Monday, March 18, 2013

Writing Historical Fiction

At the start of January my students began their unit on historical fiction, first reading The Breadwinner by Ellis and then The Mzungu Boy by Mwangi. Their reading list also included several stellar historical fiction picture books as well as a few non-fiction resources that provided students with historical and geographical context for Afghanistan and Kenya, the respective settings of these two novels. Of course, as they read, they wrote; short journal entries and dialogues in the voices of the protagonists, personal Writer's Notebook entries inspired by the plight of certain characters, and opinion pieces about the texts and the choices author's made while writing. Last week we embarked on the culminating project for this unit - each of my 47 students is composing their own short historical fiction piece. I required them to set their story in either Afghanistan (1990-2005) or Kenya (1950-1965), as these were the historical periods they had studied, but otherwise left details of plot and character development to the budding authors.

Today I conferenced with a student who, in a mere three pages of writing, had already crafted a harrowing story of a young Afghan man who has chosen to join the Taliban depsite his family's protests. She depicts him patrolling a Kabul market place and viciously attacking a five year old girl who dares to sing as she walks along a road with her father. As we discussed her creative choices I gently mentioned to my student that I thought it might be less horrific if he punished a teenager rather than such a young child. She looked at me incredulously and replied, "But that's the whole point. The Taliban is cruel. It's supposed to be emotional." Though I initially felt a bit concerned that I had exposed my students to such upsetting truths about the world, I have come to feel quite proud of this writer's choices (and indeed, the choices of my many students who have written about remorseful Talibs, rebelling Kenyan villagers and children of war and violence who, unlike the adults around them, are willing to overlook differences and treat each other humanely).

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