The winners for the big children’s book awards have been announced, and this year, history won.

The most exciting news is that Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters, Sweet Ladies has won the Newbery!  This terrific, original book is a series of dramatic monologues from characters in a medieval village.   It’s a surprise and a pleasure to find that such an unusual book, and a history book at that, was this year’s winner. (If you’d like to read more about the judging, Monica Edinger, who served on this year’s Newbery committee, has been writing thoughtfully about the process all year.) Schlitz, a librarian at a progressive private school in Baltimore, wrote the monologues for fifth graders doing a unit on the middle ages, and was persuaded to send the book in to publishers.  Schlitz is also the author of one of my favorite books of 2006, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, about spiritualists, ghosts and orphans around the turn of the century (what’s not to like?).
One of the Honor books (and the Coretta Scott King medal winner), Elijah of Buxton, is also a historical, as is The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the genre-busting illustrated novel which won the Caldecott.

This indicates not necessarily that better historical fiction is being written, but that excellent historical fiction for kids can be acclaimed and honored as much as fantasy or realistic fiction.  Hopefully this will spur the publishing of better historical fiction for kids, rather than “kids’ historical novels getting a pass,” not being subject to real critical scrutiny, as Gail Gauthier has suggested.  And as Roger Sutton recently noted, historical fiction can seem just as exotic as fantasy to kids. So why is it not as widely read and widely sold?   There’s an air of stodginess that clings to historical fiction as much as it does to our small museums.  Let’s air it out.  Historical fiction is perhaps the most visible and widely distributed genre of public history, and we should be reading, recommending, supporting, and even writing it!


Adrienne Kress, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (Weinstein Books, 2007)

I had thought that, unlike librarians, local history folks didn’t have any real stereotypes to combat, that we suffered from obscurity rather than an image problem.  But here comes Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, a swashbuckling middle-grade fantasy, to prove me wrong.  Shushing is nothing to the fear that you’re going to kidnap people and make them give you foot massages.

Alex lives above her uncle’s doorknob shop and attends the prestigious Wigpowder-Steele Academy.  But trouble arrives in the form of thugs searching for her beloved sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Underwood, who is actually the heir to the fortune of the Infamous Pirate Wigpowder.  The treasure map is hidden in the historic Steele mansion, administered by the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society, a group of brilliantly-named malevolent museum ladies.  They capture Alex when she crosses the red rope into an off-limits section of the mansion.

You know those doors in public places that read Staff Only or Restricted, Authorized Personnel Only?  Well, I’ve always imagined that behind those doors are Joys Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings…So despite feeling slightly anxious as to what was going to happen to her, Alex couldn’t help being kind of excited…

She needn’t have been.

The mansion has a “horrible, musty smell” and the Daughters (only five of them, true to life in that at least) have yellowing dentures, wheeze, laugh witchily, drink the wine from the historic wine cellars, manhandle Alex and force her to serve wine and give them foot massages (their feet are disgusting), and are generally caricatures of disgusting old ladies.  They do bully the pirates, though.

The book is a charming picaresque, though the world is not extremely coherent, with movie-star cephalopods, a kind refrigerator, an suspiciously endless party on a train, a bar called The Gangrene run by a dentists’ daughter, and of course, the titular pirate ship, the Ironic Gentleman, all co-existing in the story.  The narration has a Lemony Snicket tone to it. Through her entire journey, Alex is pursued by the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society, who, though irredeemably evil, show themselves to be resourceful, indefatigable and dogged in their desire to make Alex pay for crossing the red velvet rope (and get the treasure for themselves).  But despite the various murders, tortures, and daring escapes, the book wasn’t super emotionally compelling (Alex is a bit of a Mary Sue)—except, of course, if you work in a historic house museum, in which case you’ll be filled with crusading desire to prove to the world that local history folks can be under eighty and a force for good in the world.

Suzanne Harper, The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney

Wendy Corsi Staub, Lily Dale: Awakening

Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that talks to the Dead

Lily Dale, a small town in Western New York, is possibly the last remaining spiritualist outpost–not (necessarily) New Age-y spiritualist, but practitioners of Swedenborgian spirtualist religion like it was 1879, which was, in fact, when the town was founded. Two young adult novels set in Lily Dale just recently came out, and while there has been a resurgence of YA supernatural fiction in the last few years (Twilight, etc.), two books set in a small town near Buffalo seemed like more than coincidence. After reading Suzanne Harper’s charming Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney (as well as Rob McDougall’s recent posts on spiritualism), I set out to read all the recent books on Lily Dale.

Sparrow Delaney has a problem. She lives in Lily Dale, and her mom, grandma, and all six sisters are mediums, and they want her to be one too. As the seventh child, she’s supposed to have special gifts, but she hates the attention and she doesn’t tell them that she sees and talks to ghosts all the time–and they’re extremely irritating. They won’t stop talking to her and asking her to do trivial, boring things for them, like tell someone’s granddaughter she’s putting too much garlic in the soup! Sparrow is starting at a new school where no one knows she’s from “Spookyville” and she wants to pass as a ‘normal teenager,’ but one spirit proves unexpectedly persistent and involves her in the life of a boy at the new school. I won’t run the down the plot, but Sparrow ends up accepting her gifts, learning to be true to herself, finding happiness and so on, and there will hopefully be a sequel. Lily Dale in this book is like the Delaney family’s ramshackle Victorian, sprawling, charming, a little chaotic, filled with people and spirits who may be persistent or inconvenient, but they’re family. Harper also gets points for putting a funny set piece in the local history museum, which is filled with old spirit trumpets and spirit photography. Sparrow Delaney comes closest to how I think of spiritualism in the nineteenth century, full of earnest enthusiasm.

Lily Dale: Awakening is a pretty straightforward teen horror story. Calla Delaney (I don’t know how she got the same last name as Sparrow) grew up in Florida, but when her mother dies unexpectedly and horribly she is sent up to Lily Dale to stay with her grandmother, who she barely knows, who turns out to be a medium. There are various waverings about whether or not ghosts exist, whether Calla is going crazy or not, and then she ends up saving the day but putting herself in danger. There are various teenager things included, such as going to WalMart and worrying about how to get email access. It reminded me of Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You? books, plot-driven scary paranormal mysteries. Lily Dale in LD:A is more modern than in Sparrow Delaney, like a contemporary small town.

The only non-fiction I’ve found on Lily Dale is the religion journalist Christine Wicker’s Lily Dale: the Town that Speaks to the Dead, which is very interesting as a book about how Lily Dale has changed through the years as well as as a memoir of Wicker’s time there. Now as in the late nineteenth century, during the summer season the town is filled with visitors, seekers after all sorts of things. Wicker explores spiritualism as a religion, as its residents and founders described it, rather than as a cultural popular science movement, as I’ve always considered it. Recommended for the stories, the journalistic style, and the depth of Wicker’s research (though she starts the story with the Fox sisters, rather than in Europe). You can still visit Lily Dale to see a medium, attend a “message service,” or, as I might do, visit their library and museum, which has excellent collections around spiritualism, metaphysics, and local history, including suffrage and pacifist history. I’m still on a mission to put marginalized stuff, “pseudoscience,” “quackery” and so on, back into the history of science and medicine: historians should pay attention to Lily Dale.