I recently came across a discussion about female characters in YA historical fiction on one of the boards I belong to. The general consensus was this: If you are a female main character in a YA historical novel, and you are not overly spunky and ahead of your time, then, clearly, you are in the wrong book.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t true for every work of YA historical fiction. But as a whole, the female protagonists in these books are a remarkably progressive bunch. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read set in medieval Europe in which a girl wants to be educated just like the boys—or, even more frequently, to choose her own husband. Not that I disagree with these sentiments…but when you consider the social norms of the time, they just aren’t very accurate.
I understand that if historical fiction portrayed the lives of ordinary women as they were throughout much of history, a lot of those books would be pretty boring. (Who really wants to read about a medieval girl who spends all her time learning to manage a household?) I also understand that there have always been at least a few women who actually were ahead of their times, and that these are just the sorts of people today’s kids want to read about.
But I can’t help but think that we aren’t doing modern children and teens a favor by creating this skewed view of young women throughout history. Until recently, most women weren’t expected to be well-educated or to have a say in who they married. Maybe portraying that reality in our books would help modern teens to understand how the young women of the past really lived—and to realize how far we’ve come.
Do you think female characters in historical fiction are too progressive to be historically accurate?
Is this really a problem, or does just it make otherwise dull books more interesting?
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.