Monday, February 12, 2007

When Books Fall Out of Fashion - Part 2

Following on the ramblings of my last post, I have been thinking a lot about the process I use to select pieces for historical fiction for my methods class. Currently, I review the following resources before I begin reading likely titles:
From these lists, I select books that I think will appeal to my students, be challenging to teach, and are most open for discussions from varied perspectives. Once I have a shortlist, I read, read, read. Then I search for anything and everything I can find about teaching with these books. I try to select books that represent a range of viewpoints (male, female, African American, Native American, immigrants, etc.) and times in American history. Some years I pick multiple books and assign them to small groups, while in others we all read the same book.

Regardless of the books I choose, I often worry that the selections will offend some or all of my students. However, do I want students to read what is "polite," or what is true? For sure, there will always be disagreements about whose truth is recorded, but I would prefer to face these difficult issues head-on and desire to read pieces that describe history as it was, and leave the interpretations of right and wrong to the reader.

Anne Scott MacLeod wrote a thoughtful piece on this historical revisionism in Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction (Horn Book Magazine, Jan/Feb 1998). Here is an excerpt:
"Didacticism dies hard in children’s literature. Today’s publishers, authors, and reviewers often approach historical fiction for children as the early nineteenth century did — as an opportunity to deliver messages to the young. Bending historical narrative to modern models of social behavior, however, makes for bad history, and the more specific the model, the harder it is to avoid distorting historical reality. The current pressure to change old stereotypes into “positive images” for young readers is not only insistent, but highly specific about what is the desirable image, and often untenable. If the only way a female protagonist can be portrayed is as strong, independent, and outspoken, or, to take a different example, if slaves must always be shown as resistant to authority, and if these qualities have to be overt, distortion becomes inevitable. Betty Sue Cummings’s novel about the American Civil War, Hew against the Grain (1977), establishes her heroine’s strength as a credible result of wartime conditions. Her picture of slavery, however, is less easily reconciled with history. How many slaves this Virginia family owns is not clear, but the four described in any detail are all free-thinking and outspoken“Elijah neither looked nor acted like a slave” — and the two younger ones, at least, can read. The odds against such a situation in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War were considerable. More important, however politically acceptable it is, this kind of idealization glosses over the real price slaves paid for slavery."
So, I return to my original question in yet another form. If a book is written to accurately portray historical opinions, values and sentiments, should it be discarded because it does not square with the modern view of things? I should hope not. But I would also hope that teachers arm themselves as best possible by knowing the stereotypes portrayed, displaying the necessary sensitivity to read and discuss such books with their students, and finally understanding and empathizing with those who may feel offended by the "history" presented in such works.

In concluding her article, MacLeod writes:
"But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past."
We must recognize that historical fiction may offend, for the very reason that the positions and views held in the past would be untenable today. There must be some lesson that we can take from these works, if we examine them critically enough, and encourage our students to do so as well.

For another perspective on the issues I am trying to give voice to, read Multicultural Literature as Curriculum. Thanks to Elaine Magliaro over at the Blue Rose Girls for the link.


  1. I love this conversation you've started. Such an interesting things--books falling out of fashion. Something that was in the back of my head but you helped me clarify some of my thinking. So hard to predict what another reader will get from a book.

  2. Hi Franki,
    I read your post about this issue as well. Our librarians gave a workshop on diversity in children's literature yesterday and we were asked to share our favorite books from childhood. I read everything on my older sister's bookshelf, including The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, all books that I'm sure are horribly out of fashion today!
    Thanks for joining this conversation. I'm so dedicated to using literature that represents diverse perspectives, but the issues of historical fiction are so sticky. It's great to hear how others are grappling with all these related issues.