Even though we are practically neighbors, J. Anderson Coats and I are still only cyber friends. I hope that changes soon! I love that she writes YA and middle grade, “now with 20% more name calling and petty violence.” Her work is amazing and you will not want to miss her newest title, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming (Atheneum).
A few years ago, my teenage son invited a friend over to hang out. My author copies for the paperback version of The Wicked and the Just had arrived recently and were still in the living room, and as the boys headed toward the kitchen to load up on cold pizza and Mountain Dew, my son paused and gestured to the box.
“That’s my mom’s book,” he said to his friend. “You should read it.”
My son’s friend glanced into the box, curious and interested–then his face changed. It changed as I watched. But this young man, ever polite, turned to me and asked, “What’s it about?”
Here’s what I almost said: “Don’t let the cover fool you. You never get to choose your own cover. It’s really about abuse of power and people getting what’s coming to them. Oh, and there’s a body count.”
And a weird lightbulb went off.
Even those of us who find value and meaning in the past are sometimes afraid to own history. We’ve already decided that kids won’t be interested in “that stuff” so we feel the need to carefully insulate the real content, obscuring it with elements of the story we feel are more engaging, and trick them into giving the book a try.
I get this. I do. School doesn’t help by reducing history to “social studies” and putting the whole subject at arm’s length. It’s sanitized and dull and often taught by Coach like it’s some kind of afterthought, full of antique people who spoke in thees and thous and wore things like waistcoats and didn’t know enough to wash their hands. At best it’s trivia; at worst, it’s irrelevant.
The more I thought about it, standing there with a box of my books at my feet, the more I realized that one of the big reasons I write historical fiction in the first place is to get kids to unlearn this implied disdain for and disconnect with the past. And the first way to do that was not to be ashamed of the past and my decision to set a story there.
Kids are more than willing to plunge themselves into secondary worlds that are remarkably similar to the sordid landscape of history. They devour Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games and revel in the darkness and struggle and complexity. Our shared human past has got that stuff in spades. It’s my job to shine a light on it. It’s my job to make it real and true and relevant. And then it’s my job to stand behind it.
Now, with The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, I find myself in a similar position, only this time it’s a handful of well-meaning adult readers interested in early pioneer Seattle who are curious about the book until they learn it’s “just” a book for children. It’s hard for them to understand that a kids’ book can be just as powerful, compelling, and still historically relevant as anything written for adults.
So lately I’ve been owning the other part of my writing identity, and that’s my job as a children’s writer. Once upon a time I might have backpedaled when I heard just and all the implications in it, maybe countered with phrases like even though or yes, but. However, learning to own history has taught me one valuable thing, and that’s to smile, hold the book out, and say, “Just give it a try.”
J. Anderson Coats is the author of The Wicked and the Just, one of Kirkus’s Best Teen Books of 2012, a 2013 YALSA Best for Young Adults (BFYA) winner, and a School Library Journal Best Books of 2012 selection. It also won the 2013 Washington State Book Award for Young Adults. Her short story, “Mother Carey’s Table,” appeared in A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and Other Badass Girls (Candlewick, 2016). Her newest book, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017), is set in Washington Territory in the 1860s. R is for Rebel, a historical fantasy for middle-grade readers, is forthcoming from Atheneum in 2018.