In May of this year, The Nation’s Report Card reported that the average U.S. history score for eighth graders in 2022 was five points lower than the last assessment in 2018. In other words, students don’t know history like they used to.
There are many causes, from forced school closures to the quality of today’s curriculums and teachers. There are also other, less regarded factors that have undoubtedly contributed as well. Namely, as a lifelong reader and almost a decade as a writer, I’ve noticed a glaring deficit in my industry; compared to other genres, there’s not a lot of historical fiction published for teens. Goodreads unofficial list of “The Most Popular Young Adult Books of the Year (So Far)” features only one historical fiction — more romance than historical, as per usual — set in the early 1900s.
Anyone who’s ever read a book that’s made them think, laugh, cry, feel, knows the power of words and the power of stories. We know that communities aren’t only bound by location and meetinghouses but also by the stories we share. Stories as parables. Stories to frame social discussions. Stories to portray heroes and courage and friendship and wisdom to live by. For better or worse, there’s something about books that makes information seem more real and factual. They give authority to arguments. They give space to expand upon and discuss ideas. They allow for conglomerations and variations, argument refutations, and building upon previous works.
There’s not one genre more relevant than others in reaping the benefits of stories, because each has its own angle of approach. Even before “Star Trek,” Science fiction long regarded itself as a genre that explores complex social issues from the safety of future and space. Fantasy heightens imagination, widens dreams, and showcases different uses and abuses of power. And so on. Historical fiction, of course, is a gateway to the past.
Uninterested Literary Agents
I grew up reading historical fiction, so when I noticed the discrepancy, I floated the question to various individuals in the book world and asked them why historical fiction wasn’t as popular or supported by the publishing industry the way it once was.
Answers weren’t always direct, and included vague ideas of the industry shifting over time, the claim that historical fiction doesn’t sell, and that historical fiction can’t be published without mixing in fantasy, which isn’t really historical fiction at all.
While the first answer is probably the truest, especially at a time when nonfiction for younger readers is getting more attention, a better answer can be found with the gatekeepers themselves. Agents are the key to large publishing companies, those with marketing budgets and pipelines to schools, libraries, and book fairs. As so many people want to publish in so few slots, agents champion manuscripts to publishers in an attempt to gain a coveted spot in a season’s limited catalog. Considering the work that goes into a project — about two years on average — agents have to really like a book to take it on. Fortunately, agents are usually pretty clear about what sorts of projects appeal to them. As a general idea, there’s some sense to the system. Unless the system is shutting out certain types of projects.
So, let’s amend. It’s not that historical fiction is no longer published, it’s that the relatively few openings are designated for rather particular types of history. First, history is rewritten with fantastical elements or really a fantasy set in a historical setting. History is also rewritten altogether with “gender swaps” of key historical figures (e.g., King Arthur as a girl) or modern issues and ways of thinking implanted into characters from the past.
It’s enough to convince a young reader that praiseworthy women were always champions of feminist ideals, that every century grappled with the same racism spoken of today, and that every noble family had a progressive daughter who wanted everyone to be equal. All of which bends more toward fantasy than history. (Netflix’s adaptation of the highly engaging, highly beloved classic Anne of Green Gables, “Anne with an E,” was rendered unwatchable with the imposition of modern sensibilities not found in the book such as racism, sexuality, and feminism.)
Second, many agents willing to take on historical projects specify only “non-Western” historical fiction, fables, settings, etc. Ostensibly, the purpose is to write something new and increase the range of stories available to readers. Which would be a good thing if the “inclusivity box” had been widened, instead of merely shifted away from the Western world.
Third, only particular time periods with particular types of protagonists make the cut. If you’re an adult reader, you may have noticed the oversaturation of World War II stories on historical fiction shelves. Notably, these aren’t usually Holocaust stories (though those usually get published, too), but “untold” stories about the women of the war. Victorian England. The latter half of the 1900s. The occasional Greek gods and mythology, a dash from ancient India or Arabia, and that basically covers the entire range of historical fiction on offer. Moreover, any historical reference during war, tyranny, or other trying times is usually a simple narrative of “evil man was bad” instead of an introduction into some of the social and political complexities that encourage any particular event or era to come about.
Fiction Captures What Academics Cannot
Next time you’re near a bookstore, drop in and skim the YA shelves. Or go online and check the top sellers of any given month. See what the stories are about. See what’s on the cover. See which other tags have been added to describe the book, and see how many are true historical fiction.
That’s not to say no one ever writes a unique story from different points in history, it’s to say they are singular. Graham Moore’s novel about “electrifying” America, The Last Days of Night, was a New York Times bestseller, which shows that historical fiction can sell, and sell well. All kinds of genres could and should exist, but more accurate accounts from all parts of history should also be published for readers. As much as students may learn in the school, there’s no arguing that an intriguing historical fiction can capture them in ways academics cannot. And once fiction becomes the hook, the world of nonfiction is open to them.
Like anyone, teens will pursue information about things they care about, and what better way to get them to understand what we went through to get to this point, what life was like before, and what was endured to build society, than connecting to a character living and dealing in the nuances of those times?
Let young readers imagine themselves in the shoes of their historical counterparts. Let them draw courage from those who fought and endured and dedicated themselves to something bigger. Let them live through characters who have to make tough choices because history isn’t black and white, but a whole gradient of gray. And, once they’re interested, let them go looking for more. See if they don’t get better at understanding history then.