Category Archives: Reference

Saricks’ Appeal Factors in Historical Fiction

Frame/Setting: The setting can be the most important and unique aspect of historical fiction, rich in details to anchor it in time and place. Descriptions of physical setting and geography, historic events, and social culture and customs can be part of the appeal, along with well-researched facts about historical events. Ideally, in the best historical fiction, facts blend seamlessly into the story. Saricks emphasizes accuracy of historical detail as part of the appeal, but questions of authenticity and accuracy get slippery in historical fiction.

Tone and Mood: Tone and mood can vary immensely across the wide scope of historical fiction time periods and stories, even incorporating appeal elements from other genres. The mood the reader happens to be in is also part of the picture. What this appeal factor doesn’t necessarily map out is more about the emotional affect of reading historical fiction, of connecting to the past through narrative. But more on that later.

Story Line: Generally, will either hinge on a specific historical event or time, and its effect on characters (emphasizing the details of the historical event, rather than its impact on characters’ lives), or might follow characters through a period of time (emphasizing character, through their actions and relationships, with the historical frame as a backdrop).

Catherine, Called Birdy, Cover Image from GoodReads

A number of articles pointing out anachronism in YA historical fiction mention Catherine, Called Birdy.

Characterization: According to Saricks, the ideal historical fiction character “must fit within the times. Glaring inaccuracies of language, behavior or straight-forward fact distract, and sometimes cause the reader to distrust the author’s research.” (Saricks,  page 96) There is room for debate about this statement, with regard to both adult and YA historical fiction and its appeal. Especially regarding female characters.

Katherine Paterson famously said “The characters in history we remember are those who kicked against the walls of their societies.” For engaging, interesting characters, readers are willing to excuse a certain amount of anachronism.  Outspoken, defiant characters who rebel against the social order, even characters learning to read, would be aberrations, not encouraged or accepted. And yet, for characters to grow and change, or be brave enough to have adventures, there’s a certain amount of letting historical accuracy relax a little, in the service of a good story that will engage the reader.

But more on that later.

Pacing: According to Saricks, “historical novels are usually longer books,  (almost always more than three hundred pages), and they are not generally referred to as fast-paced, even if they include Adventure elements…. creating the detailed background often makes the books slow starting.” (Saricks, p 297.) That makes historical fiction sound plodding and not like a fun and engrossing popular read. But it gets better… as the characters and their world get more familiar, the action picks up, getting the reader immersed and enthralled by strong characters, and the chance to get close to history.

Style and Language: Each author, and each time period, is probably going to navigate the balance of language and style differently. Some authors construct language closer to what could have come from the past, sometimes even including a glossary of terms to help the reader visualize the details of a past that might seem alien and remote. Some authors choose more contemporary language, relying on description and a few subtle touches to set the time period apart.

Saricks’ appeal factors are all well and good, but they leave out some of the ways teens can connect to historical fiction.


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Rationale for Subgenres

Have you ever been working on a project, and then stumbled across a paragraph that perfectly sums up exactly what you were trying to say? Confession time: I picked my genres because, well, these are periods in historical fiction I like to read. Building a recommendation list, I recognized their crossover appeal with other genres.

I had been thinking that historical fiction, especially for teens, had to work against a mental image of it being staid, and scholastic and nutritious. But that there’s a lot of historical fiction out there that appeals, because it’s a good story!

And then I read this for class: It’s an excerpt from “The Death of Genre: Why the Best YA Fiction Often Defies Classification.”

For the genre enthusiast, historical novels offer a variety of complex issues. The kingdom-and-the-castle story found in works like Megan Whelan Turner’s The Thief, Gerald Morris’ The Squire Tales, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Seeing Stone blend medieval settings with magic and legend. Donna Jo Napoli’s retold fairy tales (Beast, Bound, Breath) borrow much from traditional literature but abound with rich historical details. Napoli’s novels are clearly fantasy titles; they also have much to offer to readers of historical fiction. Time-slip and time-travel novels present a similar dilemma—historical fiction or fantasy/science fiction? Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, Susan Cooper’s The King of Shadows, Susan Price’s The Sterkarm Handshake,and Edward Bloor’s London Calling are filled with history yet are based on the premise of traveling back in time. One would be remiss to classify Philip Pullman’s trilogy about Sally Lockhart and Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency series as simple Victorian mysteries.

One cannot deny the historical qualities found in these novels.

What about speculative fiction, those historical novels that ask the difficult question of what if? In The Year of the Hangman, Gary Blackwood proposes the dilemma of what if the British had won the Revolutionary War. Finally, in which genre does one place Aiden Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land? Chambers masterfully intertwines two narratives—one set in the 1990s and the other set during WWII—into his award-winning novel. Historical fiction or modern realistic? Neither or both?

Although time constraints prevented me from getting into alternate history as a subgenre of historical fiction, it absolutely is one. Sarah, a classmate in YA Genre Drama, found a great website: Uchronia: The Alternate History List

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Debates about Historical Fiction

There are a few questions that linger about how to define historical fiction.

Melissa Rabey explains the conundrum beautifully:

The phrase “like nailing  Jell-O to a wall” takes on a particular significance when we try to define historical fiction. On the surface it seems easy: any novel set in the past. But like any simple definition, upon further consideration, it’s not so clear-cut. How long ago is “the past?” In a novel identified as historical fiction, how much should be based on fact and how much can be imagined by the author? And just how does the definition change when the novel is written for young adults? (Rabey 2012 p. 1)

The things that make defining historical fiction so slippery are:

How long ago counts as historical fiction? Thirty years ago? A generation? Sarah Johnson cuts it off at 1950.  Melissa Rabey cuts her timeline for historical fiction off at 1980. The Teen Readers Advisor includes a couple of books using events of the mid-90’s as historic touchstones. What matters is that the reader feels a connection to a time that is definitely past, beyond their own experience.

How fictional is historical fiction allowed to be? Making sure to do research to the dates of battles right is one thing, but talking about historical fiction as a genre also raises questions about accuracy in a more general way, capturing the overall culture of the place in a way that makes sense. “The characters in history or fiction that we remember are those who kicked against the walls of their societies,” author Katherine Paterson has famously said. The question of accuracy and  anachronism particularly comes up in YA literature around questions of girls’ independence and level of learning, and even girls’ safety while having exuberant adventures. (Anne Scott MacLeod casts a chilling shadow over the historical inaccuracies of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, who emerges “unsullied” from a high seas adventure.)

Preoccupied with an analysis of historical fiction as a genre in terms of its social contexts and characterizations, The Distant Mirror, by Joanne Brown and Nancy St. Clair delves more deeply into these questions about context and authenticity.

Ultimately, beyond questions of accuracy and timing, what matters most is a good, engrossing story, that draws the reader fully in to its setting and its context.

The plot grows out of that setting. Whether evoking or invoking famous names from a history book, or concentrating on capturing an ordinary life in a historical context, what matters is that the setting is engrossing enough to draw the reader into a world beyond their experience, with enough research and description to make it immediate and real.

Yeah, that about nails it.


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Time Periods and Subgenres: Rabey

Rabey’s Historical Fiction for Teens is organized down to a granular level, not just by time period, but also by region, as well as some appealing subgenres that transcend time period, like historical mystery and historical fantasy. She also makes an excellent case for time travel as a subgenre of young adult historical fiction.

Here’s a look at her extremely specific index:

  • Traditional historical fiction : world history:
    • Ancient Lands: Before the Common Era
    • Asia: Medieval to Modern Times
    • Austalia: 20th century
    •  Middle East: Ancient to Modern Times
    • Crusades: 1095-1291;
    •  Africa, Fourteenth Century to Today
    • Europe:
      •  Before 1000 CE,
      •  Middle Ages,
      • Renaissance and Reformation
      • Revolution and Napoleon: 1700-1900
      • Modern Times
    • Britain
      • Medieval Darkness: Before 1100
      • Middle Ages: 1100-1500
      • The Tudor Era 1500-1600
      • Revolution and Recovery: 1600-1800
      • The Regency and the Victorian Era: 1800-1900
      • Modern Times: 1900-1980
  • Traditional historical fiction: history of the Americas
    • Early Exploration 1500-1600
    • Colonial Life: 1600-1776
    • Native Americans, Captives and Conflicts, 1700s
    • American Revolution: 1776-1800
    • A New Nation: 1800-1900
    • Slavery: 1800-1863
    • Westward Expansion: 1848-1920
    • The Gold Rush 1848-1900
    • Pioneers on the Frontier 1854-1920
    • The Civil War: 1861-1865
    • Modern Times: 1900-1980
    • A Wave of Immigrants: 1900-1925
    • Civil Rights: 1920-1970
    • The Great Depression: 1930s
    • World War II
    • Vietnam War
  • Historical mysteries: Broken down into traditional, cozy and noir
  • Historical adventures: Seafarers and pirates, spies, travelers, warriors
  • Historical fantasy: Fantastic creatures and abilities, romantic historical fantasy, Greek mythology, Arthurian Legend, Alternate worlds
  • Time travel
  • Other resources
  • Appendix A. Award-winning historical fiction
  • Appendix B. Some thematic book lists.


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Time Periods and Subgenres: Honnold

How Rosemary Honnold breaks down the

Prehistory to 1899 includes:

  • Prehistoric to 475 A.D.,
  • Middle Ages/ 476-1499,
  • The Renaissance 1500-1700
  • Colonial America
  • Salem Witch Trials
  • Pioneer/Frontier Life
  • Great Britain/1600-1899
  • Revolutionary War
  • Pre Civil War
  • Civil War
  • Post Civil War.

The next chapter breaks down history from 1899 to the present:

  • 1900-WWI
  • Great Depression/ Pre WWII,
  • WWII
  • Holocaust
  • 1950s/Post WWII
  • 1960s/Civil Rights Movement
  • 1970s/ Vietnam War
  • 1980s-1990s.


se subgenres in historical fiction, in The Teen Reader’s Advisor

image from

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Awards for Historical Fiction

Awards for Historical Fiction:

Some of the prize winners for YA in general include historical fiction. The appendix for Historical Fiction For Teens: A Genre Guide includes a list of recent award winners.

image via
Scott O’Dell award

There are two awards specifically for historical fiction for teens:
The Scott O’Dell Award, begun in 1982, recognizes excellence in historical fiction published for children or young adults.  In addition to listing the winners by year, the site also provides a listing of titles by historical period. The 2012 winner is Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos (Farrar Strauss & Giroux), set in the summer of 1962.

In Canada, the Geoffrey Bilson Award is a recognition of historical fiction published by a Canadian author.

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