Writing Historical Fiction for Children
By Michael foster

In many of America's schools, the subject of history is undervalued as an important aspect of a child's education. As teachers are desperately employing new techniques to reach the "instant-gratification" generations, history is losing its relevance in the minds of children. The values of heritage and tradition that once bridged the past and present are slowly being replaced with anything that can momentarily capture the attention of young minds. The current medium by which history is being presented to children fails to touch their sophisticated imaginations. Well-written children's books in the genre of historical fiction can present history as exciting and relevant to young readers by synthesizing historical accuracy with identifiable characters, an imaginative story-line, and creative illustrations.

The Challenge of Writing for Children

Children's books have the awesome challenge of capturing a child's imagination. Adult authors are naturally aware of their own interests, but they are usually perplexed when it comes to entertainment of children. All adults were once children, but years of mental and spiritual growth have distanced the adult life from their childhood experience. Adults then, for the most part, are left to assume what interests children. For this reason, the best approach in writing is to find a connection, no matter how insignificant, with children. Famed author, C. S. Lewis, best known for his juvenile fiction, summed up this approach with a real life example in his essay "Three Ways of Writing for Children." Once in a hotel-restaurant, Lewis exclaimed, admittedly too loud, "I loathe prunes." An unexpected six-year-old voice from another table replied, "So do I." Lewis observed that the sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of them gave thought to the situation being funny because the taste of prunes was far too nasty. Lewis appropriately surmised that "this is the proper meeting of man and child as independent individuals" (42).

One literary medium to achieve this connection is through the introduction of characters. The success of children's books rests in believable characters to which kids can relate. Children want to read stories about kids like themselves who overcome great odds and solve big problems (Willo Roberts 3). Writers must, however, not make the mistake of creating unrealistically perfect characters. Children understand that no one is perfect, so they are more likely to identify with flawed characters, and they will eventually learn from the mistakes of those characters (Maifair 4). Characters, however, must be basically decent. A corrupt character is an undesirable character. Children must like the characters before they will begin identifying with them (Zach, "Capturing" 3). This connection allows children to share common problems with the characters.

Modern children may face different problems than their parents or grandparents, but the basic needs of children have always remained the same. Issues concerning the values of family, security, friends, approval, love, and recognition will always interest kids (Willo Roberts 2). Demonstrating values in books, such as the greatness of courage or the possibility of achievement, will help shape a young person's development (Holyer 20).

Many amateur writers choose to write children's books because they think it is an easy task. With the successful phenomenon of books like the Harry Potter series, many writers are rushing to their word-processors eager to write the next classic children's story. Writers of children's books, however, will be the first to testify that writing for children is difficult. As an example, many adults remember "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and conjure up visions of blue-jacketed bunnies hopping through sunny cabbage patches. Peter Rabbit has even been a favorite theme used to decorate nurseries, but this happy imagery gives a false impression of what the story is about. Successful stories for children aren't exclusively based in simple, light-hearted concepts, and to believe so is to insult a child's intelligence. Beatrix Potter's story of Peter Rabbit is about the serious theme of life and death (Lipson 2). In "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said," C. S. Lewis explains his view on writing at a lower level for children. "I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then" (48).

Most children's books illustrate elements of universal Truth. These Truths are part of the human existence. Because of this, history can be a valuable source for both inspiration and education. The facts of history can be plainly found in school textbooks and encyclopedias, but history within the field of creative literature is special and has particular responsibilities. The author must create a sense of balance between fact and fiction. The two main rules of juvenile historical fiction are to make sure the historical background is accurate while not allowing boring facts to slow down the story (Zach, "Bringing" 1). The story's background in historical fiction is the actual events, but the fiction writer must also weave a genuine story. Without a story with dynamic characters, the book is merely a historical framework. For the reader, the facts may be foundational, but the characters are everything else (Levitin 2).

Writers of fiction cannot merely record the events of history without instilling a sense of presence--a first-hand observation. Historical fiction must, by its nature, recapture the past. History itself, however, does not accomplish this. The writer must complete history with supposition (Butterfield 22). Since most writers of history haven't experienced their particular subject matter, there is a degree of "filling-in-the-blanks" beyond the normal research. Most lovers of history have had a special teacher or interested parent who has fueled their passion for the study. As they discovered their own heritage and how it applies to them, history comes alive. The once boring, dusty facts of history transform into a thirst for the story of life. As the historical fiction writer carefully wears both hats of fact and fiction, he must be careful to balance his responsibilities.

A serious dilemma arises when the writers fail to objectively balance the aspects of fact and fiction. Opponents of "revisionism," or the re-writing of history, contend that the fundamental truths of history are sacrificed when historians selectively interpret history to placate the whims of their personal agenda. Other historians, however, feel that since all history is subjective, seeking a consensus on what really happened is futile (Judt 3). Ultimately, the responsibility of the writer is to be considerate to his audience. Therefore, when writing for children, it is good to write to them as adults--as intelligent, caring, responsible individuals (Willo Roberts 2).

The Vast Worlds of Fiction

Stories of fiction contain several elements: character, setting, plot, point of view, and theme. Academic discussions can be waged over the use of each, but more importantly is their relationship to each other in the work being written. The elements of fiction combine to complete a story much like pieces of colored glass combine to create beautiful stained-glass windows. Therefore, the story must be analyzed both as parts of the whole and as a complete work.

From reading a complete work, a reader can determine the author's feelings about the subject matter. This is considered the tone of the story (Edgar Roberts 133). The tone is woven into the story and can offer more insight than the dialogue or narration. The enjoyment of a book oftentimes stems from the tone or manner in which the story is interpreted.

A reader of fiction generally does not read as a task, but as a diversion. Because of this, the reader invests in the story. He is interested in the characters, he is concerned about their circumstances, and he sympathizes with their troubles. Basically, a reader lives the lives of the characters (Maugham 14). Because of this, careful planning is necessary when a plot is created.

In writing fiction, many authors labor upon telling a story as opposed to showing one. Although narration is part of any story, writers must allow the reader to discover the story through the reactions and responses of the characters to different situations. The pace of the story is controlled by the writer's style through the length and complexity of the sentence structure. Far more important, however, is the rate of revelation. When the story seems to progress more rapidly when information is being revealed. Conversely, the story slows down when the writer uses extensive description, digression, or speculation (Minot, 197). Good writers, in efforts to capture a child's interest, fill their stories with action and adventure.

An intrusive author will force a lesson or moral into his story. C. S. Lewis writes in "Sometimes Fairy Tales May Say Best What's To Be Said" that many people have assumed that he first decided to try to say something Christian in his stories to children. They further believed that he would research child psychology and age groups. Finally, they thought that Lewis used allegories as the vehicle by which he told the stories. Lewis responded by writing, "This is pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself on its own accord" (46). These images in the author's mind can be complemented in the form of illustrations.

Show and Tale

The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is very true for children's stories. This visual concept plays a large part in the modern picture-dominated world. As a society, a deluge of information is processed through images on billboards, television, and in magazines (Pitz 13). Not unlike the hieroglyphs of our ancient ancestors, people of today also communicate through pictures.

Illustrated pictures in children's books not only foster a child's interest in reading, but in some cases, they can be the catalyst for reacquainting a generation with the written word. Well-designed illustrations can help interpret and extend a book's story through a pictorial medium which children readily understand (Cianciolo 18). Since the writer's ultimate goal is to produce a book that actually lives in the mind of the reader, illustrations can serve to formulate those images (Kingman xiv). This dedication to reaching a child's imagination is an integral part of creating a story of historical fiction that will come to life. A child's understanding of the history is richer if the visual story is added to the verbal (Hill 22).

If children are to have an appreciation and understanding of history, every effort must be made to engineering an effective approach to the presentation of history. Without an underlying respect for the past, a child has no reference by which to base the present and future. The result is a society suspended in time, much like a wayward ship at the mercy of the sea. An exciting book that tells a story from history can educate and inspire children, and maybe even serve as that guiding light from shore.

The Approach of a Young Writer

The first step in writing my story of historical fiction was to select an appropriate setting. Knowing that this setting would need to include an authentic time and place in history, I used discriminating criteria. As a long-time student of American history, I wanted to use a setting from the annals of U.S. history. After much research in both national and local history, I settled for the setting of the War of 1812, more specifically, the Battle of Fort McHenry. This choice proved itself ideal when I gradually discovered that many Americans are ignorant of this particular facet of Americana. I looked forward to the challenge of assisting others in discovering this aspect of their heritage.

Next, I had to choose my audience, or more specifically, the age group. Based on the subject matter, I decided to gear my story to the 10-14 age group. To guide the style of my writing, I imagined writing as a thirteen-year-old boy--the same age as the main character. This age group was chosen because of the content of the story. Consideration was taken to reach an age group that could handle the mild violence of war and also relate to a child's character.

I researched the history and significance of the War of 1812, as well as technical manuals relating to 19th century artillery and military uniforms. Maryland tourist centers and sites proved to be invaluable. In addition, I utilized the library, the internet, and bookstores to gather as much information as I could.

The majority of the historical background came from reading summaries of the Fort and the battle from internet sites, history books, and brochures. From these summaries, I researched deeper based on key words such as names and places. A biography of Major Armistead proved particularly useful, and I eventually added his character to the story. An interesting story that was uncovered in my research was the Battle of St. Michaels, an unsung battle of the War of 1812. I was able to add that story to help illustrate one of the main themes: God's providence in the war. The character of Mary Pickersgill is historically accurate as far as her role in the war, her occupation, her name, and her actual address. Much of the description of the city of Baltimore was a combination of old drawings and my personal experience. This story, of course, wouldn't have been complete without the inclusion of the famed story of the Star Spangled Banner, which I added at the end.

As the first words were typed, 1814 re-emerged from the past. Characters, both historical and fictional, began acting out my story on the cobblestone streets of Baltimore in my mind. Sights of masted ships sailed across the backdrop of my story lending a panoramic realism. The story had begun.

My first major decision came with the dilemma of dialogue. I realized that I didn't have any idea about how people talked almost two hundred years ago, and without an intensive study into historical linguistics, my story's authenticity might be in jeopardy. As a compromise, standard English was used, but without modern colloquialisms and slang. The result was a historically accurate story, but written in an easily understood language.

In addition to the written word, I decided early that I wanted my book to be illustrated. Some of my favorite books growing up have been illustrated. Many of those images still linger in my head and are affectionately associated with their respective stories. Initially, I tossed around the idea of commissioning someone to craft the project, but in the end, due to the lack of time and finances, I illustrated the book myself. I appropriately chose watercolors because of its tendency to be impressionistic and its inherent forgiveness to mistakes. As I worked on the art and inserted it into the text, a new sense of reality was added to my story. This reality was different from my original intention, but ultimately better.

Many of the painted pictures were from images in my mind; however, I needed assistance on the technical aspects. The illustrations of Fort McHenry, British warships, and military uniforms were all researched. The dimensions and specifications of the ships were drawn from oil paintings depicting the War of 1812. Much of the Fort's detail came from personal photographs. These pictures were taken on a tour of the Fort several years ago. To my surprise, on the day I took the pictures, a small militia re-enactment troupe was performing authentic drill and musket fire. These pictures aided me in creating authentic scenes from the Fort.

As I worked on the story, current events marked its timeliness. On September 11th, 2001, a terrorist attack on the United States destroyed the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and damaged the Pentagon. The horrific result was the death of thousands.

Ironically, parallels emerged between those events and the circumstances of my story about the battle of Fort McHenry. The first parallel was the date. My story begins on September 11, 1814, when the British set sail towards Baltimore after burning Washington. The second parallel was situation. The terrorist attack was an act of war against America. It was the first war against foreign aggression fought on U.S. soil since the War of 1812. The third, and most significant parallel, is the theme. The defense of Fort McHenry served to preserve our liberties and our sovereignty in uncertain times. The United States had gained its freedom from the British in the Revolutionary War, but now it had to defend that freedom. As a nation, we learned early that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Just as the events of September 11th, the Battle of Fort McHenry proved that our freedoms are susceptible to foreign aggression. The fears and concerns of Americans 187 years ago are very similar to those of today. This common thread can be seen as valuable in illustrating the relevance of history to children.

Children's books written on historical fiction can offer children stories that are relevant and entertaining. This can be accomplished by combining historical accuracy with identifiable characters, an imaginative story-line, and creative illustrations.

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