Next week, I plan to conduct an informal poll among kids who come into my library to find out if they care about the cold war. I mean, it's history, so it doesn't necessarily matter if it's trendy or not. But to me, the cold war is like the scrunchie. There's no kitsch. No nostalgia. It's just outdated. Bolsheviks? Bomb shelters? Don't those words make you feel sort of ... embarassed?
I just read a book about the Cold War: Rex Zero and the End of the World, by Tim Wynne-Jones. I was hoping it would actually be about the apocalypse. Instead, it's about how when you're a kid, the world is scary because you only half-understand what you're hearing. Especially when some people are speaking in French and other people are beating you up because you say "garage" as though it rhymed with "carriage."
Rex Zero moves to a new neighborhood in Canada and makes friends with kids who believe that a circus panther is loose in the local park. They do lots of 1960s golden era stuff like ride their bikes and catch tadpoles in jars and buy rootbeer at the drug store, and sometimes, they worry about the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb. It's a solid book (summery mood, stuff happens, the title is totally superhero-esque), but I couldn't help comparing it to The Fire-Eaters, by David Almond.
The Fire-Eaters takes place during the same time period but is set in an old coal mining town in Ireland. And it's just soooooooooo much more disturbing. There's a black windswept coastline, a mysterious lingering illness, and a guy who sticks sharp metal things into his body. So in the end, when everyone gathers on the beach to have an end-of-the-world bonfire, you sort of wonder if something terrible is going to happen, even though, obviously, the world didn't actually end in the 60s.
But both of these books are part of a movement away from cozily reassuring historical fiction for kids. Though The Fire-Eaters is definitely eerier (say that out loud--it sounds weird), they both represent the kiddy paranoia that runs rampant on hot summer days when there's not enough to do and the news reports are bleak. And if the Horn Book award for Fiction is any indicator, carnival-esque historical kidlit is going to be the done thing. Marc Aronson said something similar in his January SLJ column. Make history scary! Give it teeth and claws! It's not just a reality check, it's a question of good taste. Without its urgency, recent history just sounds dated.