Ann Rinaldi's Feminist Historical YA Fiction Deserves a Party
Young adult and middle grade historical fiction goddess Ann Rinaldi celebrated her 70th birthday Wednesday, and she deserves a party. Rinaldi is responsible for rejuvenating young people's — particularly young women's — interest in U.S. history though her 40-odd novels and her additions to the beloved Dear America series.
Rinaldi didn't start publishing novels until after she was married with children. She credits her son Ron with sparking her interest in the Revolutionary War through his participation in reenactments. On her website, Rinaldi explains what historical fiction meant to her:
These people [the founding fathers of the United States] helped form [my son, Ron's] foundation for life which, when tested, held strong. It is for this reason that I write historical fiction for young people. If I can 'turn them on' to our country's past, and seize their imaginations as Ron's was seized, then I may succeed in doing something really worthwhile.
And it's not just that her books were worthwhile, it's that they were also engrossing and completely amazing. Of her more than 40 novels, eight of them are listed as "notable" books by the American Library Association. One of her most popular books, Wolf by the Ears, was honored by the ALA as one of the Best of the Best.
Why Did We Love Ann Rinaldi Books?
In 1981, Rinaldi was covering a reenactment of the day Trenton learned of Yorktown's victory in battle for the local newspaper. She says it was there that the idea for her first historical fiction novel was born:
I realized I was going to write a young adult novel on the American Revolution. A good one. Not one utilizing all the myths and the famous figures.
And sure, we learned in school about George Washington and John Adams, but Rinaldi offered us kids a way to learn about history through people just like us: young, non-famous girls. And we learned all through the betrayals, the romance, and the family drama, that sometimes history can be more interesting than anything someone could have made up.
Take for example, Wolf by the Ears:
Readers saw inside Monticello, not as a historical artifact, but as a living, breathing place. And Thomas Jefferson's relationship to his slaves wasn't just a footnote in your history book, but it came alive with Harriet, Jefferson's slave who might also be his daughter, as she struggled with her own identity.
And then there was An Acquaintance with Darkness:
It has a totally different setting in history, and a totally different tone, but again, Rinaldi brings us up close and personal with history. This time, through a young girl who hears whispers about a plan to assassinate the president, Abraham Lincoln. Suddenly, this point in time is three-dimensional, and not just a date we remembered for quizzes.
Jumping around in history again is Cast Two Shadows, another of Rinaldi's most popular:
Remember the Quartering Act, pre-Revolutionary War when British soldiers were allowed to take over and occupy people's homes in the colonies? I think I always will now because of this book, and teenage Caroline's struggle with deciding which side of the conflict she believes in.
And Rinaldi tackles very specific events, too. Such as the Salem Witch Trials in A Break With Charity:
Or the Boston Massacre, with The Fifth of March — a particularly big one for me, as a Boston-native:
No matter that the setting was historical, Rinaldi's characters always rang true, facing obstacles we were facing too in modern times, albeit with slightly lower stakes. These conflicts reflect concerns common to young adults — family discord, first love, identity — and she never spoke down to us.
On her website, she said:
I write young adult novels because I like writing them. But, as with my first book, I don't write for young people. I just write. Real life, as I know it.
Why Do We Still Love Them?
Ann Rinaldi is a pretty awesome woman. As an adult, I've looked into her history more, and as she tells it, no one wanted her to write historical fiction, especially historical fiction starring young women:
Time Enough for Drums is close to my heart, my favorite — the one everyone told me not to write! I went against the grain of what everybody told me, but then, that's what I did in my lifetime, too.
Rinaldi didn't have the easiest childhood, but she credits this dysfunction for her interest in writing:
I can create a family or set of people, give them names, move them around and make their world as I want it to be. I guess , in part, it stems from never having had the world as I wanted it to be.
Perhaps this is also why her novels are imbued with some serious feminism. Most all of her protagonists are young women, tough, though they don't always start out that way. There is always a difficult decision to be made, I'm talking life or death, and they handle it with honesty, but without whining. And through her stories, Rinaldi gives young women the chance to be a catalyst changing the course of history.
Take Jem from the aforementioned Time Enough For Drums:
Don't be fooled by that handsome, ponytailed gentleman on the cover; this is truly Jem's story. She fervently believes in American independence from the British, and she's not afraid to speak her mind about it. She will go to great lengths to help the cause in any way she can, while all the men head off to war.
And then there's Susan, from my personal favorite The Last Silk Dress:
Susan has serious energy and spirit, it's just that she was raised in a staunchly Confederate household during Civil War. Though she's dedicated to the Confederate cause, she's open minded enough to rethink her traditional position and grow up to have opinions for herself when she's faced with damning information. And once she figures out how she feels, she's willing to risk her family, her home, and her life for what she believes:
If You Loved Ann Rinaldi Books, Try Reading...
1. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
Frog Music has historical fiction, an unsolved mystery, and a pretty tough female protagonist. Set during the smallpox epidemic and heat wave in 1876 San Francisco, Donoghue's story will appeal to those who like their fiction with a touch of fact.
2. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
It's hard to imagine Rinaldi fans not just swooning over this epic historical fiction novel The Invention of Wings . Told from the perspective of a slave in early 1900s Charleston, the novel is jam-packed with Rinaldi's favorite themes: identity, women's empowerment, and the struggle for expression, in a truly devastating time in history.
3. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Taking our historical fiction overseas, this YA novel centers around a young girl who is captured by the Gestapo when her British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. It's super-thrilling, and there are not one, but two, seriously great female characters that lead the show.