I’ve been looking for an excuse to blog about the brilliant middle grade novel that won this year’s Newbery Award,
because I truly loved it. It is, however, not historical fiction in the strictest sense. Remember, the definition of historical fiction is fiction set more than 50 years in the past and/or prior to the lifetime of the author, forcing the author to research the living daylights out of the time period to craft a believable story. Author Rebecca Stead set her book in the school year she was in sixth grade, same age as her protagonist, Miranda, which is 1978-1979. Not to say she didn’t have to fact-check herself, but writing about your childhood isn’t the same as writing about the previous century.
But maybe the definition of historical fiction needs to be expanded. Without giving too much away, a major element of the story is the game show “The $25,000 Pyramid.” I watched it mostly as “The $100,000 Pyramid,” and even then mostly in re-runs on the Game Show Network, but I am familiar with the show. When I was fortunate enough several weeks ago to hear Rebecca Stead read and take audience questions, though, a young girl (probably ten, twelve years old) asked if it was a real show or if she’d made it up.
That got me thinking, and not in an oh-my-gosh-I’m-so-old way (at least not much). To that little girl, this book is a sort of historical novel. It’s set at a time before she lived, probably her parents’ childhood era. The technology, pop culture, and world events are new to her, and this book may have been her first introduction to them. Is that so different from when my grandmother had a hard time buying me an American girl Molly doll because she realized she was “older” than Molly? World War II is history to me, and any novel set during it reads like historical fiction. It’s the foreign-ness of the time, the questions about whether this is real or made-up, that make it so, not the length of time that has passed from then to now.
I’ve also heard advice from various industry professionals that World War II, incidentally, is about as “new” as historical fiction can get right now, even for young readers. I agreed–until Rebecca Stead’s reading. Maybe they need to realize we’re all getting older and history isn’t staying stagnet. Things are changing, new readers are growing into new books, and maybe it’s time to give them some new territory.