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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
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.
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Sonya B

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.

Posted : Feb 05, 2018 09:52

Lisa Wu

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.

Posted : Feb 05, 2018 09:50

Kenzy S

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.

Posted : Feb 05, 2018 09:42

Nick Kelly

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.

Posted : Feb 05, 2018 09:41

Katie T

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!

Posted : Feb 05, 2018 09:28

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