Authors sometimes live in a bubble. What we think about books and what we hear about a particular genre’s relevance, popularity, and staying power aren’t always a reflection of the broader whole. Sometimes the messages we get (both real and imagined!) can feel dire. Sometimes we whisper amongst ourselves: How’s our work received? Are kids really reading our types of books? What do the grown ups who serve as literary gatekeepers and reading role models truly think? What messages are they directly and indirectly sending their young people about our stories?
It’s not uncommon as an author of children’s historical fiction to hear that my genre is a “hard sell.” Curious about what the world outside my small circle really thinks, I put together this survey.
I’m grateful to all who took time to answer. If you’re one of the 376 who participated, thank you!
Two things to keep in mind: Answers are skewed toward one population (there was some robust sharing of the survey going on, for which I’m grateful!). Those willing to take a survey about historical fiction might already have positive feelings about it. Still, I think the results are insightful.
The 376 respondents identified as (could select more than one)
75% homeschooling parent
40% parent of a school-aged child
4% author / writer
Top genres respondents read (I’ve taken the top three answers in each category)
80% adult historical fiction
76% adult non-fiction
63% adult contemporary fiction
67% YA historical fiction
53% YA contemporary fiction
37% YA speculative fiction
79% children’s historical fiction
67% children’s contemporary fiction
58% children’s non-fiction
When purchasing books for young readers,
78% said their preferences influence their purchases
12% said they’d never thought of this before
10% said their preferences don’t influence their purchases
When asked to evaluate interest in historical fiction (respondents could choose more than one answer),
55% said kids’ interest in historical fiction is based on a book’s subject matter
44% said some kids are interested in historical fiction
41% said most kids are interested
2% said not many kids are interested
55% said they are interested in most historical fiction
37% said their interest is based on a book’s subject matter
1% said they are not interested
reasons for answers above:
“Kids would be more interested in historical fiction if adults introduced them to it.”
“A well written book can make any historical time/event interesting.”
“I believe there’s a fascination with reading about a time period different than the one we currently live in, especially if we can put ourselves into the shoes of the characters.”
“There is a lot of dull, pedantic historical fiction driven by a desire to cram in information.”
“I enjoy historical fiction, but my kids and students have to be ‘forced’ to read it.”
When asked if historical fiction generally engages young people,
16% gave a third answer, such as it depends on the reader, it sometimes engages readers, or it depends on the book
reasons for answers above:
“Let me count the ways! It explores modern issues at a safe distance. It teaches history, empathy, acceptance of differences, and culture. We learn that we are all more the same than we are different even though separated by time and culture.”
“I feel like historical fiction brings in more of the ‘people’ side of historical events. Non-fiction textbooks give the information while historical fiction helps bring in the human emotions and challenges.”
“History is always relevant, and I firmly believe that history told through the lens of literature helps us connect with the past.”
“The problems we have as humans don’t change. Setting does, but humans don’t.”
When asked if historical fiction is generally educational,
6% gave a third answer, such as sometimes, or it depends on the book’s historical accuracy
reasons for answers above:
“It is one of the most effective and memorable ways to teach history.”
“Since it’s not real, I don’t see how it could be educational since the facts might be purely made up or half lies, half truths to make something appear true and educational.”
“It puts skin and bones on the facts.”
“As a teacher, this is usually the immediate benefit of historical fiction.”
“It’s educational in the best sense–it opens minds. It doesn’t have to be didactic or prescriptive to be educational.”
When asked if kids are given the choice about what books they read, their choices in general include historical fiction,
24% gave a third answer, such as sometimes or it depends on the child
reasons for the answers above:
“I have never heard a kid ask for ‘historical fiction.’ They might select historical fiction books, but more by love of topic/author/series than anything.”
“Sometimes it gets a bad rap as being boring.”
“My child will choose it. “
“Good writing matters most.”
“I think kids pick more contemporary books.”
“Historical fiction books aren’t typically as mainstream popular so kids aren’t as likely to know about them.”
“Kids are attracted to books because of an interesting plot. They choose all kinds of books to read on their own.”
“Certainly children chose literature based on their interests, but again and again, they seem to choose historical fiction, regardless of the dire predictions that is passé. And again, a good story is hard to resist.”
When asked if in the last year respondents had added historical fiction for young readers to their library / personal collection,
87% said yes
13% said no
Of those who purchased books in the last year,
50% purchased both new releases (defined as books published in the last five years) and older titles
37% purchased older titles only
12% purchased new titles only
When asked why they’d purchased these new titles, (respondents could choose all that applied)
43% said they learned about the title in print or online
43% said the book sounded interesting and they wanted to share it with young readers
35% said a colleague or friend recommended it
When asked why they’d purchased these older titles, (respondents could choose all that applied)
32% said the book sounded interesting and they wanted to share it with young readers
31% said the title tied in to curriculum
29% said it was an old favorite
When asked if there was anything respondents wanted to add …
“Just that ‘historical fiction’ as a genre isn’t well defined, used, or advertised enough to be a term that children themselves use, which I imagine limits their access to looking for books in the genre outside of specific topics.”
“My kids say the title and cover need to make them want to see what’s inside. It needs to look like it’s not a total waste of time right from the beginning.”
“History + good writing= perfect book combo 😊”
“For my children who are more likely to choose fantasy or contemporary over HF, having another genre tied in to historical has always helped get them interested.”
“My kiddo loves learning about historical things (and she says her friends do as well)–they especially love stories about hardships and how young people back then survived those hardships.”
Thinking about the results
This survey is far from perfect. I could have asked some questions differently and could have added others or left some out entirely. Keeping in mind the two stipulations I mentioned in the beginning (a majority of respondents were from one population and a possible bias toward historical fiction), there are still a number of takeaways:
Adults hold tremendous power in the titles a child is exposed to.
From purchasing choices to the books adults hear about online to the titles they seek out from earlier days, adults often serve as the gatekeepers when it comes a child’s exposure to particular books. Many adults are aware their own preferences, tastes, and mindsets influence the books they share with children. Some are not. Parents, of course, can establish their own system when deciding if a child is ready for a particular book. Kids lose out, however, when those who work with young people expose them only to books they personally are interested in or have decided in advance will or won’t interest young readers.
Subject matter trumps genre.
A number of respondents said many kids (and adults!) pick up historical fiction because a particular topic interests them rather than because of its genre. Maybe it’s a particular setting or storyline. Maybe it’s a book in a beloved series. Maybe the story could also be classified as a mystery or an adventure. Plenty of commenters mentioned kids don’t necessarily think about historical fiction as a descriptor at all. Adults wanting to expose kids to a variety of books (including historical fiction) should consider using broader terms than just genre.
Word of mouth, including the Internet, is king.
Conversation (in person or online) is the primary way respondents learned about books. Just like the power adults have in exposing kids to particular titles, its regular word of mouth (with a few Instagram posts and online reviews thrown in) that help titles reach their readers.
Historical fiction’s quality and significance is viewed through the lens of its historical accuracy.
Some respondents felt historical fiction could only be educational, meaningful, or relevant if the storyline was true. I’m inserting my author self in this one. I take my research very seriously and am committed to an accurate portrayal of the past. However, I ultimately feel story trumps history (and know a number of other authors feel this way, too). I will deviate from the truth if it best serves the story I’m trying to tell. To the best of my ability, I mention these deviations in an author’s note. Two personal takeaways on this one: Some readers hold historical fiction to a standard much like historical non-fiction. Some readers see the educational benefit of historical fiction as solely a history lesson.
Historical fiction is still seen as meaningful.
While it might be a “hard sell,” historical fiction isn’t dead! Many adults are sharing titles with young people. Many kids are reading.