This could be a simplistic post.
It could bemoan the lack of diversity in YA literature in general, and YA historical fiction in specific.
It could list a bunch of writers who are working to combat the trend. Writers like Christopher Paul Curtis, Saundra Mitchell, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Mitali Perkins, Caroline Starr Rose, Debby Dahl Edwardson, Alan Gratz.
(I wanted to put them in here because it’s important to shine light where light belongs, to combat the idea that we here in histficland just write about white girls doing white-girl things in white-girl places wearing pretty white-girl dresses.)
It could dutifully list out titles of books that feature people of color that are set in the past. That’s diversity, right?
This could be a simplistic post, but really, why do we need another white girl talking about diversity and how much we need it? Plenty of people for whom second-class citizenship is a lived reality are saying some really smart things about the cost of a homogenous white narrative.
So I’m going to try really hard not to make this a simplistic post. I’m a historian. I’ve got the letters after my name to prove it. But even if I wasn’t, I can see the problem is not just in fiction.
Fiction is a symptom.
The problem is the assumptions we make about the past. The problem is how the past is presented to us, especially as young people, since this determines how we understand the past.
The problem is in the narratives constructed by human beings that claim to be a source of truth. Because there is no one source of truth. There is only evidence and the narratives we construct based on this evidence.
It determines which narratives about the past we’re exposed to. Which ones we develop an attachment to. Which ones we consider real and viable and valuable.
This is a problem fiction can address.
Fiction can change how we interface with the past. It can change how we understand the past, see the past, experience the past.
This is why it’s not enough to simply have more historical fiction with characters of color. We need those stories too, but we need characters of color who are gay, autistic, bipolar, deaf, religious. We need characters of every color who reflect the ridiculously vast range of human lived experience, especially when they’re set in contexts that emphasize their humanity rather than the problematic nature of their time and place in history.
Especially when they’re about kids.
Fiction can be the thin edge of the wedge. Fiction is a space where people are receptive to new ideas, where we’re already ready to suspend some level of literary disbelief to enjoy a story.
Historical fiction is the best place for character to meet narrative. For people to see the past as something alive, something not trapped in amber and static. Historical fiction is the best place to bring people in.
And if we’re gonna bring people in, we’ve got to bring everyone in.
A lot of people like historical fiction because it brings the past alive. So those of us who write it have a responsibility to bring the past alive in all its infinite complexity.
This is the kind of work fiction can do. This is the kind of work fiction should do.