Saricks’ appeal framework of historical fiction only goes so far. Also, it does a disservice to some of what appeals the most to teen and young adult readers about historical fiction.
Writing about historical fiction as a genre that can appeal to teens, librarians and authors often comment on the bad reputation historical fiction can get among teens. Because titles show up on school reading lists, or covering historical events that might also be covered in their dry and tedious history textbooks, teens can often assume that historical fiction will be a chore to read. Saricks’ description of the genre’s appeal doesn’t sound terribly appealing.
Reading some of what librarians and historical fiction authors have written about the genre points to some much more promising explanations of why historical fiction appeals to teen readers.
After paraphrasing Saricks, Melissa Rabey adds that historical fiction appeals to teens because it focuses on some central conflict, or an authority struggle.
In The Distant Mirror: Reflections on Young Adult Historical Fiction, Brown and St. Clair sum up the emotional appeal of historical fiction beautifully:
“the past has an innate psychological appeal… the known past provides a comfort not available from the unknown future… to immerse oneself, however briefly, in a past world where conflict and strife occur and are resolved may provide comfort in an increasingly chaotic world.”
Also, they draw an important connection between historical fiction and another genre driven by world-building and detailed setting, fantasy:
“Just as high fantasy involves a struggle between the forces of good and evil, historical fiction is marked by a clash between opposing socio-political power,” pitting forces of reaction against forces of progress, and highlighting the tension between them.”
In the best historical fiction, characters, whether famous names or ordinary, everyday people who could have lived during that time, are fleshed out and emotionally real. Some stories show them dealing with ordinary and commonplace lives, where sweeping historical events have varying degrees of impact. But most of all, they’re teens and kids and young adults, thinking and feeling and hoping and dreaming in some universal way, playing a part in an engrossing story.
And that is the most important appeal of historical fiction, by any author, or set in any time period.
References and Resources
Add in Katherine Paterson’s description of historical fiction characters as those who kick at the walls of their societies, and historical fiction starts to sound more… appealing!