (real or imagined) that humanizes these events for us, and in turn, further humanizes us through our shared empathy.

    This week, for me, that kind of narrative writing was done most expertly in One Crazy Summer. To take drastic social political conditions in the U.S. such as racial segregation, political imprisonment, and race riots, and resistance groups like the Black Panthers, and tell these stories convincingly through the eyes of children takes a special talent and insight into children’s inner lives. So, when Williams-Garcia has Sister Mukumba giving her lesson on the revolution, has Vonetta respond “We didn’t come for the revolution. We came for breakfast” and has Fern follow with “And to meet our mother in Oakland” (73), that is childhood innocence characterized in a perfect pitch manner. The expertise of No Crystal Stair, on the other hand, for me was in its meticulous and creative research. Again, as Sedef pointed out the variety of voices conveyed through many media, but especially through the primary sources, is what could most likely engage readers of this book.

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