Pia Ceres was LEE & LOW’s summer intern. She is a recipient of the We Need Diverse Books Internship Program grant. She’s a senior at Brown University, where she studies Education & Comparative Literature, with a focus in French literature. When she’s not reading, you can find her watching classic horror movies from under a blanket, strumming pop songs on her ukulele, and listening to her grandparents’ stories about the Philippines. In this blog post, she asks the question “can fiction be a pathway to fact?” while looking at YA historical fiction.
High school students in Providence, Rhode Island, rallied in January to launch a campaign called #OurHistoryMatters, advocating for greater representation of the contributions of people of color in history curricula. Like many urban school districts, Providence serves a diverse student body where 74% of students identify as Black or Latino and 17% as Native American. Yet when student activists studied an American history textbook used in their school district, they reported that out of nearly 2,000 pages, fewer than 100 mentioned people of color.
Further studies indicate that the lack of representation manifests not only in page count, but in content. Analyses of American history textbooks indicate a bias toward contributions of white Americans, while African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans are relegated to limited appearances in the narrative.
We expect textbooks to give an accurate and thorough representation of history. But when a textbook places people of color in “supporting” roles, it minimizes the achievements of nonwhite Americans and suggests that the history of America is a predominantly white one. For various and systemic reasons, the books that come to students’ hands leave stories marginalized or untold entirely. And students, like those in Providence Public Schools, take notice.
While the #OurHistoryMatters movement is focused on implementing an ethnic studies curriculum, one resource for learning about the little-known histories is already in libraries and bookstores: Young adult historical fiction.
Recent YA historical fiction titles have dared to explore what textbooks leave out. Long recognized as an exciting, accessible means for adolescents to engage with history, the genre is beginning to play a critical role in bringing to light stories from outside of the dominant narrative – stories about the achievements of women and people of color, or of racial injustices.
Author Guadalupe García McCall was inspired to write her latest novel, Shame the Stars (Tu Books), when her son was studying the 1915 rebellions in Southern Texas for a college history course. McCall was shocked to learn of the consequences of the Mexican Revolution for Tejanos, Mexican Americans living in Southern Texas – and she was even more appalled that students did not learn about this time period in schools.
“Young adults are unaware of where some of our biggest problems come from, the source of cultural aggressions from one group for another,” she says. “They don’t know our historical struggles as well as they should because the history taught in American schools is mottled, censored, even missing from their textbooks. To understand, racism, discrimination, and cultural biases, we need to know our own history.”
It should be noted that YA, including historical fiction, has not always been so inclusive. CNN reports that although YA is currently experiencing “a golden age” of diverse authors and voices, books that feature protagonists of color or LGBTQ+ characters remain sparse. The literary landscape is slow to change, and lasting change depends on the continuing efforts of authors and publishers to combat the systemic problem of representation.
Furthermore, YA historical fiction books can’t replace dedicated teachers, an inquiry-based social studies curriculum, or an ethnic studies course. These are critical elements to an adolescent’s understanding of history. Books can, however, be a window into larger conversations on the foundations of America’s identity and its implications on our present.
For this reason, YA historical fiction inspires critical engagement that enriches all readers’ thinking about history, not just readers in the cultural minority. Using the framework of the past, the genre challenges consumerism, individual sovereignty, justice – salient subjects that adolescents actively question and explore.
Whether in the classroom library or the home bookshelf, YA historical fiction lends voices to those who were silenced in the past so that today’s adolescents can take on their important, informed, and empowered roles in shaping our future.
Below are a few books that present windows into history. You can find more books that have historical settings and/or highlight indigenous cultures and the issues they face on our Tu Books Pinterest board or with our Indigenous People’s Day/Columbus Day YA Collection.
Shame the Stars, Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Joaquín del Toro and Dulceña Villa fall in love and come of age at a time of racial tensions between Tejanos and the notorious Texas Rangers. While the political intrigue and secret romance appear familiar, this retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in Southern Texas in 1915, takes its own dramatic turns.
Purchase the book here.
Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee
Samantha, a Chinese American girl accused of murder, and Annamae, an African American girl escaping slavery, are on the run. It’s the 1840s, and their only hope of fleeing Missouri is to go west in this powerful story of trust and friendship.
X, Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon
Malcolm Little leaves his hometown for the first time as a teenager. He will later become known as civil rights activist Malcolm X. Shabazz and Magoon render a fictional interpretation of Malcolm’s teenage years, well-grounded in history and filled with piercing insight.
House of Purple Cedar, Tim Tingle
A hate crime in 1896 kills 20 Choctaw schoolgirls in a fire at a settlement in Oklahoma. In this haunting novel, a community reels and must deal with hatred, fear, and finding a path to healing.
To learn more about the Providence students’ #OurHistoryMatters movement, see their petition on change.org. Do you have a favorite YA historical fiction novel? Tell us about it in the comments below!