“Mahna-mahna,” or Why Historical Fiction for Kids Is Hard

We went to see The Muppets this past weekend. I loved it. So many fond memories of childhood. Fozzy*. The chickens. Seeing the babies. Beeker. But my kids…well, they enjoyed it, but I don’t think they “got” it.

Sad to say, but they’ve never seen a Muppet movie or show (I know, we’re going to remedy that). So while they were entertained, all the jokes about Animal in anger management, or the Swedish Chef “talking,” or even Miss Piggy and Kermit’s complicated history, kind of went over their heads.

Which got me thinking.

I see this in books in my library all the time. What we assume kids know, just because they should. Stories that reference the Godfather or riff on Elvis or spoof “hard-boiled” detectives. Yes, these are huge cultural monuments. But we’re talking about ten-year-olds. When they were born, the Internet had already been around for years. The Berlin Wall is ancient history to them and takes a lengthy discussion to explain it. Hannah Montana has been “famous” for as long as they can remember. And some don’t even know their own address!*

A more specific example of this is that last Friday, I had a teacher come in to the library looking for “straight” versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Their reading book had a twisted version–but how enjoyable is that, if you’ve never heard or are familiar with the regular version? So she was reading some to her first graders so that they could appreciate the twists and funnies of the parody.

Now, some could argue that that it’s okay if a story/movie has deeper layers, just for adults or stronger readers. (As a reader, I, in fact, love this.) However, while this may be true, then you’ve got to be darn sure that all the cuteness, all the humor, all the plot points don’t rely on an understanding of the first. And I’m not sure that The Muppets does that. Furthermore, it feels like sometimes, the “hook” that publishers so want often is really a hook for the grown-ups and doesn’t follow this rule. You try it–pitch the premise of The Muppets to a bunch of seven-years-olds. Most likely you’ll get a blank stare.

It also has me thinking about how this lack of reference is what makes historical fiction so difficult for kids. Later in the weekend, we watched another movie: The Help. That, too, involved a lot of explaining to my kids for them to “get” it.* The real trick in historical fiction is explaining all that enough to have it make sense without denting the pace and plot of the story. You almost have to go two steps back to explain the situation before you can start the story–and everyone know nothing kills a story or joke faster than having to explain the punchline* No wonder historical fiction is so hard to write. And no wonder why historical fiction is hard for many kids to read.


*Second Son: “I thought his name was ‘Foggy.'” Sigh.

*Yes, they should know this. But…some don’t.

*For the record, my boys like The Help better than The Muppets. Huh. Who’da thunk?

*However, this also can result in some very deep discussions and thoughts. Which I think is what my boys and I enjoyed about The Help. It is also what makes historical fiction so appealing to teachers and especially, awards committees.