MLA 2017: Charting Our Course, continued

This is part II of my recap of the Massachusetts Library Association (MLA) Conference on May 23. Read part I here.

Mind in the Making: Creating Play & Learn spaces at your library

Katrina Ireland-Bilodeau (Northborough Free Library), Mia Cabana (Jones Library, Amherst), Steve Fowler (Bellingham Public Library)

Mind in the Making (MITM) is an MBLC/LSTA grant that all three of the presenters’ libraries applied for and won; they presented about how they used the grants at their libraries. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs is also a book by Ellen Galinsky of the Families & Work Institute.

MITM is an “effort to share the science of children’s learning with the general public, families and professionals who work with them” – including, of course, librarians. Why libraries? We already have engagement (parents bring their kids) and community partnerships (people trust libraries).

Katrina, Mia, and Steve all shared wonderful ideas they had implemented in their libraries, from making changes to the physical space, to buying new furniture and toys, to incorporating educational tips into storytimes and other children’s programs. Here are some of the ideas they put into action:

  • Repurpose under-utilized space
  • Refresh rooms with new carpets and paint
  • Define different play zones for different ages
  • Borrow ideas from children’s museums (the Fall River Children’s Museum was name-checked; I recently saw a “mouthed toys bin” at the Boston Children’s Museum)
  • Get new furniture and toys to fuel imaginative play
    • A “dramatic play center” can be a puppet theater, grocery store, bank, farmer’s market, doctor’s office, and more – rotate themes regularly
    • Train tables are always popular!
    • Lakeshore and Playscapes were mentioned, but if you don’t have a budget, look for donations or see if a local vocational school can build something that you can buy for the cost of the materials
    • MagnaTiles are “one of the most imagination-fueling toys” and good for all ages
    • Blocks and animal figures are a must-have. Get alphabet blocks in other languages – reflect your community
  • Incorporate play into storytimes
  • Label toy bins with pictures of the contents (for kids) and educational tips (for caregivers)
  • Make connections with other community organizations
  • Is a plain or ugly surface showing, like the back side of a shelf or desk? Cover it with felt and make a felt board. (Or make a chalk board or a magnetic board…)
  • Move underused collections around; one library put their parenting collection on a mobile cart so they can bring it in to children’s programs for caregivers to browse
  • Vroom cards were also mentioned (“Vroom turns shared moments into brain building moments”)

Screenshot of tweet about color maze

Screenshot of tweet about toys and research

Screenshot of several tweets about Mind in the Making

Screenshots of tweets from Mind in the Making session

As the libraries made the changes mentioned above, library staff saw changes in their children’s spaces: parents engaged with their children more, there was less arguing over toys, spaces were less messy because kids were better about cleaning up (“a place for everything and everything in its place” only works if everything has a place).

It’s not enough to get a bunch of new toys – there has to be intentionality. Librarians can model how to make connections between play and learning (for young children, play is learning) so caregivers can do the same.

YA Smackdown

During the “YA Smackdown,” about a dozen of us sat around on chairs and on the floor in one of the unused rooms at lunchtime. Prompts were pulled out of a box and anyone who had something to contribute spoke up. It was “a fun, low-key environment,” as promised. A comprehensive set of notes [PDF] are available from the MLA YSS wiki, so here is just a sample of our discussion from my notes:

Q: What’s the most successful Banned Books Week display you’ve done or seen?

A: (1) Covering book covers with brown paper and writing the reasons the books were banned on them (language, sex, violence, talking animals, etc.); (2) Making new book covers that illustrate the opposite of the book’s title (e.g. David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing becomes Two Boys Not Touching At All).

Kindness rocks: Be kind. Everyone matters.

I actually found one of the “kindness rocks” a few months ago!

Q: How do you encourage kindness?

A: Model it! Say hello to teens when they enter, goodbye and “hope to see you again soon” when they leave (even/especially if they’re being kicked out). Participate in the Kindness Rocks project, which leaves kind messages painted on stones for people to find. Don’t allow insults (“Did you mean that as an insult? You can’t say it”).

Q: How do you connect teens with community resources?

This can be tricky, but one good idea used by Mattapoiset is to create a binder full of resources in the teen area. They can look through it without checking anything out, and take copies of anything they might need.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the day?

Coffee! No, seriously, readers’ advisory – “let’s go browse” the shelves to find some books. When teens come up to ask questions. Ordering books, receiving and unpacking new books.

Q: Recommended books with good racial/ethnic diversity?

A: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Upside of Unrequited and Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, the Ms. Marvel graphic novels, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz, The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (for tweens and up), The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon, Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (first book in the Rivers of London series – for older teens and adults).

Step Into Your Office: The Library as a Coworking Space

Susannah Borysthen-Tkacz (Cambridge Public Library), Gregor Smart (Boston Public Library – Kirstein Business Library and Innovation Center), Patrick Yott (Northeastern University Libraries)

Susannah moderated this session, guided by the overarching question “Is coworking a novelty or a profound shift in how we do things?” Statistics indicate that more and more of the workforce is made up of entrepreneurs, “solopreneurs,” and nontraditional workers. How can the library best serve these people?

One type of place we can take inspiration from is paid co-working spaces, like Workbar, which offer physical space (sometimes with 24/7 access), open work space, desks, locking file cabinets and storage space, meeting rooms, phone rooms, mail, a dining area, event space, and access to the other members to create an instant network and encourage “accelerated serendipity.” Co-working spaces aren’t free, though, so many people may choose to work at the library instead.

The library may not be able to offer all of the things that co-working spaces can, but we have one thing co-working spaces don’t: librarians. Most co-working spaces are unstaffed, and don’t offer research help or access to databases or other resources.

twitter-coworking2

Gregor and Patrick talked about the changes that have been made at Kirstein and Northeastern’s Snell Library, respectively. Gregor said that people want spaces for small meetings, webinars, learning languages, etc; it’s constantly a challenge to meet demand for collaborative workspaces. Both libraries use moveable screens (or, better yet, moveable whiteboards) so people can reconfigure the space as needed. Built-in alcoves are first-come, first-serve, while meeting rooms and work stations (Macs loaded with specialized software like Garage Band, PhotoShop, and Illustrator) can be reserved. Large event space can be rented.

Screenshots of tweets about co-working spaces in libraries

Most libraries won’t have a budget for a major redesign like Kirstein and Snell, but there are ways we can serve those who are seeking space to work solo or collaboratively. In fact, “Demand is higher for space than collections” might be the theme of most of the sessions I attended at MLA this year, from “Transforming Teen Spaces” to “Mind in the Making” to “Step Into Your Office.”

Screenshot of coworking tweets

If there’s any space in your library that is under-utilized (and have you weeded your print reference collection yet??), see if you can carve out spaces with movable screens. If you are buying furniture, make sure it moves too. Consider: is your food & drink policy friendly to people who use the library for long stretches of time? What is your policy on cell phones? (On Wednesday, there was a session about Private Talking Spaces from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. I am curious to know more!)

That was the last session of the day for me. I enjoyed reading tweets from the other sessions throughout the day and afterward; the conference hashtag was #masslib17 if you want to catch up via Twitter. Did you go to the conference? What were your most exciting/useful/important takeaways?

 

 

MLA 2017: Charting Our Course

Conference days are long and tiring, but energizing too: It’s great reconnecting with former colleagues, classmates, and other librarian acquaintances and friends from committee meetings, other conferences, etc., and sometimes putting a face to a name from e-mail or Twitter. (The official hashtag for the conference was #masslib17.) And of course, there are always plenty of new ideas to steal borrow and resources to consult.

This year I made the most of my one day of MLA, starting with an 8:30am session and including the “YA Smackdown” during lunchtime. Without further ado…the recap!

Why Don’t Patrons READ Library Signage? Graphic Design and Libraries

Presented by Larissa Farrell (YA) and Jessica Lamarre (Children’s) from the Duxbury Free Library, and Jed T. Phillips (Tech & User Experience) from the Ames Free Library

Fonts Matter example "You'll Always Be Mine" in two fonts

From the Duxbury presentation slides. Fonts matter!

This presentation was not about wayfinding signage, but about advertising and PR. Duxbury has a six-person marketing team, including one person from each department; they meet quarterly (at least) for some big-picture discussion, and work together to ensure a cohesive look across platforms (print, facebook, instagram, etc.). They suggested getting a mid-range digital camera that all library staff could use, to ensure a minimum photo quality.

The presenters explained pixels, resolution, file types, and hexidecimal (“hex”) colors, and then shared their favorite sources for free licensed fonts (fontspring.com, fontsquirrel.com) and copyright-free images (pexels.com, Google Creative Commons search, Canva, unsplash.com, pixabay.com, NASA, LOC, NYPL, Smithsonian). Remember, a picture’s worth a thousand words – but not clipart. (“Clipart is not ideal.” “Do not use clipart.”) Images, illustrations, and fonts will all begin to look dated over time, so if your library uses a template, consider refreshing your look every few years.

Screenshot of tweet: avoid comic sans and papyrus

All three presenters use the online design program Canva; libraries can get free business accounts that up to six people can use. In addition to Canva (and Canva Design School), other graphic design programs and software include Microsoft Publisher, Adobe Photoshop or InDesign, and classes through Lynda.com.

In addition to basic technical information and specific software recommendations, the presenters also discussed the principles of graphic design, and recommended Chip Kidd’s book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, which I also recommend as both an intro and a refresher.

Screenshot of tweet: form after function. Hierarchy.

Additional takeaways: Make your entrance(s) welcoming. Remember that “Where is…?”-type signage can advertise your collections and services, as well as helping people orient themselves and find what they need.

Screenshot of a tweet: Clipart is not ideal.

Transforming Teen Spaces

Presented by Jennifer Forgit from the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington and Katrina Ealy from the Holbrook Public Library

While support for teen collections has grown in many libraries, spaces and programming haven’t necessarily. YALSA policy supports a space that is exclusively for teens (see YALSA’s Teen Space Guidelines). If you don’t have a dedicated teen space in your library, where do the teens congregate? Can you make that their space? Repurpose underutilized space or move things around. (Have you weeded your print reference collection lately? Really, really weeded it?)

In Lexington, Jen was part of a very long process culminating in a major shift that included renovation. “Lots of support means lots of stakeholders”: library director, staff, trustees, Teen Advisory Board (TAB), town facilities department, Friends, Foundation, architect, library patrons & donors. They were ultimately able to move adult fiction upstairs with the rest of the adult materials and create a teen space downstairs, on the same floor as the Children’s department, which made sense to most people: Jen said she encountered less resistance to change than she’d expected.

Both Jen and Kat recommended getting input from teens. Jen advised keeping your teens involved throughout the process: dreaming, planning, decision-making, fundraising, installation. Get them involved early. But don’t make promises you can’t keep. Get feedback on choices you already know are “safe” (e.g. furniture in your price range – but let them pick the color). Furniture and shelving on casters is a great idea, so the space can be reconfigured for different uses.

Screenshot of tweet: Teens love to sit on the floor. Get a cool rug.

Kat works at Holbrook now but presented about her former workplace, the South Yarmouth Library, which is a very small library in an old sea captain’s house. They were able to take over the Friends’ book sale room (“They made about five dollars a week”) to create a space for teens: they stripped old wallpaper and put on fresh paint, got a new rug and some furniture, and added cheap, cute decorations that can be replaced every so often. They didn’t have much of a budget – just enough to cover the rug and furniture – but “small changes can make a big difference.”

Once you’ve designated a teen space, post clear signage: Lexington’s Teen Space sign is about six feet tall and reads, “This room is exclusively for the use of library patrons who are in 6th-13th grade. Others are welcome to get books and other materials from the Teen Space, but please do not linger in the room.”

Advocacy tips:

  • You can use American Fact Finder to look up population stats for your town. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, about 22.5% of Arlington’s population is 19 years old or under; nearly 10% are between 10-19 years old. That’s a not-insignificant chunk of the population.
  • The #1 reason teens try drugs is boredom (followed by anxiety and loneliness). We can help with that!
  • If someone objects, “But there aren’t any teens who use the library,” reply, “If you build it, they will come.”
  • Further resources: Teen Spaces: the step-by-step library makeover by Kimberly Bolan; VOYA’s YA Spaces of Your Dreams Collection edited by Anthony Bernier; and the aforementioned Teen Space Guidelines from YALSA.

Screenshot of two tweets about teen population stats from American Fact Finder and "if you build it, they will come"

Slides and notes from the Youth Services Section presentations are or will soon be available at the MLA YSS wiki. (Here is the MLA Conference 2017 link.) Stay tuned for my next blog post(s) on Mind in the Making, the YA Smackdown, and Step Into Your Office: The Library as a Co-Working Space.

Oh – and the Robbins Library Book Cart Drill Team finally won a much-deserved first place award! Watch the video.

 

Reading Passport: Book a Trip Around the World

Reading Passport

Reading Passport, 1994-1995

During the 1994-1995 school year, the school librarian (we had those, back then) issued the students a Reading Passport, which entitled (pun intended?) the owner to Book a Trip Around the World (pun definitely intended)! Because I am a highly organized pack rat whose mother had storage space in her garage until recently, I still have mine.

Like many of today’s popular reading challenges, students chose books in various categories (and got stickers for each book read. Who doesn’t love stickers?). Categories included classics, mystery, “true to life” (i.e. realistic), fantasy, humorous, adventure, historical fiction, animal, sports, and biography.

Some of these books I have entirely forgotten; others I remember vividly from re-reading them so often, and still adore – The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop, Matilda and The BFG by Roald Dahl, and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville. Though it’s not on the Reading Passport, 1994-1995 was also the year I read Buffalo Brenda by Jill Pinkwater. I think it was the following school year when I first read Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, and the year after that when I first read The Giver by Lois Lowry.

reading passport with stickers

Since 2007* when I first joined Goodreads and LibraryThing, I’ve kept a record of all my reading, but I’ve often wished for a lifelong record. I’m pleased to have unearthed this piece of my elementary school reading history, and grateful to the librarian who made it a fun experience worth documenting.

*TEN YEARS AGO.

 

 

2016 Year-End Reading Wrap-Up

Number of books read in 2016: 201

Picture books: 90

Partially read books: 8

Books read in 2015 minus picture books and partially read books: 103

YA/children’s books read: 40

Average number of books read per month (including YA, excluding picture books and partially read books): 8.58

Audiobooks: 11

Nonfiction (adult/YA): 22

Total page count: 27,536 (This seems suspiciously low, given that the last two years my page count was just over 50,000, but exporting the data I want from LibraryThing is frustrating, and honestly I don’t have the patience to dig into this. It’s still a pretty good chunk.)

Male or

Female/male authors: Tipping female for the second year in a row but still pretty close to 50-50.

Five-star ratings: 23, including re-reads; lots of childhood favorite re-reads this year, including The View From Saturday and Ella Enchanted. And Greenglass House, again.

Previously: 2015 Year-End Reading Wrap-Up

Again, no specific reading resolutions for the year. I have continued to winnow down my book collection at home, and have just a few books on the shelf that I’ve been meaning to read; one of these is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, which I suppose would be appropriate to check off the list.

I have enjoyed reading without the lurking feeling of each book being part of a “to do” list. I’ve discovered (and revisited) many, many picture books, from my own childhood copies (One Woolly Wombat!) to the brand new and delightful (too many to name). I’ve ventured more into children’s chapter books and met Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine.

Like many others, I’m also trying to read a broader variety of perspectives: books by women and people of color and other minorities, books whose subjects or main characters are something other than straight, white, middle-class Americans. There have been some spectacular collections of scathingly funny and serious feminist essays (Lindy West, Caitlin Moran, Mindy Kaling), and Rebecca Solnit has a new book coming out in March). And YA authors have been at the forefront of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks charge from the beginning, which means we’re growing a generation more open-minded than any before it.

“And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation.” -Caitlin Moran, Moranifesto

Best books I read in 2016

There were many books published this year that I was looking forward to eagerly, and which I devoured as soon as I could get them. Other books sneaked up on me (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child!), some were recommended by friends or librarian-friends, others discovered serendipitously (my toddler pulling them off the library shelf), some a combination of the above. Links go to my LibraryThing reviews.

Cover image of My Real ChildrenAdult Fiction

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling

My Real Children by Jo Walton

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

“And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.” -Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time

Adult Nonfiction

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

“Shame is a tool of oppression, not change….You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.” -Lindy West, Shrill

Teen/YA

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

My True Love Gave to Me (short stories, edited by Stephanie Perkins)

Cover of I Am the Wolf...And Here I ComeChildren’s board books and picture books

Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

There Is A Bird On Your Head by Mo Willems

I Am the Wolf…And Here I Come! by Benedicte Guettier

I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy

One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak – I can’t believe I missed this one as a kid. It is the perfect counting book for introverts.

How to Cheer Up Dad by Fred Koehler

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Children’s chapter books/series

Cover image of ClementineThe Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker – I listened to all seven of these audiobooks (narrated by Jessica Almasy) and loved every single one. Clementine reminds me of Ramona Quimby (especially when adults tell her to “pay attention” and she says that she was paying attention…to something else. Perfect kid logic). The parents are great characters too.

Coming soon…2017

I haven’t looked too far ahead into 2017, publishing-wise. The book I am most anticipating, of course, is the sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife, but there is no new news about it, as far as I can tell, and the last I heard, it was looking like ballpark 2018. I’d be excited to read anything new by David Mitchell or Nick Hornby, but they each had books out in 2015 (Slade House and Funny Girl, respectively). I’d love to read whatever Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus) is cooking up next, too. I’m sure plenty of wonderful new books will come along while I’m waiting for these…what are you excited to read this coming year?

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

Cover image of My True Love Gave to Me
The teen librarian at our library has been bringing up (or perhaps I should say swooning over) this story collection since she first read it, and now that I have read it as well, I have to agree that her starry-eyed state is completely justified. There’s not a dud in the bunch, and while I was looking forward to the authors I already knew (Rainbow Rowell, Gayle Forman, Kelly Link, David Levithan, and Holly Black), I really enjoyed encountering the others for the first time as well, and will probably look up some of their other books in the next few months.

For once, I read this book the way I always intend to read short story collections (but rarely do): I parceled out one or two stories at a time over the course of several days. It was a perfect way to absorb each story and let it settle before reading the next one.

In order of appearance:

“Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell: After years of New Years’ parties with the same crowd, Mags finally gets her midnight kiss with her longtime best friend, Noel.

“It’s going to get worse,” he said. “You’re going to keep changing.”
“Well, so are you,” she said.
“I never change.”
Mags laughed. “You’re a kaleidoscope. You change every time I look away.”
-Rainbow Rowell

“The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link: Miranda is the goddaughter of Elspeth Honeywell, and spends every Christmas at the grand Honeywell house. Year after year, she encounters a man – a ghost? – in the garden, but only when it’s snowing.

“Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Pena: Shy is catsitting for his boss – and slowly starving – over Christmas, when Haley, another tenant in the building, comes down to ask about a plumbing problem. She’s Shy’s age, beautiful, and a great cook, but Shy has to overcome his pride to accept her help.

“Polaris Is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han: Natalie lives with her adoptive father, Santa, at the North Pole, and has a crush on one of the elves, Flynn; her Christmas wish is a kiss from him.

“There are two kinds of children. The kind who believe and the kind who don’t. Every year, it seems there are fewer in the world who do. Papa says it’s not an easy thing to ask a child to believe in what they can’t see; he says it’s its own magic. He says that if you have that magic inside you, you should protect it all your life and never let it go, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
-Jenny Han

“It’s A Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins: Marigold visits the Christmas tree lot next to her apartment building, trying to get up the courage to ask one of the guys who works there if he will voice one of her animation videos. Before coming out with her question, she accidentally buys a Christmas tree that North helps her bring home – then he helps her reorganize her whole apartment, which she and her mother haven’t bothered to unpack since they moved in (after discovering that they were Marigold’s father’s other, secret family). And then it starts to snow.

“I’ve always felt lucky to live someplace where snow is rare, you know? It’s the rareness that makes it so special.”
“That could be said about a lot of things.”
-Stephanie Perkins

“Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan: A boy dresses up as Santa to help his boyfriend’s little sister keep believing for one more year.

“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black: The narrator and her friends Penny and Wren throw a New Years’ party in her late grandmother’s trailer to trap Penny’s two-timing prep school boyfriend, but some magical guests show up as well.

“Sometimes I felt like I was waiting for my life to begin and more than anything, in that moment, I wanted to force some kind of beginning. I wanted things to be different than usual.”
-Holly Black

“What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman: The title character is regretting her decision to leave New York for the Midwest for college, but things begin to look up when she meets someone who shares her sense of humor (e.g. making fun of reindeer sweaters) at a caroling night.

“Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire: Prankster Vaughn has to save the church Christmas pageant (which he inadvertently ruined by accidentally setting fire to the church barn) and if he can impress the pastor’s daughter Gracie at the same time, well…that’s just extra motivation.

“Welcome to Christmas, CA” by Kiersten White: Maria lives in a tiny California town called Christmas; she can’t wait to graduate and move away with her savings (tips from working in the Christmas Cafe). But when the cafe gets a new chef named Ben – someone who has a knack for knowing (and cooking) exactly what each person wants to eat – Maria thinks she might stick around a little longer.

“Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter: Teen pop star Liddy Chambers swaps tickets with a stranger at an airport to escape her tyrannical manager, Derek; she flies to Oklahoma, where she pretends to be an Icelandic exchange student visiting her boyfriend Ethan and his family, who rally around her even when they know she’s a fake.

“The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor: Neve is a poor orphan whose closest friends perished in a fever last summer; her highest hope is to reach “Age” and be set free so she can settle a plot of land in Fog Cup (as gloomy as it sounds). When the town’s fire-and-brimstone preacher declares his intention to marry her, Neve begs for help from an old god – and the Dreamer answers. A bit Maggie Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races), a bit Neil Gaiman (“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”).

“Some kinds of misery make you hate the world, but some kinds make you hate yourself…”
-Laini Taylor

Cover image of Summer Days and Summer NightsThese stories are set in different places and times, real and imaginary, past and present. The characters are different as well: optimistic and pessimistic, gay and straight, poor and middle-class and wealthy, Christian and Jewish and pagan, Black and white, skeptical and romantic. (One can see why it’s YA authors who are leading the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.) All in all, it’s a pretty near perfect collection, and I’m looking forward to Stephanie Perkins’ other anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories.

Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?