Kid Lit Authors (Re)Make History

Contrary to what most historical novels depict, people from marginalized groups have existed throughout the ages, and their stories were not solely ones of hardship. These authors—Daniel José Older, Stacey Lee, Mackenzi Lee, Melanie Gillman—are correcting that representation in historical fiction.

Pterodactyl rides, ferry-pulling brachiosaurs, and dino poop jokes galore—no one can accuse Daniel José Older of writing dull fare. Set in New York City during the Civil War, in a world where dinosaurs and humans coexist, his “Dactyl Hill Squad” series (Scholastic) follows children from the Colored Orphan Asylum as they work to prevent their friends, who have been kidnapped, from being sold into slavery.

Though historical fiction has proven a strong fit for Older, as a child he was alienated

Daniel Jose Older headshot
Daniel José Older. Photo by Kevin Kane

by the genre.

“A lot of it seemed stale or overly sugary; a lot felt like propaganda,” he says. “And whenever people of color showed up, which was rarely, the stories seemed exclusively about pain, defeat, hardship—almost never victory.”

So Older writes dynamic characters of color, such as Magdalys Roca, an Afro-Cuban girl who can communicate with dinosaurs, and David Ballantine, who’s based on activist and abolitionist David Ruggles. Older doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors of history but adds, “I want our kids to be able to see themselves as capable of heroism and adventure even in the face of adversity.”

Older isn’t the only kid lit author redefining historical fiction. Other novelists are pushing boundaries, showing that despite what students may be learning in school, people from marginalized groups had pivotal roles in history.

Stacey Lee wants readers to know that reality is far more complex than textbooks might indicate. Her YA novel The Downstairs Girl (Putnam) takes place in 1890 and centers on a Chinese American teen, Jo Kuan, who anonymously writes an advice column that has all of Atlanta buzzing. Chafing against racism and sexism, Jo wants to fight for women’s suffrage, but white suffragists are hostile to her and the black women attempting to join the movement.

Lee finds intersectionality, the idea coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw that multiple forms of oppression such as racism and sexism overlap, vital to understanding history. “Without an intersectional lens, we might be lulled into believing that women were all in the same boat when we weren’t,” says Lee. “Historical fiction can give us a more accurate picture of history, by allowing us to ‘hear’ the voices of people who never got to tell their stories.”

It’s also important, Older says, that historical fiction depicts LGBTQ+ characters. One of the heroes of “Dactyl Hill Squad” is Redd, a trans man, and though some consider these identities to be new, the author wants readers to know that transgender and nonbinary people have always existed. “It’s mind-boggling to think that folks have become so entrenched in this very particular, very societal-based, and very destructive binary idea of gender that they ignore all the many other cultures, both ancient and modern, who have managed to conceive of gender in a more honest, more complex, and more humane way—not to mention all the people they ignore.”

Mackenzi Lee’s books also offer rich portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters. Her YA novel The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks.) centers on Monty, a bisexual white 18th-century teenager embarking on a “grand tour” throughout Europe while falling for his best friend Percy, who’s black. Though Monty endures beatings from his father, who’s enraged that his son refuses to stop “mucking around with boys,” Lee was determined to give Monty and Percy a happy ending—a conclusion that isn’t necessarily anachronistic.

“There have been moments in history where queer people were able to be visible,” she says. While many assume that being gay meant a life of oppression, Lee stresses that in the past, just like today, factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status all impacted queer people’s lives. There was no single queer experience. The true story of Charity and Sylvia, two women living in colonial America who fell in love and married, is a triumphant queer story that resonates with her.

And though the idea of a queer identity and words such as lesbian or gay may be relatively recent, Lee often returns to a quote from Anne Lister, an out lesbian woman living in 18th-century England: “I know my own heart.” Says Lee, “Even before people had that vocabulary, or before people had that understanding of sexuality, they knew their own hearts.”

Melanie Gillman headshot
Melanie Gillman

Similarly, with Stage Dreams (Lerner), Melanie Gillman demonstrates that queer people throughout history have thrived. In Gillman’s middle grade graphic novel, which takes place during the Civil War in the New Mexico Territory, romance blossoms between Grace, a young trans woman fleeing conscription by the Confederate Army, and Flor, a bandit rumored to be half woman, half bird.

Researching life in the 19th-century American West presented some challenges. A search through newspaper archives for terms like lesbian or trans wouldn’t bring back results, so Gillman had to look more carefully. Sometimes they found accounts of two women eloping or of trans people who after death were outed by doctors or clergy members.

“These people actually had pretty supportive communities around them,” Gillman says. “A lot of them had families, they had spouses and partners and children. They had friends and neighbors and coworkers. Oftentimes, there was kind of a network of people around them who knew what was going on and just accepted it, in a way that’s not too distinct from the kind of communities that queer people build around themselves these days.”

Many see history as a straightforward progression from closed-minded attitudes to more accepting perspectives. “But I think that the timeline is a little messier than a lot of people believe it is, and there were more cases than one would expect of queer and trans people who were happy and well adjusted,” says Gillman.

A more inclusive approach is especially important, Gillman says, because for so long contemporary fiction about LGBTQ+ characters ended on dire notes, with protagonists forcibly outed, disowned, or humiliated. Though Gillman acknowledges that reality was often bleak, there were, and are, happy alternatives. They hope that Stage Dreams will spur readers to consider “what their queer and trans ancestors’ lives might have been like and how that might be different than the mainstream narrative.”

While these authors explore a variety of perspectives and settings, all want readers, especially those from marginalized groups, to have a stronger sense of their own history.

“When a young reader simply can’t find themselves in stories, they turn away,” says Older. “That’s bad enough when we’re talking about fantasy, but when we’re telling kids the lie that their people played no role in the history of this country—that’s a whole other level of erasure. I’m happy to see that changing these days and to be part of that change.”

Author Image
Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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