My daughter once asked if I was born in the 1900s and if life was in color back in the olden days. I realized right then how important it is to introduce history to the younger set. I stopped fighting the kind of books I wanted to write and found myself in the world of young adult historical fiction. I had to learn very quickly what younger readers are looking for, and along the way I learned a few things.
Any historical fiction reader would probably agree that we love to time travel through books. This comes secondary to what we really want, which is a moving story about characters we care about. Historical facts, while important to build authenticity, can be overused and create distance that doesn’t serve any reader. This is especially true with a young adult audience. The younger readers in their teens, twenties, and thirties want authenticity. They want real, raw emotion and connection, and they won’t find that in the description of candle making in the seventeenth century.
When marketing for my first YA historical Chasing Eleanor, a local librarian invited me to the high school to discuss my book with their book club. When I talked about Eleanor Roosevelt and the Great Depression, they nodded politely. When I blurted out that the book is about how parental mental illness affects children for decades, their eyes lit up. Connect with the emotion of a book, and you’ve just increased your chances of hooking a younger reader. When we drop the pretense and accept the messy side of trauma, we’re likely to gain a few new young fans.
Choose your words with care. This is a point of contention in historical fiction, and I really don’t understand why. There is an overuse of offensive—yet historically accurate—terminology, and it hasn’t once led to a stronger story. This kind of dialogue builds walls and distances people instead of bringing them close to a protagonist. Younger readers are modern readers, and they have a zero-tolerance policy for hurtful language. Think twice before inserting something purely because of historical accuracy. The less we rely on these painful terms, the more room it leaves to put our readers through the emotional wringer of the human condition.
Young adult books have a unique style that includes short, punchy chapters, with a story that goes straight to the heart. Now, you certainly don’t need to write YA to entice younger readers, but leaning into the simplicity of emotion can pay off in a big way. Yes, we want subtlety and nuanced themes and multidimensional characters, but there’s no denying the emotional gut punch of an assertive, no-nonsense scene.
One of my favorite authors who appeals to both young and adult audiences is Ruta Sepetys. She writes stories about how major events in history affected teenagers. Her characters are real and multi-dimensional, and her gritty storylines hold nothing back. She never talks down to her readers or offers a life lesson, but brings young, complicated relationships to the historical discussion in a way that people of all ages can fall in love with.
Young readers are voracious and far more accepting than we give them credit for. I find them to be open to a range of stories, and I want to offer them historical options. They’re savvy readers and a powerful demographic, but above all, they deserve to see their ideals reflected in the stories we write. The closer we can stay to empathy and understanding, the more likely we are to bring readers of all ages into our world, our books, and the love of history that we all share.
Kerry Chaput is a multiple award-winning, historical fiction author who believes in the power of stories that highlight young women and found family. Her young adult historical Chasing Eleanor, has been selected as an Editors’ Choice title by the Historical Novel Review. Her viral TikTok series features badass women in history. Connect with her at kerrywrites.com.