The seventh grade English curriculum at my school includes a lot of historical novels, and when I teach seventh grade English, I talk about how historical fiction falls somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from almost fully rooted in historical fact to almost fully fictional.
One book that falls on the mostly-rooted-in-fact end is Melanie Crowder’s lovely biographical verse novel, Audacity, which tells the story of labor activist Clara Lemlich. On the opposite, mostly fictional end is Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces, which is set soon after the Vietnam War; the premise of the story (a main character who was airlifted out of Vietnam and adopted by an American family) is rooted in historical fact, but all of the characters are fictionalized. Then there are books like A.B. Westrick’s Brotherhood and Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Seeds of America” trilogy, which fall somewhere in the middle.
The eighth grade curriculum, on the other hand, mostly features contemporary young adult fiction and some classics. This fall, my eighth grade students have been discussing two contemporary novels: we recently finished reading Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys, and I’ve been reading Jake Gerhardt’s Me and Miranda Mulally as a read-aloud. As we geared up to read the end of All American Boys, we left off at the end of a chapter in which one character proposed reading a list of names at a protest.
I asked students to predict what those names would be, and they correctly guessed that the characters in the book would read a list of real-life people who have been victims of police brutality.
When I asked them why they felt so sure that the book would include names we would recognize even though it is fiction, one student said, “Yeah, but it’s on the realistic end of the fiction spectrum.”
This struck me as an interesting comment, because I had never really thought about a spectrum of realism in contemporary realistic fiction. In theory, all contemporary realistic novels would be pretty close to the realistic end of the fiction spectrum. But then I thought more about the distinction she was making and realized that she was absolutely right. All American Boys is very clearly grounded in reality. Unfortunately, the book’s inciting incident, in which an innocent black boy is brutally beaten by a white police officer, is reminiscent of many recent events. Moreover, the authors reference a real-life artist and cartoon, Aaron Douglas and the Family Circus cartoon, as influences on one of the main characters. This book is fiction, yes, but it is conspicuously set in the world in which we live.
Our class read-aloud, Me and Miranda Mullaly, is on the opposite end of this realistic spectrum. As we’ve been reading the book, students have often commented on how some of the scenes feel larger than life. The main characters at times read like caricatures, with their defining traits magnified for comedic effect. The book includes the characters’ responses to free-writing prompts in English class, and my students often point out that no one would really share personal details or insult their teacher and classmates in their free-writing assignments, the way characters in the book do.
What’s interesting, though, is that when students laughingly say they can’t believe characters would write these things, they aren’t objecting to the way the book is written. They have even pointed out that it isn’t realistic that eighth graders would write emails to each other in 2016–they would text–but they don’t care all that much that characters in the novel email each other.
They have accepted that this book is on the over-the-top, not-so-realistic end of the contemporary realistic fiction spectrum. It’s not fantasy or magical realism–it just reads like real life with the volume turned all the way up. Because the students are entertained and the over-the-top tone is consistent, they are perfectly willing to accept content that they don’t find completely believable. On the other hand, I think they’d be much less willing to accept an occasional hard-to-believe moment a in book that falls on the very realistic end of the realism spectrum.
My own books tend to fall on the very realistic side of this contemporary realism spectrum, but some of my favorite humorous novels, like Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury Brookfield books, fall closer to the not-so-realistic end. Someday soon, I want to try my hand at a funny book with a completely over-the-top tone. Maybe consciously thinking about this spectrum will help me!