Young Adult War Fiction: Fixture or Trend?

A short perusal of Historical Novels Review’s Children’s & Young Adult book reviews over the past year reveals an interesting statistic: roughly half are “war fiction,” and yet more are sandwiched in eras between wars, which generally results in characters immersed in war-affected circumstances. While reading a young adult novel about the Beatles, She Loves You: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah by Ann Hood (Penguin Workshop, 2018), the question emerged — how far-reaching is the war theme in current young adult historical fiction? At first glance, Hood’s novel did not seem to fit the category of war fiction, yet it covered a wide range of cultural events of the Sixties, along with the undercurrents of the Vietnam War. Similarly, Sandra Gulland’s latest, The Game of Hope (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2018), focuses on a period in the life of Hortense de Beauharnais (step-daughter of Napoleon), and touches upon the French campaign in Egypt that is taking place. Sometimes war details simply aren’t important to the narrative, but the setting is vital — and thus a war fiction categorization is still relevant, if not focused. There are, however, many middle grade and young adult novels written expressly with a war theme in mind — in fact, some were requested by publishers to fill the market demand, which is the case for several of the authors mentioned in this article.

Amazon’s “Children’s Military Fiction” category houses pages of recent and popular titles, and shows no signs of slowing down. Are authors consciously writing this genre, or are there simply more war titles accepted from publishers? When asked if, in writing her book, Courageous (Scholastic Press, 2018), she was aware that it would be categorized as “war fiction,” Yona Zeldis McDonough replied, “Yes, and I was completely fine with that. I’m not so concerned about genre; I just want to write the best book I can. I let the booksellers deal with categorizing it.” Chris Lynch, author of Special Forces: Unconventional Warfare (Scholastic Press, 2018), added, “Not that I ever made a serious study of it, but just paying attention, it’s rather inescapable. Particularly in Britain, where I spend most of my time, there are certain magazines and television stations that absolutely thrive on war stories.” Anyone scrolling through Netflix will attest to that statement, but what truly interests kids? Laurie Calkhoven, author of Sergeant Stubby, Hero Pup of World War I (Scholastic, 2018), has the perfect answer to that question. “Historical fiction is a great way to get young readers interested in history. We can tell the stories that the textbooks leave out.” Indeed, historical fiction fills that gap exceedingly well.

One of the things that sets young adult fiction apart is the narrating voice, which is nearly always a young boy or girl — often a coming-of-age tale — but one increasingly popular POV is that of a dog. Calkhoven explains, “We decided to tell the stories from the dogs’ point-of-view. Although both books in the series so far focus on real dogs and mirror the real events in their lives, telling the stories from the dog’s point-of-view allows me to take some creative license. I don’t speak dog — as much as I would like to — and that’s primarily why these books are fiction and not nonfiction.” Calkhoven’s G. I. Dogs, Kate Messner’s Ranger in Time, and C. Alexander London’s Dog Tags series are a few that feature man’s best friend coupled with a wartime setting. Steve Watkins, author of On Blood Road (Scholastic, 2018), relates his idea of war fiction: “I’d include in this definition of war fiction the experiences of those who have served in combat, and who, along with their families, are facing the challenges of returning to ‘normal’ life after war.” Similarly, Marsha Forchuck Skrypuch, author of The War Below (Scholastic, 2018), says, “My passion is writing about young people who are caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and war is the ultimate extraordinary circumstance.”

A commonly mentioned quality in HNR’s Children’s & Young Adult reviews is multi-age readership. Most of the authors interviewed expressed joy and contentment with writing for a younger audience, but are thrilled with appealing to older readers as well. On this, Forchuck Skrypuch says, “I have a significant adult readership. When I write a novel, I don’t think in terms of audience, but rather try to show what it was actually like for the person living through the event. The designation of age level is made by my publisher, so some have been designated YA/adult while most have been designated middle grade/YA. One thing that I like about writing for a younger audience is that there is a great responsibility placed onto the author to be historically accurate. Since I am a stickler for accuracy, it’s a natural fit.” Watkins is of a similar opinion: “I think what we’re seeing lately is a lot of adults drawn to MG and YA literature of all genres, and especially war fiction.” Perhaps war fiction in particular because, for many, a simplification of vastly detail-laden (and also sometimes gruesome) topics makes a more enjoyable reading experience. Calkhoven is among the authors happily ensconced in their genre. She says, “I don’t have any plans to write for adults. Kids are in some ways harder to write for, but they’re also a lot more fun!”

To open the main topic of discussion — is war fiction a fixture in juvenile literature, or just another passing fad? — several authors have chimed in. One interesting perspective on this comes from Forchuck Skrypuch, who offers this insightful observation: “I’ve been writing war fiction since my very first book, which was published in 1996. When I first started out, contemporary fiction was more popular, but the 9/11 tragedy changed that. Up until that time I had found it hard to interest publishers in war fiction, so my early novels were a contemporary/war blend. 9/11 plunged our continent into a vast introspection and this meant looking at past conflicts for ideas about how to anticipate the future. Suddenly my war novels were the ones that publishers wanted. I think this is also due to the fact that my war fiction focuses on the lesser-known experiences of civilians living in the war zone. I haven’t seen the interest lag, and in fact, there’s probably been an uptick in the last two years. I think war fiction is popular because in an anxious world, people can read how others in the past dealt with extraordinary experiences, and perhaps give them insight as to how they might handle parallel circumstances.”

Specifically on WWII fiction, Alan Gratz, author of Refugee (Scholastic Press, 2017), explains, “Books about World War II will always find a place on the shelf, but I do think they’re having ‘a moment’ right now. Why? That’s hard to know. I do think that young readers respond to the injustice of World War II; they become just as indignant about the Nazis, for example, as they do bullies at school. The villains in World War II are pretty easy to identify, too, and the reasons we fought are good, noble, and logical — things that can’t be said about many other wars. It’s modern enough to be easily relatable, in a way that even World War I, just twenty years prior, is not.” WWII is certainly having a moment — in Children’s and Adult fiction. It seems to offer writers all the necessary elements of an intriguing story — a hero or heroine in a risky situation, acts of bravery, and the battle between good and bad. There is also the humanity component, as Lynch states: “I do not think war fiction is at all a passing fad. There is a reason — lots of reasons, actually — why it is so consistently on the shelves. The stories are so human when you get right down to it. You get to deal with huge war-changing events, and play them out through the lives of real folk on the ground. There is built-in love and fear and danger and humor, heroism and treachery. It contains all humanity itself in extremis. What could be more compelling than that?” Further touching on the subject, he says, “It is remarkable to note the way we keep looping back on ourselves and revisiting the same conflicts in the same places, and if kids can pick up my book and get a slightly clearer understanding of today’s running conflicts in the Eastern Hemisphere, I will feel I have accomplished something worthwhile.”

Ultimately, what do authors hope that readers will take away from their experience? War is not a glamorous topic, yet we, as readers and writers, are collectively drawn to it. Zeldis McDonough describes her thoughts on this and ends on a hauntingly poignant note. “I’m not a fan of war and tend to see it as a necessary evil rather than a grand or heroic opportunity. I did my best to convey this in Courageous, especially through the character of George, who is a soldier and comes to the realization that ‘the enemy’ is not some faceless, nameless automaton, but comprised of all-too-human boys and men, just like himself. The German soldier who is killed in the story is someone’s son/brother/friend/cousin/sweetheart, and his death will rip a ragged and painful hole in all those lives. I wanted George — and my readers — to understand that; to me, it is one of the most important aspects of the book. There was a WWI-era song that says it all:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier

I brought him up to be my pride and joy

Now they’ll put a musket on his shoulder

To kill some other mother’s darling boy.”

About the contributor: Arleigh Ordoyne has worked in the book industry for more than a decade and is an active member of the book blogging community with her website Historical-Fiction.com. She has been reviewing books online for 12 years and with Historical Novel Society since 2011.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 86 (November 2018)


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