Past Meets Present in YA and MG Fiction

By Editorial Director Amy Fitzgerald

As a kid, I was obsessed with historical fiction. For me, it was an exciting escape from my generally comfortable but uneventful middle-class white life. Only later did I notice that it’s usually white people who fantasize about living in a different time.

I had the luxury of seeing the past as an adventure, of learning about history in ways that felt “fun.” And if I read about a troubling slice of history, the lesson I drew from it was that I was lucky to live in a time when those problems were over. According to the classes I took and the news coverage I absorbed, the United States had “solved” racism, “fixed” misogyny, “won” the Cold War, and “never agained” genocide. (LGBTQIA+ issues didn’t even rate a mention.) That’s a wrap, folks! We can now look back at the past with fascination at how bad it used to be and gratitude that we’ve sorted everything out!

These days, I still love historical fiction, and I often acquire and edit middle grade and young adult historical novels. (Torch by Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Red Menace by Lois Ruby are just two examples.) But I no longer approach history as a purely fun escape for young readers. And I no longer draw a thick line between the past and the present. I recognize how a powerful story can intertwine the two, exploring history’s impact on our lives now.

In Indigo and Ida, Heather Murphy Capps’s debut middle grade novel, Indigo is dealing with typical eighth-grade challenges: trying to keep old friends and make new ones; maintaining her credentials as a straight-A student and aspiring journalist but also wanting be cool. When she discovers that a school policy is being applied unfairly—with BIPOC kids getting punished while white kids get off the hook for the same offense—Indigo speaks out. Her principal and many of her peers accuse her of overreacting, of having an ax to grind, of being too angry. Indigo doesn’t know what to do.

Luckily, she’s recently stumbled upon a stash of private letters written by groundbreaking Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Ida, writing to an unknown recipient, shares personal details about her lifelong antiracism work: her lowest moments, the betrayals she suffered, the doubts she faced, and the passion for justice that kept her going. (Heather based these fictional letters on events from Wells’s real life, as told in Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells and Wells’s other writings.) In reading these letters, Indigo feels as if Ida is talking directly to her. So many of the challenges they face have the same roots. And the hope they find has the same roots too. When Indigo learns how Ida paved the way for her, she grows more confident in her own path.

Connections between the past and the present show up often in Carolrhoda books.

In Marcia Argueta Mickelson’s YA novel The Weight of Everything, Sarah is grieving her mom’s death, although taking care of her struggling dad and her little brother leaves her no time to really mourn. Her mom was a history professor who always tried to get Sarah interested in the main subject of her research, intersections of Guatemalan and US history. Sarah never saw the appeal. But now, she regrets feeling so disconnected from her mom’s Guatemalan heritage, and she wishes she’d paid more attention to what her mom wanted to share with her. She uses her mom’s research as a starting point for a school project, creating artwork about the 1954 Guatemalan coup. (Spoiler alert: this overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected government was orchestrated by the CIA and had lasting, devastating repercussions.) Sarah faces pressure to find a less “political” topic for her project.

But to Sarah, this episode in history is no longer abstract. It’s the story of her great-grandfather, who fled Guatemala after the coup. It’s the story of her mother, who worked hard to call attention to the coup’s ugly impacts. It’s becoming part of her own story, as she realizes that burying pain won’t make it go away. By speaking up about this history, she’s honoring the people who lived through it; she’s keeping her mom’s memory alive; and she’s finding her voice—as an artist, as a budding activist, as a regular teen claiming space for herself.

In digging into the past, Indigo and Sarah each uncover painful truths, but they also find legacies that fill them with pride. They find kindred spirits whose words and actions speak to them even though these people are no longer alive. They find context that helps them make sense of their lives and that guides their choices. Their own journeys are enriched by these echoes across time.

I still believe reading should be an adventure and should, in many ways, be fun. I want young readers of all backgrounds to see characters they relate to experiencing joy and connection, telling jokes and having harmless mishaps, getting into low-stakes hijinks, and growing in ways that don’t depend on trauma.

I also want them to have access to stories that acknowledge how hard life can be—in specific ways, for specific groups of people—and help them untangle the whys and hows that stretch back generations. Stories that respect their struggles and their resilience. Stories that reassure them they aren’t alone, because people before them have paved a way for them.

Praise for Indigo and Ida

★”Indigo is a relatable and sympathetic character, and the social justice issues she champions at her school are timely and ring true. Readers will be inspired by Indigo’s passion and compelled to read more about Wells, too.”—starred, Booklist

“This lively middle-grade novel successfully captures the turmoil of finding one’s place while navigating the various demands of growing up. . . . A satisfying story that demonstrates how the past can shed light on the present.”—Kirkus Reviews

Praise for The Weight of Everything

“A poignant, raw, and emotional story of grief, loss, and the courage it takes to fight for our beliefs—and ourselves.”—Crystal Maldonado, author of Fat Chance, Charlie Vega and No Filter and Other Lies

The Weight of Everything is a beautifully told, breathtaking story about a young woman’s fight to care for her wounded family while remaining true to the call of love and an awakening social conscience.”—Francisco Stork, author of On the Hook

Read more posts from Editorial Director Amy Fitzgerald!

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