Friday, October 9, 2015

Writing History for Teenagers

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion interviews M.T. Anderson, the author of a couple of young-adult historical novels, including The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation.

Here's a suggestion:  Every academic historian should attempt to write a book for a teenage audience.  It would help them rid their prose of jargon and be better story-tellers.

Here is a taste of Onion's interview:

In writing for a younger audience, you must have had to make some choices about how much of that stuff they’d be interested in or how much to step back and write about the history as a story. How did you decide that? 
When I was in high school, I went for one year to a British boarding school, Winchester College. And I was taking a one-year history course on Anglo-Saxon history. On the first day of class the teacher said, “We’re going to be studying England during the Anglo-Saxon period for a year. There is plenty of time for us to read every single source that is related to Anglo-Saxon history. You will have the same tools the historian does. You will have read everything they could read.” Obviously we were 17 years old, so we weren’t going to make any incredible leaps of historical knowledge, but at the same time it was so exciting to us to think, “This set of five or six long documents, this is the core of what’s known, and we’ll have the tools to debate it.”
There are some interesting points of clarification in the book—I’m thinking of the footnote where you describe the difference between communism, socialism, and Marxism. [At the end of the 200-word footnote, Anderson concludes: “While these terms—Bolshevik, Communist, Marxist, socialist, and Soviet—are sometimes used interchangeably, many people have died to make distinctions among them.”] How do you decide, with a concept like this, which is something historians spend their lives debating and trying to clarify, how much of it to talk about in a book that’s for people who are 16 or 17?
That is a total killer. That’s a real challenge of doing this. It was a little weird to put it in a footnote. Most of the facts I try to fit into the general flow of a narrative, and yet that is such a complicated set of terms that I felt like it didn’t fit into the flow. It slowed it down; and yet it’s vital. So yeah, because realizing also that, the kids I’m writing for have no memory of the Cold War, which was over more than a decade before they were born. That’s a complicated thing when kids don’t necessary have any context at all. That footnote was important to me, because the term socialism is used so often in this country and not really understood well; it was important to me to actually explain what it means. Because otherwise I felt like you read through this book and you realize Nazism is called National Socialism; Stalin is always talking aboutsocialism; and then you think it comes across as “socialism is evil.” Unfortunately, it has been simplified in this country. We don’t tend to realize that our firemen and our schools and our roads are, in a sense, socialist creations.