Writing Fiction About True History, by Shirley Reva Vernick

Back (way back) when I was a student, history was presented to me as a string of loosely knit factoids. Studying felt like a mind-numbing slog through dates, battles and maps. It was cold, impersonal, distant—and not much fun to read, research or write about. That’s why I never took an elective history course. I even avoided the temptation of art history classes, because I didn’t want to spend a semester knee-deep in faceless names and arms-length artistic movements.

Then as a college sophomore, I serendipitously learned that Real History had happened in my own hometown, a remote village on the Canadian border. My sociology professor had sent us off for fall break with an assignment: identify a local conflict, past or present, and write a paper analyzing it. So I asked around and learned that a blood libel had occurred in my town in the 1920s. A small Christian girl had disappeared (in truth, she’d only gotten lost while playing in the woods behind her house), and a Jewish youth was accused of murdering her and taking her blood for a ritual sacrifice. The whole Jewish community was targeted with interrogations, property searches, boycotts, and threats of physical harm. A few years after that, Hitler would use the blood libel as part of his attack on Jews.

I immediately knew that this local hate crime would be the subject of my first novel one day. Years later, The Blood Lie debuted (Cinco Puntos Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books). It went on to become an ALA Best Fiction Books for Young Readers pick. It also won the Once Upon A World Book Award from the Museum of Tolerance, earned a director’s mention in the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction, and took home honors in the Sydney Taylor Awards, the Los Angeles Unified School District Awards, and the Skipping Stones Awards.

Learning about the local blood libel was a turning point for me. It showed me that history is made of real, three-dimensional people, some of whom are a lot like me, others of whom are very different. It proved that seemingly isolated incidents are often part of a complex web of issues. And it demonstrated that the past ripples into the future, into the now.

I quickly became hooked on history-focused books, podcasts, magazines and websites…both for my own personal interest and in search of that next nugget of history to share with young readers.

For my next historical novel, I decided to explore the xenophobia triggered by the Jack the Ripper spree. But how to tell the story in an age-appropriate, engaging way? I needed (and wanted) to stay away from the gore. And, after writing a first draft as a straight historical novel, I decided that a modern sensibility would be more meaningful and appealing to readers. Upshot: a time-travel story in which two contemporary classmates get whisked to the slums of Victorian London, where the Ripper lurks. Ripped Away will be released on February 8, 2022 by Regal House Publishing.

My appetite for history led to a strong interest in WWII, so naturally I had to write a book set during that time too. I read and researched and read some more, hunting for a true but lesser-known story involving children. Finally, I learned about the balloon bombs that Japan sent across the Pacific to North America. Falling Stars (Lee & Low Books, summer 2022) follows youngsters in both Japan and the U.S. as they experience the balloon bombs—and the war—in very different ways.

Thankfully, the teaching of history today is worlds ahead of when I was memorizing factoids. I’m forever grateful that my own children have an integrated sense of global history, as well as a recognition of its relevance. For this, I credit their excellent classroom instruction and the availability of fine children’s historical literature.

Shirley Reva Vernick is the award-winning author of five novels for young readers. A graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars, she is committed to creating stories that inspire hope, tolerance, and a love of reading. Shirley also mentors incarcerated individuals with their writing via the Prisoner Express program. Please visit her at www.shirleyrevavernick.com.

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