History in 2011: Conveying or Concealing the Past?
In my travels I’ve been perusing the historical fiction that’s been coming out lately and I think I have detected an interesting trend. An interesting book jacket trend, no less.
Consider the following:
What do all of these have in common? Well, first off, they’re all historical fiction. Historical fiction that, in some cases, is desperately trying to look like modern day. Let’s take this chronologically then.
Freedom Stone by Jeffrey Kluger. Era: Civil War. Thoughts: Admittedly I didn’t realize that this was historical when I first looked at it. The cover is making use of the old silhouette technique so common on books where the protagonist is African-American. I’d love to see a study done on black kids in silhouette on covers versus kids of any other race, just to see whether or not my perception that this happens FAR more often to kids of color is true. In this case, nothing about the cover seems particularly anachronistic. It gets a pass then.
Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Year: 1936. Thoughts: More silhouettes. And the characters? Black. If you get beyond that fact you can see that they are looking at historical objects. I don’t like silhouettes much these days, but I appreciate that the book isn’t shying away from its era. Which brings us to the most blatant misrepresentation on today’s list:
The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone. Era: 1941. Thoughts: I haven’t seen a cover that misrepresents its time period this blatantly since Patricia McKissack’s beautifully written but lamentably jacketed A Friendship for Today. On the back cover of Ms. McKissack’s early 1950s American South tale you could see two pairs of legs wearing jeans and Airwalk sneakers. Airwalks came out in 1986 (and we’ll just ignore the whole “jeans” problem) so clearly the publishers learned their lesson by now putting a lot of Converse All-Stars on the covers. That’s what The Romeo and Juliet Code has done here (and thank you, Roger Sutton, for pointing out how weird this is). The trouble? Colored “Chucks” didn’t show up on the market until the late 1960s. And for that matter, can you really see a girl in coastal Maine during WWII wearing jeans and chucks at that time? Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to read the book since it looked like a contemporary teen novel (which I don’t read). Now that I know the plot . . . . geez. I just have a hard time getting over that cover.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Era: Vietnam War. Thoughts: Now I’ve heard at least one person I know say they don’t like this cover, and personally I have to object. This take on Okay for Now is almost pitch perfect, even if it is cheating a little. First off, everyone likes smiley faces. The paper bag shown here even harkens back to Doug’s deliveries during the story. The unraveling baseball references not only the disappearing, reappearing, disappearing ball Doug wins in the trivia contest, but also the number of stitches each ball contains (an important plot point). As for the clothing on the kid seen here, white undershirts are eternal, and I don’t think a kid could walk onto the street in 1968 wearing those pants and those shoes (again with the Converse) and have to worry about getting beaten up. Nothing dates it, but nothing is dishonest either.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Era: Vietnam War. Thoughts: Almost a silhouette, though if you look at the picture you can make out a lot of details in Hà’s clothing. They’re going for “timeless” with this cover, I think. Note the pretty background colors that aren’t too dissimilar from those on the jacket of Freedom Stone. It’s not saying it’s historical, but it’s also not saying that it’s not. And really, in the end that seems to sometimes be the best one can hope for. If a publishers isn’t going to come out and admit that a book takes place in the past with their cover, at the very least they shouldn’t including misleading elements (like, say, pink Converse All-Stars).
Name me some other historical children’s novels for the year. Any spring to mind that are remarkably honest Vs. strangely misleading?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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