Sunday, June 1, 2014

Three mistakes when you’re writing history for kids… and how to turn them around.


(a guest post by Amanda)

Yawn. Is that your reaction when you think about history books?

Now think about the challenge of writing it. How can you make important facts into an interesting read?

This may be easier to do in the much adored genre of historical fiction where a writer is free to fill in some gaps and develop lovable characters, but don’t worry – even in non-fiction, you can still create great stories.

While you’ll still need to be creative in writing non-fiction history books for kids that make them want to read and learn, here are some things you should avoid.

1. Anachronisms

You wouldn’t have a Biblical character glance at his wristwatch… but what about Ben Franklin? What about Helen Keller?  Okay, there are a few other problems with that last example, but the take-away here is simple:

Don’t place inventions, phrases, or beliefs into eras of history where they do not belong.

Even in historical fiction, writers must keep in mind that children are learning from what we put down.

If we have our character drive his truck out west in 1850, kids are going to believe it. Create a realistic and accurate setting for your writing that will transport the reader into the past in such a captivating way that they do not even realize that they are learning.

Do your research. Writing for children should be less complex, but no less accurate that writing for an older audience.

2. Over Simplification

Let’s go back to Helen Keller for a second. Why was she famous? Because she was blind? Lots of people are blind. Because she was deaf-blind? Again, lots of people.

Her life’s mission – to end poverty and inequality and radically improve workers’ conditions – is too often eliminated from kids’ books because it’s complicated and, yeah, controversial. You read kids’ biographies for her life and walk away knowing about her disability and not much more. 

Helen Keller became famous because of her shocking and articulate quest for social justice – yet too few kids’ books capture even a droplet of her often-controversial commitment to those causes.

Depending on what age you are writing for, some aspects of history may be too explicit or sensitive to go into great detail. For example, I wouldn’t write about World War II in the same detail for 8-year-olds as I would for 12-year-olds.

However, if we “dumb down” history too much it will fail to make the impact or tell the entire story. Why exactly was Helen Keller famous again?

While young children may not be ready for graphic descriptions of sex or violence, we should not sugarcoat historical events to the extent that children wonder why they are a big deal.

3. Failing to Excite

Quick: list all the non-fiction history books you read and loved as a child.

If you’re like most people, it’s a pretty short list. Sad, isn’t it?

Children’s nonfiction has the power to instill a lifelong love of history or to turn them off completely. The last thing young people want to read is something that sounds like a textbook. They get plenty of that at school.

Even when working with the facts, you can be creative, use an exciting voice, and inject the book with fun facts that they may not have heard anywhere else.

Put the story back in history with personal tales or old letters that paint a picture of the past in a way that they can relate to and allows them to envision themselves there. Create a longing in them to learn more.

Does history writing for kids need to be dull? What do you think?


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