Historical Fiction Mash-Ups: Broadening Appeal by Mixing Genres

By Rabey, Melissa | Young Adult Library Services, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Historical Fiction Mash-Ups: Broadening Appeal by Mixing Genres


Rabey, Melissa, Young Adult Library Services


Most librarians would not think to put historical fiction at the top of a list of fiction genres popular with teens. Historical fiction is too often equated with school, facts, and other uninteresting subjects. With some historical novels, that is certainly the case. Within the past decade, however, many works of historical fiction have been published that go far beyond these preconceived notions. What explains this change? Look no further than the mash-up. A mash-up, first used to describe the combination of two or more songs, now refers to any joining of previously separate items, creating a new format or genre. The popularity of the literature mash-up has grown by leaps and bounds since the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. However, before this book, more subtle genre blending has been happening in young adult literature for years.

Librarians have seen, as Anita Silvey notes, that "today's teens are crazy about characters (and scenarios) that have little in common with their own everyday lives." (1) Whether that means historical fiction, fantasy, or science fiction--or a combination of them--many teens are looking for a complex story that sweeps them away from their everyday concerns. While realistic fiction remains popular, many of the most popular novels in the past decade are considered works of fantasy, such as the Harry Potter or Twilight series. As the desire for fantasy titles remains steady, publishers have sought ways to broaden that genre's appeal. Fusing elements of fantasy, science fiction, or other genres with historical fiction helps meet the demands of today's teen reader, as well as create a new interest within them for unusual works of fiction.

Historical Fiction and Fantasy

Thanks to the popularity of fantasy, mash-ups that combine historical fiction with fantasy are perhaps the most popular kind of mash-up. Just like that Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial, historical fiction and fantasy are two great tastes that taste great together. Several popular historical novels owe their popularity, in part, to the inclusion of fantasy elements within them.

A classic example of a historical fiction mash-up is Sorcery and Cecelia, the delightful epistolary novel by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. Originally published in 2003 and described as a fantasy as written by Jane Austen, this novel tells the story of two cousins navigating a Season in London and country life in an England that has a Royal College of Wizards. The two sequels, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician continue the story of Kate and Cecelia through marriage and children. Sorcery and Cecelia represents one popular approach to joining historical fiction with fantasy: adding magic to a historical setting. In the same vein, there are Marissa Doyle's novels about the Leland sisters. Bewitching Season and Betraying Season are set in the 1830s and feature Persephone and Penelope Leland, well-bred twin sisters who happen to have magical abilities. Because magic is not a proper hobby for daughters of the nobility, the sisters must conceal their talents. It is only their desire to rescue a young Queen Victoria that makes the Lelands reveal their abilities to others.

Libba Bray's exquisite trilogy starring Gemma Doyle is another example. Starting in A Great and Terrible Beauty and continuing in Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing, Gemma slowly comes into her magical birthright to protect the Realm. A shadowy otherworld, the Realm is threatened by actions of the past, and Gemma must undo the damage while maintaining her position as a student in a genteel Victorian boarding school. I, Coriander by Sally Gardner shows how a fantastic element can be used as a metaphor. Coriander lives in London during the Commonwealth, when music, dancing, gaining and other pastimes were strictly forbidden by the Puritans. Finding a pair of seemingly magical silver shoes, Coriander is taken to a fairy tale kingdom, the world that her mother actually belonged to. …

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