It may seem like a silly question to ask, but defining just what is historical fiction illustrates the complexity of this genre. On the surface, it's any novel set in the past. But dig a little deeper, and you start seeing different questions.
Memoir vs. Historical Fiction?
Many authors are inspired by their personal histories when writing historical fiction. But if an author is not careful, their novel may seem more like a thinly-disguised memoir. For this reason, some experts like Sarah Johnson disqualify as historical fiction any novel set during the author's lifetime. However, greater flexibility might be the order of the day when discussing young adult historical fiction. After all, an author's story about coming of age during the Vietnam War, partly inspired by the author's own experiences, would be historical fiction to most teens who were not alive during that period. It seems that what's more important is whether the reader can be exposed to an engaging story with authentic historical details. If those details were part of the author's life and are backed up with research, then perhaps it doesn't matter how the author was inspired to use such facts.
What is "the past?"
As any adult who has read Beloit College's Mindset List, what is recent memory for us can be the distant past for teenagers. The oldest teenagers today were not alive during the 1980s for example. Therefore, a novel about the fall of the Berlin Wall or the fight against apartheid could be a little-known event to many teens. When it comes to teens, historical fiction is a moving target. The cut-off point inches forward as each year passes. This injects a special quality into YA historical fiction: it is always expanding, beyond the new titles released by publishers. Thus, teen readers can be exposed to books that are new to them, although not recently published.
Is it true?
Often when reading a historical novel, the reader is left questioning just what is true or historically accurate. Sometimes, it's an easy process, especially if the novel is a mash-up. It's unlikely that Queen Victoria was attacked by an evil wizard, much less saved by the magical Leland sisters, as seen in Bewitching Season. However, sometimes this fact-checking reveals the tensions between writing history and writing a novel. Would a young noblewoman be capable of keeping a diary and express her opinions, as occurs in Catherine, Called Birdy? Would a slave like Isabel be willing to spy on her white owner, like in Chains? If the author does not know the answer to these questions, it is likely that the reader will be able to realize it as they read the novel. Children and teens, however, are not always able to make this distinction. This isn't to say that we should remove well-written books from our libraries because the history is suspect. It does mean, though, that as librarians we should be willing to offer up other resources to complement a work of historical fiction. By looking for these extra resources, you help your patrons answer this question.
Historical fiction is a rich, diverse genre, full of compelling books that meld engaging characters with their historical setting. This genre is also cluttered with titles that offer clunky exposition, inaccurate history, or worst of all, are just plain boring. It's important therefore to be aware of what's out there. Whether it's by your own personal favorites, raves from the blogosphere, or from reader's advisory guides, researching historical fiction will let you separate the wheat from the chaff. Historical fiction doesn't have to be stuffy or staid; it can have as many thrills as a horror novel or as many forbidden relationships as the latest paranormal romance. The posts on librarian by day this month will help you explore this type of fiction, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. If you're eager for more, look at databases such as Novelist, review reader's advisory lists on Amazon or library websites, or pre-order a copy of Historical Fiction for Teens: A Genre Guide. Enjoy your time in the past!