Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What we're reading: Historical fiction for everyone

Every year at the middle and high schools in Burbank, one (or more) teacher assigns students to read a work of historical fiction. Historical fiction is not the most popular genre in YA literature or at Burbank Public Library; but because of this assignment, we try to keep a good selection of it on hand so you have options when it comes time to read some, and we publish a book list to feature those options. We are in the process of updating that book list, and it should be out in all library branches within two weeks or so. (If anyone can tell us when, exactly, that assignment happens during the school year, we would be grateful!)

In the meantime, if you would like to access the old list online, you can go to our "Have You Read?" book lists on the library website. The teen book lists are here, and the historical fiction list is called "Tripping Through Time." (They are listed in alphabetical order, so it's near the bottom.) We plan to change that name for the next version, because that one sounds more like time travel (for which we also have a book list here!).

(You may notice that, as librarians, we are not quite as stringent in our definition of historical fiction as some teachers might be; we provided you with some mystery, a hint of the paranormal, a few pirates, and some Gossip Girls of the 17th Century while making our list! It's up to you to get approval--but why not try?)

There are, however, works of historical fiction for teens that rise to the top of teen fiction in general, and are wildly popular. One of my favorites that is also a favorite teen pick is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, in which the Devil is the narrator of a story about an orphan girl and the family who take her in, in the midst of World War II madness. This past week, I read another that may supersede that book on my greatest hits list, and not just for teenagers; Anarda read the book when it first came out, and has been nagging, er, encouraging me to read it ever since. Since I was looking for good examples of historical fiction for a class I'll be teaching in January, I finally got around to it. That book is Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.

The book starts out a little confusingly. It's about two young women in World War II England, mostly before America has entered the war. One of the women is a spy; the other one is a pilot. Together, they make a great team. But the team has been split up; one of them has fallen into Nazi custody, and is being tortured to write down every detail she can dredge up about the British War Effort. She decides to write it down not from her own point of view but from that of her friend's. It took me a while to get comfortable with the way the narrative switches around, but once I did, I was riveted.

I can say almost nothing about this book without giving away significant details that you should be allowed to discover on your own. I will say that the first half of the book is heart-breaking, but by the time you get to the twist in the middle, you are no longer reading the story, you are living it. I am not an emotional reader, but this book made me weep, both with sorrow and with joy. This story may be among the best I have read (and as you can see from the column of books from Goodreads at the left, I have read a lot of books!).

The other thing I have to say about this book is that I do NOT understand why it was marketed and sold as a Young Adult title. Will some teens love this book? Absolutely--to the level of The Book Thief and beyond. Is it a teen book? Not in the least, as far as I am concerned. At least in The Book Thief there is a young protagonist that might justify that work being marketed to teens; that is not the case here. All the characters (except for a few extremely peripheral ones who are mentioned once in passing) are definitely adults, albeit young (early to mid 20s). I find myself saddened by the undoubted fact that Code Name Verity has been marginalized from finding its full audience by being marketed solely to teens, because this book deserves to be widely read.

Adults out there--recommend this to your teens, and then read it yourselves...and give it to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus!

As I said, I'm not giving away any spoilers. But I will say...the hand through the bulkhead. That is all.

Editor's note: If you read and enjoy Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein has written two other historical fiction books about female pilots: Rose Under Fire, and Black Dove White Raven. Try them as well--I'm going to!

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