by Tracy Barrett (W&M Contributor)
Historical fiction has devoted—sometimes rabid—fans. In the case of historical fiction for young readers, that fan base is still devoted, but it tends to be pretty small. Most kids are interested in reading about their contemporaries—whether human or zombie, or whatever the beast du jour is—rather than about the past, and often they come to our work through a teacher or librarian. So if we want our books to be read, we have to please two very disparate audiences: not only our readers, but also the adults in their lives, mostly in school settings.
Now there’s a new way to help us connect with teachers and librarians.
You’re probably familiar with the educational reform called No Child Left Behind (don’t get me started). There’s a new program that’s received a lot less fanfare: the Common Core State Standards Initiative, sometimes called the Core Curriculum. Its aim is to establish a shared base of knowledge and skills among K-12 students, and there’s a lot in it that writers of nonfiction and historical fiction can draw on to make their books more appealing in schools. And the more appealing and curriculum-appropriate a book is, the more likely it is that a teacher or librarian will suggest or even require it of her students.
There’s a set of standards for math, but what interests me as a writer are the English Language Arts standards, summarized here as follows: “The Standards set requirements not only for English language arts (ELA) but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Just as students must learn to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively in a variety of content areas, so too must the Standards specify the literacy skills and understandings required for college and career readiness in multiple disciplines.”
I find this exciting for me as a writer primarily of historical fiction, and also for my friends who write about the sciences. Students will be expected to write clearly about science and technology as well as the humanities. What better way for them to learn than by reading well-written books in those subjects?
And think of the opportunities for school presentations. I can talk about research, how I organize my findings, the use of primary and secondary sources—skills that students are to acquire in grades 6-12, my target audience.
I recently asked a group of librarians what I could do to make an author visit a success. Among their many suggestions was the reminder that every bit of programming they do must be curriculum based. The more clearly I can show them specific points where my presentation will enhance the core standards, the more likely the principal is to approve (and fund) my visit, and the more likely my books are to be read by the people I write for.
Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books for young readers, most recently Dark of the Moon (Harcourt) and The Sherlock Files series (Henry Holt). She lives in Nashville, TN, where until last spring she taught Italian, Humanities, and Women’s Studies at Vanderbilt University. Visit her website and her blog.