Readers’ Advisory: Novels featuring real historical characters

The Massachusetts Library System (MLS) has a new series called “5 in 15 Booktalks,” where librarians talk about 5 titles in 15 minutes or less. I got to work with the excellent MLS staff to put together a “5 in 15 member edition” booktalk, where I talk about novels that feature real historical characters, including:Cover image of Wolf Hall

  • Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
  • Edith Wharton in Jennie Fields’ The Age of Desire
  • Mary Mallon (a.k.a. Typhoid Mary) in Mary Beth Keane’s Fever
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife
  • Vanessa Bell (nee Stephens) in Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister

Watch the video (me talking over slides). It was hard for me to narrow my list down to five titles, so I mention some others during the talk, including The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Z by Therese Anne Fowler, Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, and a few others.

What’s your favorite novel featuring a real historical character? Or do you prefer your historical fiction to have a purely invented main character? Share in the comments!

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Cover image of Carry OnSimon and Baz, Penelope and Agatha, the Insidious Humdrum, the Mage, and Watford – all born in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl – have their own story here. Simon’s origin story is similar to Harry Potter’s: he was an orphan living in the “Normal” world until age 11, when the Mage brings him to the Watford School to study magic. Now it’s Simon’s final year at Watford: the Mage has little time for him, and his roommate/enemy/suspected vampire Baz has not returned to school. The Insidious Humdrum still threatens the magical world, which is already divided between the traditional old families and the Mage’s revolutionary ideals.

Simon Snow is the main character, but Penny, Baz, and Agatha each get a turn to narrate, as does Lucy, whose identity (other than her name) isn’t immediately clear. Simon wants to enjoy his last year at Watford, but also to defeat the Humdrum once and for all; Penny (think Hermione with a rebel streak) is his (platonic) best friend and a talented magician whose parents are both professors; Agatha doesn’t want to be involved in dangerous adventures at all, and secretly prefers the Normal world, though she can’t admit it to her parents; and Baz, once he returns to Watford after an unexplained six-week absence, wants to decode the message his mother’s ghost left for him with Simon.

Carry On has plenty of pop culture references – the words “carry on” come from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – partly due to the fact that magic, in Simon Snow’s world, is based almost entirely on words: the more often certain words are used in specific combinations, the more powerful of a spell they become. Shakespeare and nursery rhymes, therefore, are quite powerful; cliches and lyrics to pop songs may be powerful for a time, but lose their power when they fall out of fashion. I enjoyed this not-so-subtle reminder of the power of language, as well as Rowell’s hat-tips to other fantasy novels: there are obvious similarities to¬†Harry Potter, of course, but there’s also something Philip Pullman-esque about the way that adults are willing to sacrifice children in service to the what they perceive as the greater good.

Fangirl‘s Cath would be happy with the way that Simon and Baz’s relationship evolves, but I won’t say more than that here. The way that Rowell weaves Baz’s mother’s death and his being a vampire into the plot, however, is quite clever. Carry On absolutely stands on its own as a fantasy novel that anyone can enjoy, and those who liked Fangirl will definitely want to read it. While I prefer Rowell’s realistic fiction (or in the case of Landline, mostly realistic fiction with the addition of a magic-fucking-phone), I thoroughly enjoyed Carry On.


Reading is not something extra. It’s something essential.

One thing about pregnancy is that, at some point, it becomes visible, and therefore public. I’ve heard lots of advice from friends, family, co-workers, and total strangers, most of it unsolicited, though not necessarily unwelcome.

One topic that comes up a fair amount is reading, and how much of it I will or won’t be able to do after the baby is born. I am either “optimistic” or “delusional” about this, depending who you ask. One parent of a four-year-old basically said to forget the whole idea, but another parent of two said, “If something is a priority, you make time for it.” Fewer things may be priorities, he allowed, but if something matters to you, you’ll find a way. Another friend who recently had a baby said she’s been able to read while nursing – a pretty significant chunk of time.

As Jennifer LaGarde just wrote (“Giving Yourself Permission to Read“), “Reading is not something extra. It’s something essential.” Even if I go from reading my usual ten(+/-) books a month down to five, that’s still a lot of reading – and those are just adult and YA books. I’m sure I will be reading a lot of picture books! (Most recently, I loved Mac Barnett’s Leo: A Ghost Story.)

Reading is essential not just for me, but for the baby. Early literacy can’t start too early! Here’s our shelf of board books from baby’s library, including gifts, yard sale and book sale acquisitions, hand-me-downs, and one or two new purchases I couldn’t resist:

Shelf of board books with bee lunchbox on top

Some are old favorites (Goodnight Moon, Pat the Bunny, Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss), some are newer favorites (Hug, the pigeon books by Mo Willems, Orange Pear Apple Bear), and some are brand-new discoveries like the That’s Not My… series, which have a tactile element like Pat the Bunny.

Shelf of board books

Not pictured because they’re already packed in the diaper bag for the hospital: Tana Hoban’s high-contrast Black on White and White on Black (popular with infants, we’ve heard) and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (popular with me).

Are you a parent or a children’s librarian? What are your (or your kids’) favorite board books or picture books?