Reading Children’s Literature: A Critical Introduction

Written by Carrie Hintz Eric L. Tribunella
Review by Ann Pedtke

Meaningful critical treatments of children’s literature are all too rare, and close examinations of children’s historical fiction are rarer still. With Reading Children’s Literature: A Critical Introduction, Carrie Hintz and Eric L. Tribunella help to fill this gap, offering an accessible yet substantive treatment of children’s literature that is equally useful for teachers, librarians, scholars, and casual readers.

While this beautifully designed volume contains much to interest the historical fiction enthusiast – including a chapter on “historicizing” childhood, a chapter on reinterpreting fairytales, and a chapter on nonfiction history writing for children – the lengthy chapter devoted exclusively to historical novels takes pride of place. Acknowledging historical fiction’s roots in the didactic writing of the 19th century, Hintz and Tribunella move on to discuss the many strengths and challenges of the genre. Perhaps the most intriguing discussion centers on the question of accuracy versus authenticity – and the related issue of presentism, or the tendency of writers to reflect their own time periods in their historical work. While the increasingly debated issue of exactly where historical fiction cuts off (the author’s lifetime? the 1950s? the 1970s?) is never addressed, the chapter does tackle other tricky definition issues such as time-travel and time-slip. The authors draw on a diverse selection of titles – both classic and contemporary – and offer close readings and suggested teaching approaches to ground the discussion.

While Hintz and Tribunella acknowledge the pop culture series such as American Girl that have drawn criticism to historical fiction for prioritizing didacticism over literary quality, they do not allow the genre to be dismissed. Instead, they celebrate historical fiction as “one of the most consistently honored genres in children’s literature” – a place the genre will continue to hold, so long as it has advocates like Hintz and Tribunella to keep it firmly in the spotlight.