My Top Ten Historical Fiction Novels: Middle Grade Edition

Today’s post was originally supposed to be about how I named the characters in EVERY DAY AFTER. But…after reading Jess’s awesome post on Monday, and coming to the realization that our processes were quite alike, I decided to go in another direction.

Instead, I am going to share with you my Top Ten Favorite Middle Grade Historical Fiction Novels. I can recall exactly where I was when I read each one of them for the first time. If you haven’t yet had a chance to read these titles, I strongly encourage you to try and make space on your to-be-read pile. They are phenomenal. And just in case my encouragement isn’t enough, I’ve included the first lines from each book to further entice you. Sneaky, right?

1. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD–(Alabama, 1932)

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know this is widely considered to be adult historical fiction, but it is also widely read in the upper middle grades all across America, and by high school it is generally required reading. So I cheated and included it anyway. Hey, this is my list after all!)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This one needs no formal introduction. It is a classic. And, truth be told, any introduction I could provide would fail to do this book justice. Scout Finch and Boo Radley. Enough said.

First line: When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

2. A SINGLE SHARD–(Korea, 12th century)

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

This is a gorgeous, quiet book. The language is tight and disciplined, perfectly reflecting the discipline required of the book’s protagonist, Tree-ear, as he learns to craft celadon pottery in a twelfth-century Korean village.

First line: “Eh, Tree-ear! Have you hungered well today?” Crane-man called out as Tree-ear drew near the bridge.

3. BUD, NOT BUDDY–(Michigan, 1936)

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

When I first began to consider writing middle grade novels, I went straight to my local library and checked out a stack of precisely those.  And what better guide could a writer have than Newbery-winning books? They formed the better part of my stack. BUD, NOT BUDDY was the first book I read. It made me stop considering and start writing. It is the book that pushed me head-over-heels for middle grade historical fiction.

First line: Here we go again.

4. OUT OF THE DUST–(Oklahoma, 1934-1935)

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse’s free verse beautifully depicts the barren, bone-dry landscape of Dust Bowl Oklahoma. It also elegantly conveys the bitter pain Billie Jo Kelby and her father endure after a tragic accident alters their lives forever. I read this in one afternoon, weeping in the middle and at the end.

First line: As summer wheat came ripe, so did I, born at home on the kitchen floor.

5. JACOB HAVE I LOVED–(Chesapeake Bay, 1941-1946)

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Some of you may already know that this is my all-time favorite book. The same disclaimer used for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is applicable here as well. Though Sara Louise (aka Wheeze) and her twin sister, Caroline, are thirteen when the story begins, they have entered adulthood by the novel’s close. Today, this would likely be considered YA as there are a few situations and themes that seem a tad heavy for most middle graders. But, as I said earlier, this is my list. And this is my all-time favorite book. So here it is.

First line from Chapter One: During the summer of 1941, every weekday morning at the top of the tide, McCall Purnell and I would board my skiff and go progging for crab.

6. PENNY FROM HEAVEN–(New Jersey, 1953)

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

To me, the most exceptional thing (though there are many exceptional things) about this novel is the characterization. Protagonist Penny (birth name Barbara Ann) Falucci enters our reading life complete with a large family—white American on one side, Italian on the other. Each and every character in this book is expertly drawn, each with their own unique backstory, personality, and quirks. And with so many characters, that is quite a feat. After reading Penny’s story, I felt as though I’d just gained a whole new family all my own. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I still think about the people inhabiting this book. Jennifer L. Holm, you are a marvel.

First line: Me-me says that Heaven is full of fluffy white clouds and angels.

7. A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO–(a small mid-western town, 1929-1942)

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck

I adore Richard Peck. He’s prolific, infinitely wise, and one h*** of a writer. He’s crafted many great stories and countless great characters throughout his career, but my favorite story is this one, and my favorite characters are these. You cannot beat Grandma Dowdel. As Mr. Peck might write, she sure is a hoot. This isn’t a novel with a classic plot leading straight through, but more a series of humorous vignettes leading up to an overall theme. I find “Shotgun Cheatam’s Last Night Above Ground–1929” the most hilarious, and I’ll often pick up the book just to read that chapter.

First line: You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.

8. HATTIE BIG SKY–(Vida, Montana, 1917-1918)

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie is so good. Not just the book, but Hattie herself. She’s strong, independent, a survivor. She’s a feminist of sorts, bucking the system of her day to strike out on her own and stake her claim on the Montana prairie. If you haven’t, read HATTIE BIG SKY. I promise you’ll love Hattie too—the book and the girl. And once you finish, you’ll have the good fortune to be able to dive straight into HATTIE’s long-awaited sequel, HATTIE EVER AFTER, which released a few weeks ago. I happen to be reading it as we speak. Brava, Kirby Larson!

First line: Dear Charlie, Miss Simpson starts every day with a reminder to pray for you—and all the other boys who enlisted.

9. SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL–(the Kansas prairie, 1910)

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan’s use of language and imagery in this small but powerful book is brilliant. Her prose is quite spare, the story quite simple, the book quite short, but she manages to weave a vivid and very satisfying tale of a grieving family’s life on the prairie and their search for a new beginning. Distinguished indeed.

First line: “Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb.

10. AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS–(Alcatraz, 1935)

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Last, but in no way least, is Gennifer Choldenko’s story of twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan and his struggle to come to terms with his new life on Alcatraz and to find peace with his autistic sister, Natalie. I can’t recall skimming a single page in this funny and touching book. Also, in my ever-so-humble opinion, this boasts the best final page ever.

First line: Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.

So there you have them. My picks for the best historical middle grade novels. Enjoy! Which books are your top picks?

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Laura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about a young girl learning to let go and find her own way amidst the trials of the Great Depression. It is set to release from Delacorte Press/RHCB on June 11, 2013. You can find out more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter and Facebook. Laura would be delighted if you added EVERY DAY AFTER to your Goodreads reading list.

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The Unscientific Science of Naming Characters

Naming characters is one of my favorite pastimes!

For first names, my favorite method is searching through the Social Security’s name index. Did you know you can look up the thousand most popular names for any year after 1879? I typically scan the 500 most popular names for 1880, as most of my characters are in their teens in 1896. You can find loads of my characters’ names in the top 100 – Anna, Alice, Clara, Cora, Catherine, Lucy, Maud, Grace, Daisy, Pearl…but if a name just clicks, like Maura or Finn, I don’t worry overmuch about the historical validity.

Many popular names from the Victorian era sound a bit stuffy or grandmotherly to us now – Margaret, Ida, Bertha, Gertrude. Others are enjoying a renaissance, like Emma, Grace, and Lily. I tried to walk the line between the two, and I avoid names so evergreen that they’re tied to my real-life friends Elizabeth and Laura and Jenn. But mostly? There’s no science to it. A name pops into my head, or I scan the list and one jumps out at me, and unless there’s some obvious incongruence (not so many Madisons or Kayleighs), I go with it. It just has to feel right and help me convey something about the character. And not confuse the reader. I had to rename Eleanor late in the STAR CURSED editing process because it looked too similar to Elena on the page.

BORN WICKED takes place exclusively in Chatham, a small New England town, and aside from the well-established Ishidas, there isn’t much diversity. But in STAR CURSED the action moves to New London, where Cate encounters many more second and third-generation immigrants from the Spanish and Indo-Chinese territories, so we come across names like Mei and Parvati and Inez and Marco.

As for last names…before I wrote full-time, I worked as an administrative assistant at a university press setting up author royalties and paying scholars to evaluate the merits of our manuscripts, and sometimes I borrowed interesting surnames from my paperwork. I also love walking through old New England graveyards with a notebook and jotting down names that catch my attention. There are also a few shout-outs to friends: In BORN WICKED, several of the girls accused of witchery are named after my critique partners. In STAR CURSED, I’ve borrowed a few friends’ last names. And in literary homage, I totally stole the name Rilla from RILLA OF INGLESIDE, one of my favorite books – and there are convent girls named Lucy and Maud too!

How do you name YOUR characters?

Punk and Pop in the Court of Henry VIII

Way back in 2006, I saw Sofia Coppola’s brilliantly filmed Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst as the doomed queen and sporting the musical brilliance of Bow Wow Wow, Adam and the Ants, New Order, Gang of Four and the Strokes, to name a few. I was deeply enmeshed in my own study  Henry VIII and his wives at the time, trying to wrestle their characters into something I understood.  Into something maybe I could translate to fiction.

And Coppola did it for me.  If Marie Antoinette were alive today, why wouldn’t she be listening to The Cure?  And doesn’t I Want Candy perfectly illustrate a queen for whom pretty things and the wildest fashions were more important than politics?

So when I came to write GILT and TARNISH, I searched for the kinds of music that defined my characters.  Not always the kinds of music by which they would define themselves, perhaps.  I see Cat Howard in GILT as the sort of girl who would dance to Katy Perry, but I wrote her as the kind of girl Lily Allen might have been singing about in The Fear.

And Anne Boleyn in TARNISH was heavily influenced by No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl.

My playlists include everything from Florence and the Machine to Coldplay, Green Day to Mumford and Sons, Of Monsters and Men to yes, Katy Perry.  By listening to and learning from modern music, I hope I write characters who may have lived centuries ago, but are relatable to modern readers.  I do my historical research, as well, seeking out folk songs like J. Anderson Coats, and having my characters enjoy songs by Christine de Pisan and Henry VIII himself.  And like Jillian, I keep the room quiet when I write, so I can hear my characters’ voices.

But in the car and in the kitchen, I keep the radio on, waiting for the next musical inspiration.

 

Music as Process

I write best when the room is absolutely silent.  No TV, no chime of a DS game, no tumbling of clothes in the dryer, no music.  Nothing.

So when I realized the topic this week was “how music inspires your writing,” I thought uh oh, this is going to be a short post.

I realized this as I was doing the dishes and listening to this song on the iPod:


It’s a song about two sisters who both love one guy.  He strings them both along, but proposes to the younger one.  The older sister gets the younger sister to go for a walk, then pushes her into the millpond to drown not only to get the guy but also because the younger sister was always so much prettier.

Its earliest print version dates from the seventeenth century, but it was probably sung a lot earlier.

This is the sort of thing I listen to pretty much all the time when I’m not writing.  I love the storytelling quality of folk music, how primal these songs feel.  Here’s one about murder, betrayal, unrequited love, treachery, unhappiness and death:


And here’s one about taking advantage of someone and having it bite you in the backside:


These songs have a meter and language and tone to them that act as a window into the thoughts and values of people who lived in former times.  The farther back you go, the harder it is to get to ordinary people’s lived experiences, but these songs are one way we can.  They were created by the same people who enjoyed them, and even though they were tweaked and re-versioned by singers over three hundred (and more) years, these are glimpses into another world we’re not going to get in more official records.

These songs also remind me how much in common we have with people in the past.  Sure, the past is filled with people who believed in the divine right of kings and the white man’s burden and foot-binding and sati, but it was also lived by people who loved their children and made sacrifices for their families and cared for sick pets and made solid lifetime friendships.

We share a lot with historical people, and that means the past can be made relatable.  You just have to approach it in a certain way.  And to do that you have to really get into their mindset, not just dress up modern people in oldtimey clothes and have them parade around spouting modern opinions.  These songs help me get there.  They help me feel the past in a way book research really can’t.

It also doesn’t hurt that many of these songs are hilarious and/or dirty as hell.  Just like the past itself.

Romance and Courtship in the Edwardian Era: It wasn’t much fun.

One of the fascinating things about writing historical novels is researching the various rituals of romance in your chosen period.  Edwardian-era England is my favorite time, namely because it was a time of great societal change.   Love and courtship, however, remained steeped in tradition.   How and whom you married depended hugely on one factor: class.

Courting couple. Vintage postcard, 1911.Theodor Eismann Company

Courting couple. Vintage postcard, 1911.
Theodor Eismann Company

For those “upstairs,” marriage was more about keeping blood within the aristocracy pure; for the newly wealthy industrialist, a good match gave social climbing parvenus standing within Society.

In America, wealthy industrialists had amassed great fortunes, and with no Law of Primogeniture, fathers endowed their daughters with fortunes of their own.  The gentry, finding their coffers depleted, swallowed hard and married American heiresses in order to enrich their great estates.  Winston Churchill’s mother was one of these American “buccaneers.”

An upper class girl would have to wait for a formal marriage proposal until she came out (families could, however, have plans in the works before then).  Until her debut, she was all but invisible.  After that, she could receive proposals of marriage, but again, love wasn’t on top of the list of husbandly requirements. Once a wife had given birth to the heir and the spare for her husband, she was free to take a lover, perhaps falling in love for the first time.  Although taking a lover was accepted, discretion was required.  Flaunt a lover and she might find herself in divorce court and lose everything to her benighted husband, including her children.

Relationships were less stringent for the middle and working classes.  Provided they chose within their own classes, a love match could happen.  These girls usually met their sweethearts through friends, family, or at work.  Because it took awhile for men to save up enough to be able to afford a wife and family, middle class and upper working class men tended to marry later in life.  Interestingly, it was usually to a younger woman.

For those downstairs, relationships were strictly forbidden.  No followers, was the rule of the day, which meant none of the servants could have a sweetheart.  Downton Abbey’s love match between parlor maid Anna and valet, Mr. Bates, was a rare thing.  Indeed it would have been heavily frowned upon.  Should servants fall in love, they would have to leave, and most likely without a character reference (depending upon the kindness of the employer).  No reference would mean they would be unable to find work elsewhere.  The male servant might be able to stay on—if he forsook his sweetheart.  The disgraced female servant would end up out in the cold, literally.  Her only choices would be to return home or to turn to a life of a dolly mop, the name for a servant turned prostitute.

Surprisingly, for British women, lesbianism wasn’t exactly forbidden, as long as it was discreet.  Vita Sackville-West had many female lovers.  As a teen, Vita fell in love with Violet Trefusis, the daughter of Alice Keppel, who was King Edward VII’s mistress.  (Violet’s sister was the grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, born after her mother became King Edward’s mistress—ahem.)  Vita’s husband, Harold Nicholson was a secret homosexual himself.  However, for British men, all homosexual acts, including a kiss, were punishable by imprisonment of up to two years, and maybe with hard labor (Labouchere’s amendment of the Criminal Law Amendment act, 1885).

For middle to upper classes, a man must make sure to never lead a single woman on if he had no plans of marriage.  No flirtation or any shred of feeling can come from a gentleman. Even the most innocent of comments could be misconstrued by a young lady, so a man had to be very careful otherwise he might find himself with a wife he hadn’t planned on or, even worse, become disgraced in society.  Before courtship began, a man had to be very sure he wanted to marry the girl.  There was no dating for fun back in the Edwardian era.  After a couple of excursions out (with a chaperone) and calling on the girl at home, the chap was free to declare his feelings to the girl, although he had probably run the idea by her father or guardian first.

Vintage Postcard of a courting couple. The chaperone is probably near! 1910

Vintage Postcard of a courting couple. The chaperone is probably near!
1910

Woe betide the woman left on the shelf, no matter the class.  Spinsters were regarded with suspicion, and married women were higher up in the social hierarchy, no matter the class or age.  A spinster had to fall on the mercy of her family, living the life of a child forever, asking her sister’s husband or her brother for permission to do anything.  She had few rights and little say.  No wonder the suffrage movement was built largely of spinsters.  And of every class!

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Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A Mad, Wicked Folly, an Edwardian-era novel about a young artist finding her own way during the time of militant suffragettes (Viking/Penguin, Winter 2014). You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller.