|Roman Nine Muses frieze, Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons|
The panel of professionals, ably chaired by Kevin Crossley-Holland, consisted of Sarah Odedina (formerly Children's Publisher at Bloomsbury and Hot Key and now with Pushkin Children's Books); Ruth Logan (ex-Bloomsbury and now Rights Director at Hot Key) and Dawn Finch (Librarian and President of CILIP)
This is my account of the meeting. Sadly, Marketing was not represented, as the result of a last minute cancellation but the experience and skills of this panel were considerable. Kevin, currently the Honorary President of the School Library Association, is a poet, novelist, opera librettist and translator, who has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Book Award with historical fiction for children.
|Photo credit: Mjosefsson Creative Commons|
He also read us, complete with cold, W H Auden's Roman Wall Blues, which begins
"Over the heather the wet wind blows
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose"
to remind us of the importance of vesting story in individual people - a theme which was frequently returned to in the course of the evening.
He then asked each panellist for a short overview of whether historical fiction for children is in crisis.
Dawn Finch (DF) began by saying that it was a common belief that it went in and out of fashion in children's publishing but she believed that the kind of child who reads historical fiction is a wider reader anyway. She felt that the teaching of history in schools was focussed on differences whereas fiction took the opposite approach.
Sarah Odedina (SO) was reluctant to consider historical fiction as separate from any other form of great storytelling. She cited Celia Rees's Witch Child, which was successful primarily because of a compelling central character.
Ruth Logan (RL), who has to sell translation rights, frequently speaks to scouts and has found the popular periods to be the Holocaust, Ancient Greece and Rome, the Slave Trade, the two World Wars, maybe the French Revolution. "But nothing works without a wonderful story."
Kevin Crossley-Holland (K C-H) said we needed to "step into the heads and hearts" of our characters. He wanted to know if we were doing enough ruthlessly to expose children to today's realities. Or were just concentrating on SF and fantasy.
RL: Fantasy is "Future Historical."
DF thought that in times or Recession and Depression readers want SF and nostalgia.
SO believes that Historical Fiction can allow the author to present a mirror to the world and show political realities in an apparently safe and distant past. It has a role in mediating the present through the past.
RL thought it wasn't just a matter of period: there is a market for the mix of history with a magical or fantastic element.
Martin Reed of the Society of Authors asked a question on behalf of a member who could not attend, Ilona Aronovsky. This was about who are the heroes and villains of history, since history is contentious.
K C-H said that recent literature had taken a Marxist view of telling stories "from the bottom up." It began with Bows against the Barons by Geoffrey Trease.
SO thought there was still a problem with telling the stories of certain people and not others. What is "our point of view"?We could do with more experimentation in form.
RL thought it was an exciting time with all kinds of different voices but SO thought there was still a white male bias although it was being challenged. And SO thought the publishing industry was really trying.
DF thought that historians might fear we were diluting history by giving alternative versions but history is not a science. When she grew up everyone "knew" that Tutankhamun was murdered and that Shakespeare invented Richard the Third's curved spine.
RL says it must open the imagination of the child and SO said it must humanise history.
Rus Madon asked about which historical writing was more accessible for which age range of readers. But SO repeated that historical fiction was no more difficult than any other literature. It all came back to compelling stories.
DF referenced the National Curriculum and said that 7-11 year-olds were studying Greeks, Romans and Egyptians and wanted immediacy and glamour - big themes. By eleven they will have studied the 1930s. And RL talked about the importance of the book's jacket. DF agreed and said it was the whole package - after all "who goes into a restaurant without reading the menu first?"
K C-H asked how much publishing was curriculum driven and SO said she never thinks about that and didn't even know what was on the curriculum! This was widely welcomed.
DF asked the publishers if fiction set in the Victorian period sold well, mentioning that it hadn't been on the curriculum for many years. And RL said they would mention to Sales Reps if the subject was on the curriculum.
Candy Gourlay mentioned cultural appropriation and asked if it meant she should write only about Philipino characters and situations. SO could sympathise with the position when she received submissions where the author hadn't close experience of the group he was writing about.
RL said it was about opening doors.
This was the night that the Carnegie and Greenaway Medal shortlists were announced and K C-H asked when a historical novel was last shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal but was reminded that Tanya Landman's Buffalo Soldier wasx a recent winner.
Catherine Johnson, author of Princess Carabou, Sawbones etc. said the problem wasn't prizes but sales. It's harder to sell "alternative voices" overseas, where publishers often wanted a Downton Abbey or Quality Street view of British history.
|Battle of the Somme, Downton Abbey Series 2|
RL said we must look at books which transcend the period. Not having an Elizabethan on the cover is a good idea. SO agreed that sales were hard but ALL sales were hard. Far too much is published - fantasy, contemporary and dystopian fiction were all equally hard.
There was a question about when "history" begins - something we have discussed a lot on the History Girls. The usual definition is that historical fiction must be set at least a generation ago.
SO added that to a ten year old anything that happened twenty years ago is unimaginable.
Lydia Syson asked about the role of school librarians as the greatest champions of historical fiction. DF was the obvious panellist to talk about this and said that no-one read more than a school librarian. She had read forty books this year already. Parents were difficult to persuade to part with £7.99 for a book.
Linda Edwardes-Evans said that unfortunately many teachers did not read themselves and the books they were using with children were not recent. DF gave a shout out to Barrington Stoke's list with a lot of historical fiction in it. Their catalogue would reach teachers. She believed every school needed a "book expert" even if not a librarian.
There was a question about comedy in historical fiction and all the panel agreed we needed more funny books - full stop!
K C-H mentioned we hadn't touched on the influence of TV and series like A Game of Thrones. And RL added films like The Pirates of the Caribbean.
After a brief discussion about poetry, which might be adding another difficult dimension to presenting titles to the Sales teams, K C-H asked us all to nominate favourite recent historical novels.
This followed on from SO's rallying cry that you should publish only the books you felt passionate about.
My choice was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Someone chose Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. Following Ophelia by Sophia Bennett was Catherine Johnson's choice and someone else called out Morris Gleitzman's books and Eve Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea.
The panel's choices were Catherine Johnson's own Princess Carabou, Celia Rees's Witch Child and Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon.
|Kevin talking to Margaret Pemberton before the panel|
Thanks to Celia Rees for swapping posting days with me; Celia will post on 1st April
(Past Imperfect? was the brainchild of Histeria, a group of children’s and YA historical writers - and was a response to the difficulties many writers find getting their work published now.)