Story Before Facts: Successful Historical Fiction for Kids


By Anne Johnson

One of the traps of writing historical fiction is the urge to cram in as many nifty historical facts as possible. Hey, you did all this amazing research. You owe it 

to your reader to share every footnote, right?

Actually, no. If you write with that attitude, your reader will feel like history is being shoved down his/her throat. That’s not a fun sensation.

This particular peril doubles with kidlit historicals, because we authors tend to think “kid” and closely follow that with “needs to be taught.” We put those two ideas together and shift into Teacher Mode. The manuscript may end up chock-full of factoids, but the writing will probably be awkward and forced. Fighting the urge to over-teach in historical children’s fiction is worth a renewed effort with every paragraph.

For Trouble at the Scriptorium, I wanted to introduce kids aged 9-12 to concepts of the medieval craft of bookmaking as well as Gregorian chant. The only way to do it without boring them to sleep was to use the information very specifically to support a good story and well-rounded characters. Those elements had to come first. Adventure, action, danger, humor, emotion, just like I’d write in another genre. But, in this case, all those things happened to apply to life in a fiefdom in early Thirteenth-century England.

On the other hand, there’s an advantage to using a child protagonist in writing historical fiction: A young character probably has a lot to learn about the world around him or her. I chose to focus Trouble at the Scriptorium on two very different kids (a servant boy and a noble girl), each of whom has particular things to learn during the novel. Between the two of them, they discover the way books are made at a scriptorium, how monks notate and sing chants and psalms, how other cultures affect English life, and how power is divided from the King on downward in the feudal system. Learning those things about their own world is essential to their solving the problems that face them in the story. And the reader learns along with them, incidentally.

At least I hope that’s how it turned out! I tried to remind myself constantly that my primary job was to entertain. But the fact is, I love to just sit in the library and peruse historical documents. To me, they are entertainment, in and of themselves. My secret hope is that some of the kids who read Trouble at the Scriptorium will become so interested in medieval history that they’ll want to learn more about it, beyond what they can find out through fiction.

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You can purchase Trouble at the Scriptorium directly from the publisher:

You can learn more about Anne at her website.

For updates on Anne’s publications and appearances, “like” her Facebook author page or follow her on Twitter!/AnneEJohnson

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