Thursday, February 28, 2008

Weaving History & Culture into Fiction - Lessons for Writers

For anyone who is new to Writermorphosis, this is not a book review website. It’s a site by and for Children’s/YA writers, where we can learn tips and techniques from each other, and encourage each other in our writing.

So, during the month of February, and for a week or two in March, we are doing what may look like book reviews. We’re critiquing “from a writer’s perspective,” some of the 10 books that were short-listed for this year’s CYBILS Awards in the category of fantasy/science fiction. We’re looking for techniques that we can use in our own fiction writing.

Last week, we looked at two books from the CYBILS list that are good examples of how to weave two different stories or plot lines together into one book.

This week, for those interested in writing about history and culture, we’re looking at two books that would NOT be considered historical fiction. One is Sci-Fi. One is Fantasy. But both of these books clearly incorporate (and sneakily even teach) history to the kids and adult who read them.

This week’s books: The Land of the Silver Apples, and the True Meaning of Smekday.

THE LAND OF THE SILVER APPLES, written by well-known fantasy author Nancy Farmer, and published by Atheneum, is a MG high-fantasy book all the way around. There are elves, magic, humans with special powers, wizard-types, evil kings, and, of course, a long journey. But this book also weaves the early history of the British Isles into almost every page and character.

The author pulls in a true ancient people group, the marauding Picts, making several of the characters pictish pirates and allowing them to openly share their beliefs and world view through the fantasy story. She also brings the reader in on a personal level to the time in the history of Britain, Ireland and Scotland when Christianity came to those islands, and the older, more magic-believing religions began to compete and/or co-exist with them. This book shows each character choosing a religion, and it shows how that religion affects their daily life. So we read about the Christian Monks – the good and the not so good things that they believed and did in their early years in the isles. And we read about the druid types, who wear robes and heal the villagers with magic that they feel comes from the earth. Even the main character finds himself struggling, questioning his beliefs throughout the book while his family converts to Christianity and his mentor, a bard, trains him in magic.

In the back of the book, an appendix teaches readers (kids – who LOVE codes and secret languages,) pictish symbols and what they mean, as well as details about the early religions of the British Isles. That appendix allows readers to understand that this book is not only a fantasy, but also about real historic themes too. So, for those wishing to incorporate old languages and facts into fiction, this book is a good example to follow.

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, written by Adam Rex and published by Hyperion, was the MG Sci-fi/Fantasy winner for the CYBILS this year. Congrats Adam! And it too, brings real history into its pages.

SMEKDAY is the story, told by an 11 year old girl, about an alien invasion, in which the inhabitants of the United States are all corralled into one state against their will by an invading alien nation. They are forced to adapt to the new race’s rules and eventually, led by the 11 year main character, to fight back with the invading alien nation, against an even more dangerous foe. There are all kinds of cool sci-fi contraptions – UFOs that don’t look like UFO’s, theme parks with secret communities beneath them, flying cars – everything you would expect in a sci-fi. And the plot really does make you want to read to the end to make sure that all of the important characters survive the book.

But, can you already sense the underlying historical themes? This is a book about colonialism, war, immigration -- world and U.S. history – a history in which Native Americans (represented by one main character in the book, and indeed by aspects of the whole story in general) were herded onto reservations, forced to adapt to a new, unfair life …

This is the story of our history. And it is presented in such an off the wall, alien invasion format, that the history aspect doesn’t hit you in the face immediately. Instead, it hits you in the gut. You feel the emotions of the oppressed in the emotions of the main character, 11 year old, bi-racial Gratuity Tucci, as her mom is abducted, her neighbors are forced onto a reservation-like place, people become afraid, and discrimination and hostilities feed on a lack of understanding between the attacking, well-intentioned colonializing alien nation, and the current human citizens of earth…

You won’t see the words Columbus, or Britain, or Cherokee, or Reservation, or Africa, or WWII or Katrina even… But it all feels like it's right there... hidden behind aliens with names like JLo, teleport machines and flying cars.

What’s the true meaning of “Smekday?” Read it and decide. And if you’re looking for a book that helps us understand history without proposing to teach us history, put Smekday in your library for sure!

Both of these books are great examples for writers of ways to bring true facts into fantasy and sci-fi, or any other kind of fiction for that matter. They do it the sneaky way.
Take a look.


C.R. Evers said...

My reading list is getting longer and longer. I love fiction books with historical facts woven in!

Bish Denham said...

Well Janelle, you've got me wanting to read these books!

Janelle said...

Interested in creative ways to make your book more fun for kids through your web presence?

Check out Adam Rex's page for Smekday as an example:

Nice site, Adam. I love it!

Carol said...

Comprehensive book reviews, Janelle. They take a lot of work-- don;t they?
You and I are reading some different's hard to keep up with them all (and still write,right?)