Owning History

My son doesn’t like going to my book events. This is because he’s fifteen. But it’s also because invariably someone will ask him what he thought of his mother’s book and he will have to shuffle and mutter, “I haven’t read it.”

This doesn’t hurt my feelings. Every book doesn’t have to appeal to every single person. But the easy thing for him to do would be to just bite the dang bullet and read the book. (Or lie, but apparently this hasn’t occurred to him.) But he hasn’t read it, and he doesn’t plan to.

He knows what it’s about, though. After hearing me natter on about it over the dinner table and sitting through all those panel discussions and bookstore presentations, he can’t not know. I have to assume he’s just not interested, and I have to be okay with that.

But last week, something weird happened.

Box o' Paperbacks

My son invited a friend over to hang out. My author copies for the paperback version of THE WICKED AND THE JUST had arrived recently and were still in the living room, and as the boys headed toward the kitchen to load up on cold pizza and Mountain Dew, my son paused and gestured to the box.

“That’s my mom’s book,” he said to his friend. “You should read it.”

“What’s it about?” the friend asked me.

Here’s what I almost said: “Don’t let the cover fool you. You never get to choose your own cover. It’s really about abuse of power. And people getting what’s coming to them. Oh, and there’s a body count.”

And a weird lightbulb went off.

Even those of us who find value and meaning in the past are sometimes afraid to own history. We’ve already decided that kids won’t be interested in “that stuff” so we feel the need to carefully insulate the real content, obscuring it with elements of the story we feel are more engaging, and trick them into giving the book a try.

I get this. I do. School doesn’t help by reducing history to “social studies” and putting the whole subject at arm’s length. It’s sanitized and dull and often taught by Coach like it’s some kind of afterthought, full of antique people who spoke in thees and thous and wore things like waistcoats and didn’t know enough to wash their hands. At best it’s trivia; at worst, it’s irrelevant.

The more I thought about it, standing there with a box of my books at my feet, the more I realized that one of the big reasons I write historical fiction in the first place is to get kids to unlearn this implied disdain for and disconnect with the past. And the first way to do that is not to be ashamed of the past and my decision to set a story there.

Kids are more than willing to plunge themselves into secondary worlds that are remarkably similar to the sordid landscape of history. They devour GAME OF THRONES and THE HUNGER GAMES and revel in the darkness and struggle and complexity. Our shared human past has got that stuff in spades. It’s my job to shine a light on it. It’s my job to make it real and true and relevant. And then it’s my job to stand behind it.

“Medieval teenagers behaving badly,” I told him, and I smiled.

“Huh,” he said. “That could be cool.”

And up the stairs they went, loaded down with half the fridge.

I have high hopes.

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About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

7 thoughts on “Owning History

  1. OH! Great post, Jillian! So well said!

  2. YES! Here’s to making history more than just an afterthought. (Also? I cannot WAIT to get my hands on one of those paperbacks.)

  3. Cat Winters says:

    I love your response, Jillian! Perfect!

  4. That is a whole pile of awesome.

  5. Fantastic post, Jillian! 🙂

  6. Laura Golden says:

    I’m in looove with this post, Jillian. I kept nodding in agreement. Brava!

  7. This post is outstanding–own that history! You go!

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