I once wrote a picture book set in ancient Greece. It contained a description of Athenian religious rites, information about Doric architecture, and Greek words that even I couldn’t pronounce. I thought it was a good picture book – until I met the mother of a four-year-old and asked what her daughter would most like to know about ancient Greece. Her answer? “Something about Greek food. That’s what interests her.”
This experience taught me two things: that I am not a picture book writer, and that historical details which interest writers may not interest kids. I still find Greek architecture fascinating – but looking back, I should have realized that a four-year-old wouldn’t feel the same way. Kids that age want to know what Greek children ate, what they wore, what toys they played with. The details of everyday life interest them much more than the Parthenon.
Furthermore, this rule doesn’t stop applying when kids become teenagers. Lately I’ve encountered a few young adult novels that go into discourses about politics, economics, and class structure for basically no reason. Of course you should include this information if it’s essential to understanding your story, but most teens don’t want to read about commercial activity in fifteenth-century Venice for its own sake. They might as well be reading a textbook – something most would rather avoid. Do all the research you need to do to write a good, accurate book, but don’t include details that won’t enhance your story or interest your readers. And if that means giving your book to a child or teen to figure out which details those are, I’d say you should do it.
What kinds of historical details do you think young readers find most interesting? Have you ever included a detail you liked in a book, then realized it would bore your readers?
Melissa Luttman is Associate Editor for Young Adult History/Historical Fiction at Wonders & Marvels.