Kirby Larson,Janet Fox, and Caroline Starr Rose: Historical Fiction and Social Change

UPDATE:

I caught  up with Caroline Starr Rose after conducting this interview, and she was gracious enough to share her responses here as well. I’m very grateful that my role models for writing historical fiction have been so generous with their time. The original interview appears after Caroline's responses.

Gather Here: First, how did you come to write history for young people?

Caroline Starr Rose: I always enjoyed history in school, but never felt particularly smart when it came to “knowing” history. There was just too much to master. Historical fiction was my true entry point into understanding the past. It went deeper and wider than a handful of paragraphs in a textbook and made history come alive for me.

I know how easy it is to get wrapped up in our own lives, to not see beyond our attitudes and experiences and modern-day sensibilities — I know because I often find myself gravitating to this familiar place. Historical fiction beckons us to step outside ourselves and enter worlds completely removed from our own. It asks us to be bigger than ourselves. I love that. It’s what I want to offer young readers.

GH: The obvious next question might be, why do you write fiction rather than non-fiction, but what our readers really want to know is this: When you write fictionalized versions of history in the form of story for readers to enter, you clearly feel a responsibility to honor the truth of the history in your work. What are your methods for discovering that truth?

CSR: Lots of research, with special attention paid to personal first-hand accounts such as letters and journals, if available. I want to get the “feel” of a time and place, and that’s most evident in the way people communicated privately. A book called Read This Only to Yourself: The Private Writing of Midwestern Women transformed my verse novel, May B. My first attempts began in prose, but the story in my mind was nothing like the story on the page. I returned Read This and rediscovered the spare, careful way these women conversed with loved ones. I really felt like I’d found some magical key. Honoring the voices of these women would give me the most honest, close-to-the-bone access to my character and her world. It’s what led me to writing the book in verse.

GH: You organized but were unable to appear on a panel at the conference for the National Council of Teachers of English. The description of this panel led me to ask for an interview. Can you please tell us how the idea for this panel came about?

CSR: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend NCTE in the end, but I was a part of the beginning stages in developing our topic. Someday!

As I mentioned above, one of the key aspects of historical fiction in my mind is its ability to turn our gaze from inward to outward. Through reading historical fiction, we meet people vastly different from ourselves. We become involved in these real and imaginary lives, come to understand these characters. That leads to empathy.

That outward gaze eventually turns inward again, and hopefully for the better. I trust that it becomes impossible for a reader not to be challenged by what they encounter on the page. Here’s a simple example. In both my novels Blue Birds and Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, my characters comment on what they consider to be luxuries. For Alis, it’s London’s fountains and fish stalls. For Jasper, it’s three square meals and the possibility of having a whole day off from physical labor. What a contrast to our own lives! Historical fiction asks us to respond to what we find there by seeing our lives in a different light and giving a broader view to the lives of others. What could be more important?

GH: The reason we created Gather Here: History for Young People ties directly with one of our state’s educational standards for its students. That is to put historical events and the lives of historical figures into context for young people in order that they can better understand their own part in becoming citizens of the world. How does your work reflect this idea?

CSR: I haven’t to this point focused much on real historical figures. You’ll find them in Blue Birds and Jasper, but just in minor roles. I’m much more interested in the lives of ordinary people because that’s what most of us are: regular folks trying to make our way in the world.

Historical fiction allows readers to see people of the past as fully human. Flawed and wonderful. Short-sighted and brave. Their experiences might have been different than ours, but their emotions and motivations are things we recognize in our own lives, even if our choices end up being different from theirs. Frederick Buechner sums up beautifully how I view both your standard and my aim for my work: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”

Thanks so much, Caroline, for adding your voice to this conversation. 

You can find Caroline at: https://carolinestarrrose.com/

 

I was lucky enough to interview Kirby Larson and Janet Fox about their work and their appearance on a panel at the recent National Council of Teachers of English  conference. The title of this panel, called "We See Their Faces:  How Historical Fiction Advocates for Empathy, Diversity, and Social Change" inspired me to reach out and ask about this concept so that we could share it here on the blog. To quote the Program Notes from the conference,  "Empathy toward others and advocacy for diversity is more important than ever in schools. This teacher/author panel examines historical fiction characters as role models for today’s children and provides participants with ways to respond to injustice and obstacles through themed units, character studies, and social action projects."

 

We really appreciate having both Kirby and Janet weigh in on these thoughts.

Gather Here:  First, how did you come to write history for young people?

Kirby Larson:  I really disliked history as a kid/young adult. But that’s because I didn’t realize history wasn’t about dates and wars and generals — it was about real people! And that revelation came to me when my beloved grandmother told me a story about her mother that I’d never heard before. My grandma was battling Alzheimer’s disease at the time, so I wasn’t sure I could trust her information. But it was one topic that she was happy to talk about each time we were together, even when she forgot who I was and how we were connected. A little digging confirmed what she’d told me: my great-grandmother proved up on an eastern Montana homestead all by herself as a young woman. She built a claim shack, set fence, plowed fields, carried water — all while battling wicked weather, wild animals and deprivations. I couldn’t imagine my tiny great-grandmother accomplishing such huge feats. And then I learned that there had been many, many women homesteaders like her. I knew I’d found a story I could tell! And that led to my first historical novel, Hattie Big Sky, which won a Newbery Honor.

Janet Fox: It was somewhat accidental. My first three novels are young adult historical romances. When I set about writing the first, FAITHFUL, I didn't know it would be historical; I was responding personally to the death of my mother. But when I decided to set the story in Yellowstone National Park, it immediately suggested that I take the long view, which meant setting it in the past. Once I began writing historical fiction, I was completely hooked.
My most recent novel, THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE, is a fantastical fairy tale set in Scotland during World War 2. Why that time period? Because the novel evokes the NARNIA tales that I loved as a kid, and those were set during World War 2.

GH:  The obvious next question might be, why do you write fiction rather than non-fiction, but what our readers really want to know is this: When you write fictionalized versions of history in the form of story for readers to enter, you clearly feel a responsibility to honor the truth of the history in your work. What are your methods for discovering that truth?

KL:  I chuckled to myself as I read this question. It might be easier to tell you what I don’t do in discovering historical truths! I generally start with books on a topic of interest, mining the bibliographies for my next steps. My goal is always to get myself to primary sources. With Dash, I was able to interview people who had themselves been incarcerated during WWII in places like Minidoka. For Hattie’s story, too much time had passed to find people who had homesteaded during the First World War, so I did the next best thing to interviewing: I read diaries and letters and reminiscences. I study old recipes, newspapers, maps; I visit museums and archives. I’ve even been known to call up complete strangers to ask them burning questions such as how was mail delivered to ships in the Pacific during WWII, what kind of camera a newspaper photographer would’ve used in 1919 or whether a certain postcard would’ve been available to purchase during the time my story is taking place. No stone left unturned, as they say!

JF: I love that question. Research is the obvious answer. But it's more than that. Truth is in the heart of a character. And then truth emerges through the voice of that character. So while I endeavor to get my facts absolutely right, since I also incorporate fantasy (in THE CHARMED CHILDREN) I need to pay close attention to getting the character right and the voice of that character right. The story then emerges from the character and not from a static set of well-documented details - which may not even appear in the story. I was so gratified when one reviewer wrote that he didn't realize that I was American until after he'd read the book and then looked at my bio.

GH: You appeared on a panel at the conference for the National Council of Teachers of English. As I mentioned above, the description of this panel led me to ask you for an interview. Can you please tell us how the idea came about?

KL: The lovely and kind Caroline Starr Rose (author of May B, and Blue Birds) proposed the topic of how historical fiction can engender empathy and social action in young readers. And then, sadly, she was not able to participate! But from that seed blossomed a powerful panel. Participants included Janet Fox, Linda Sue Park, Rita Williams Garcia and me. There was such a great discussion and I was too caught up in it to take notes. But I do remember Rita’s observation: “History lets us know how good and bad we can be."

JF: A group of women writers have gathered in a closed Facebook group to support one another, and we cooperatively gathered interest in submitting proposals. Ironically, the person who suggested that panel on encouraging empathy in students, Caroline Starr Rose, and who put the initial small group together, ended up unable to attend the conference. While we were putting ideas together we came across Linda Sue Park's extraordinary TEDx talk on how A LONG WALK TO WATER inspired such broad outreach and activism, so we invited her and then Rita Williams Garcia to join the panel.

GH: The reason we created Gather Here: History for Young People ties directly with one of our state’s educational standards for its students. That is to put historical events and the lives of historical figures into context for young people in order that they can better understand their own part in becoming citizens of the world. How does your work reflect this idea?

KL: Playing off on Rita’s words above, it seems to me that we can’t really be our best selves in today’s world without understanding our past. One small example: like many other people, I used to say that American women gained the right to vote in 1920. But the truth is that some women got the right to vote in 1920. Native American women received that right in 1924; Japanese American women, in 1952; and many African American women were denied that basic privilege until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. (Read more here: http://www.kirbylarson.com/throwback-thursday-voting_rights/) The truth is often complex, complicated and sometimes plain old crummy. Knowing it, however, can only help us move forward as a people and as individuals.

JF: I like to hope that everything I write does one thing first: engage a young person in reading about the experiences of another. Then several things happen. First the reader sees herself reflected in that character - and she can then process her own experiences more clearly. Then the reader comes to understand the perspective of the other - and she can then become sympathetic. And finally my hope is that the reader experiences empathy, the fullest connection with another (in this case fictional, with a touch of real) person. In my view, we aren't citizens of the world until we connect with other people in that fullest fashion, with empathy, knowledge, and understanding.

Thanks so much to the two of you for sharing your thoughts about what you write and why it’s important.

To find out more about these authors, visit Kirby Larson at:  http://www.kirbylarson.com/ and Janet Fox at: http://janetsfox.com/