Materials for Youth 9: Historical Fiction Literature from Annette Lamb on Vimeo.
To read the transcript of this video, go to the transcript page.
From children growing up in the Middle Ages to young adults struggling to survive the Holocaust, historical fiction immerse young people a different time and place. Historical narratives can help even young children understand people and places from our past.
Although the historical events are important, it’s the people make history meaningful.
Historical fiction sets the story at some time in the past. The stories are generally associated with authentic historical characters, events, or time period. Historical fiction allow youth to see historical events through the eyes of a fictional character. Readers get to experience the struggles of characters including the hunger, fear, and sadness felt during the Great Depression, American Civil War, or the Black Plague.
Marilyn Irwin (2013) notes that
“In 1989, my daughter was 12 and we took her to see the musical Les Miserables. As we were walking to our car after the show, she said that part of the story was a lot like the book she was reading – Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. It was also at the same time the Tiananmen Square protests were happening in China, and she had seen the images on the news of the solitary young man standing in front of the tank. A French revolt, the American Revolution, and a Chinese uprising were brought together in one of the richest discussions you could ever imagine. The courage of the people, their passions, and everything they sacrificed during these historic events was all brought to life by getting to see some of the people through fictional depictions – not cold data on a page. Whether that had anything to do with her later becoming a history major in college, I’ll never know, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.”
Many teachers find that pairing historical fiction with informational books is an effective way to teach historical concepts. Historical fiction can help students make sense of what they consider to be “boring stuff about dead people”.
Context is important in learning, particularly for children. Works of fiction can help bring life and meaning to the factual information being explored. Specifically, historical fiction is able to provide multiple perspectives and insights into the different ways of thinking about the past. For instance, Tunnell (2012, 150-151) describes how a variety of views are represented in books related to the American Revolution.
“This sort of critical thinking about the story of ourselves - which requires students to operate on the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning - involves examining conflicting viewpoints and making personal judgements.
For example, several pieces of historical fiction for young readers approach the American Revolution from differing perspectives - books such as Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain (1943), a Whig treatment of the Revolution; James and Christopher Collier’s My Brother Sam is Dead (1974), a combination of Whig and Progressive treatments; Avi’s The Fighting Ground (1984), wherein a boy changes from a flaming Patriot to wondering which side (if any) he is on; Scott O’Dells’ Sarah Bishop (1980), told through the eyes of a girl from a Loyalist, or Tory, family who is brutalized by the war; both the Colliers’ Jump Ship to Freedom (1981); and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains (2008), African American perspectives of the Revolution that tell of broken promises of liberty and justice for all. Read in combination, these titles provide the fodder for discussing, debating, and questioning the human motives behind the historical facts.”
Each author takes a different approach when building a work of historical fiction. While some authors painstakingly try to recreate a time period by carefully studying primary sources, others don't worry about authenticity.
Read each of the following articles.
Laura Halse Anderson (March/April 2011). Tasting the past. Horn Book, 23.
Edinger, Monica (March/April 2011). After 'the end'. Horn Book, 79-82.
Jocelyn, Marthe (March/April 2011). Was the pope old? Horn Book, 75-78.
Paterson, Katherine (March/April 2011). My major clash with history. Horn Book, 46-47.
Pinkey, Andrea Davis (March/April 2011). If the glove fits... Horn Book, 32.
Seek out unusual ways to look at history. Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings (2009) by Alan M. Gratz tells the stories of nine Schneider children and their connection to Brooklyn and baseball from 1845 to 1981.
Look for works of historical fiction that represent different cultures.
The Birchbark series (1999+ series) by Louise Erdrich follow life the of Omakayas and her Ojibwa community in the Lake Superior area in the mid 1800s. The fourth book in the series, Chickadee (2013) won the Scott O'Dell award for historical fiction.
The Golden Mountain Chronicles (1975+ series) by Laurence Yep follow a fictional family through over 150 years. The books follow the Young family from China to American and are set from 1849 to the present day.
Christopher Paul Curtis writes works of historical fiction that focus on the plight of African Americans. Books like Bud, Not Buddy (1999) and The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 (1995) are commonly used in the elementary school social studies curriculum.
Read Barker, Jani L. (2010). Racial Identification and Audience in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Children’s Literature in Education, 41, 118–145.
Back in the 1990s, many teachers began building thematic units around works of historical fiction. These units incorporated the growing number of web-based resources available including primary source documents, historical photographs, timelines, and oral histories. One of my favorites was a project surrounding the book Bud, Not Buddy set during the Depression.
Although it's been more than a decade since I updated the links, I still look back on that project as an important first step in thinking about extending books through online sources.
Do you enjoy connecting books with websites?
Historical Fiction Techniques
Authors use a variety of literary techniques to bring history alive for readers.
The use of diary entries is a popular approach. A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32 (1979) by Joan Blos is written in the form of a journal kept by a young girl living in a village in the early 19th century. The first diary entry is shown below.
The Scholastic Dear America series explores topics in history through the use of fictional diaries. For instance, Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, A Shirtwaist Worker (2004) by Deborah Hopkinson explores the famous Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Dialogues and Monologues
Day of Tears (2005) by Julius Lester is told as a series of dialogues and monologues. The image below shows a monologue from a slave-seller in the story.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (2007) by Laura Amy Schlitz is a Newbery award winner with an interesting narrative structure. Each section is told as a monologue by a member of a medieval village. Click the images below center and right for examples.
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (2013) by Helen Frost is a verse novel set during the War of 1812. The story explores the relationship between two 12-year-old boys: one living near the Fort Wayne stockade and the other a member of the Miami tribe. The story is told through alternating pages presented with a different visual pattern of the verse.
Out of the Dust (1997) by Karen Hesse is set in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. It is told in free verse. Click the page below left for an excerpt.
May B (2012) by Caroline Starr Rose is set on the Kansas Prairie and uses free verse to tell the story. An excerpt from May B is shown below right.
Odette's Secrets (2013) by Maryann Macdonald tells the story of a Jewish child surviving Nazi occupied France during World War II. The simple, verse and accessible story provide an excellent introduction to this time period.
Read Cadden, Mike (2011). The Verse Novel and the Question of Genre. ALAN Review, 2011, 39(2). What do you think of verse novels?
A number of books combine historical and contemporary stories.
Postcards from No Man’s Land (1999) by Aidan Chambers tells two stories set in 1944 and 1994.
Revolution (2010) by Jennifer Donnelly explores the interwoven lives of two girls living two centuries apart. Set against the French Revolution, the dual time periods will be attractive to many young adults.
In Wonderstruck (2011) by Brian Selznick, Rose’s story is set in 1927 and Ben’s story is set in 1977. The two stories intersect at the end of the book.
Series books are less common in historical fiction than other genre. However, they're a great way to keep youth reading. In some cases, historical fiction series explore a particular time period such as Ancient Rome. Others focus on a theme. For instance, the Hidden Histories series explore "little known tales from America's past". Rory's Promise (2014) by Michaela MacColl and Rosemary Nichols is based on the true story of foundling children sent from New York to Arizona to be adopted.
Categories of Historical Fiction
Tunnell (2012, 154) identified five categories of historical fiction including:
- A story of historical events happening before the life of the author such as A Single Shared (2001) set in 12th century Korea.
- A contemporary novel that becomes historical with the passage of time such as Snow Treasure (1942) by Marie McSwigan set during World War II when the book was written.
- Authors chronicle their own life stories in a fictional format such as The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
- The protagonist travels back into history such as Jane Yolen’s (1988) The Devil’s Arithmetic.
- A novel speculates about alternative historical outcomes such as Gary Blackwood’s (2002) Year of the Hangman that considers what would have happened if the colonists had lost the American Revolutionary war.
One way to entice youth to the historical fiction genre is through the use of adventure themes.
Gary Paulsen is known for his works set in different time periods including Woods Runner (2010) set after the American Revolution, Mr. Tucket Saga (1969+ series) set during the 1840s, and Soldier’s Heart (1998) set during the American Civil War. They're all short, exciting adventures sure to engage young readers.
Christopher Paul Curtis is another author known for his period adventures. Set in 1859, Elijah of Buxton (2007) explores life in a Canadian settlement established by former slaves. Set in the same community in 1901, The Madman of Piney Woods (2014) focuses on the lives and adventures of two boys growing up in Buxton.
Some historical fiction involves fantasy elements such as magic that reflect the time period being described. Steampunk is a great example of a sub-genre that may include historical references. Gemma Doyle (2003+ trilogy) by Libba Bray is an example.
The Boundless (2014) by Kenneth Oppel is a historical fantasy set in the late 19th century. Incorporating historical events associated with the transcontinental railroad, the novel also weaves fantasy elements into the story.
The Magic Tree House books (1992+ series) by Mary Pope Osborne combine elements of fantasy with historical stories that are based on historical topics. Two children go on adventures through time solving problems. Some of the books contain informational companion books. For instance Titanic: A Nonfiction Companion to Tonight on the Titanic goes with Tonight on the Titanic.
One way to attract youth to historical fiction is the use of humor. Al Capone Does My Shirts (2004), Al Capone Shines My Shoes (2009), and Al Capone Does My Homework (2013) by Gennifer Choldenko are humorous works of historical fiction. To book series website even has an interview with the daughter of the acting warden who lived at Alcatraz. Click the page below right to read an excerpt.
Historical mysteries are a wonderful way to introduce youth to both mysteries and works set in a particular time period. Code Name Verity (2013) by Elizabeth Wein is an excellent example of a book that bridges the historical fiction and mystery genre. Read the Kirkus Review for this complex and intriguing work. Click the page below right for an excerpt.
The Houdini and Nate Mysteries (2007+) by Tom Lalicki are fast-paced historical adventures. The famous Houdini and a boy clerk team up to solve mysteries.
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (2014) is an award-winning novel that combines adventure and mystery in an historical setting.
The P.K. Pinkerton (2012+) series by Caroline Lawrence introduces youth to a detective agency in Virginia City, Nevada Territory during the 1860’s Wild West period. There's a website with additional information to go with the books.
Enola Holmes Mystery (2006+ series) by Nancy Springer is another example.
For teens, All the Truth That's In Me (2013) by Julie Berry combines a page-turning mystery with a spooky historical setting. Ruby in the Smoke (1995) by Philip Pullman is another great historical mystery for teens.
A number of authors including Ann Rinaldi, Katherine Paterson, and Theresa Breslin incorporate romance into their works for young adults.
Historical Fiction by Time Period
Young people often enjoy reading books related to a particular time period. While some youth are interested in the pirates of the eighteenth century, others are drawn to soldiers of the American Civil War.
Many authors focus on a particular time period. For instance, Rosemary Sutcliff was known for retelling myths and legends from the past. The Eagle of the Ninth series (1954+ series) is set in Roman Britain during the 2nd century AD. She's also known for her Arthurian novels.
Unfortunately, many of the works for this time period are dated. Tracy Barrett, Caroline B. Cooney, and Esther Friesner are more recent authors with works like Anna of Byzantium (1999) by Tracy Barrett, Goddess of Yesterday (2003) by Caroline B. Cooney, and Sphinx Princess (2009) by Esther Friesner.
The Roman Mysteries (2001+ series) (shown on right) by Caroline Lawrence bring the Roman empire alive through engaging mysteries.
The Getorix books (2005+ series) by Judith Geary are set during the time of the Roman Republic. Games are available to accompany the books.
Middle Ages and Renaissance (5th-15th Century)
Many young people enjoy reading about the feudal life and lives of royalty from the 5th to the 15th century. The Crispin trilogy (2002+ series) by Avi is sure to please elementary and middle school youth. Set in 14th century England, the books follow the adventures of a 13-year-old boy living in a small village.
A Single Shard (2001) by Linda Sue Parker is an excellent Newbery medal winning novel to get young people started with historical fiction. Set in 12th century Korea, it tells the compelling story of Tree-ear and his quest to become a potter.
Knight's Tales (2008+ series) and Squire's Tales (1998+ series) by Gerald Morris are a great way to introduce young people to the time of King Arthur.
Catherine, Called Birdy (1994), The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995), Alchemy and Meggy Swann (2010), and Will Sparrow’s Road (2012) by Karen Cushman are all popular in upper elementary and middle school social studies curriculum.
Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
When teachers introduce this time period to students, they often assign students to read The Sign of the Beaver (1983) by Elizabeth George Speare. The story focuses on a 12-year-old boy who builds a log cabin with his father. When the boy is left alone by his father, he must work together with native Americans to survive. Click the pages below center and right to read excerpts.
Celia Rees brings historical fiction alive through her engaging, realistic characters. Young people will be drawn to the strong female characters in works like Sorceress (2002), Witch Child (2000), and Fool's Girl (2010).
American Revolution (1763-1783)
Many books are available on the American Revolution. Consider creating sets of books that can be used as part of literature circle activities. Each youth can read a different book and compare the experiences of his or her characters with others reading about the same time period.
Chains (2008) and Forge (2010) by Laurie Halse Anderson provide a unique perspective of slavery. They loook at the lives of African Americans who fought in the American Revolution.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing two-part series (2006+ series) by M.T. Anderson are works that young people either love or hate. Set in 18th century Boston against the American Revolution, the stories are told using an epistolary form and imaginative storytelling. With an 8.3 grade level equivalent reading level, they are difficult for some young adults to read. Having won numerous awards, they're worth the time to match with youth that enjoy historical fiction. Using period language, it immerses readers in history. Click the page below right for an excerpt.
Ann Rinaldi is an author well-known for her works of historical fiction. She's written dozens of carefully researched books set in many different time periods. A few examples below are from the American Revolution period.
The New Nation and National Expansion (1783-1860)
Believable characters are the key to effective historical fiction. There's a fine line between flat, boring characters that get lost in the historical setting and over-the-top characters who aren't natural in the historical setting. Fever 1793 (2000) by Laurie Halse Anderson does a magnificient job bringing her characters alive, yet keeping the historical context. Read the passage below. This teen feels "real" regardless of the time period. Click the image below to more easily read the text.
Seek out works in lesser known areas of history. Sing Down the Moon (1970) by Scott O'Dell tells the story of the Navajo tribe's forced march from their homeland to Fort Sumner by white soldiers and settlers.
Kathryn Lasky has written dozens of works of fantasy and realistic fiction. However, she is best known for her historical fiction such as True North: A Novel of the Underground Railroad (1996).
Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)
When looking for historical fiction related to the Civil War seek out books that provide different perspectives. Youth enjoy reading about people from both the North and the South. The River Between Us (2005) by Richard Peck brings some of these issues to life using a mystery-type approach.
Hook young readers with books filled with adventure. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (2009) by Rodman Philbrick is a Newbery honor book focusing on a young boy who sets out to find his older brother during the Civil War.
The P.K. Pinkerton (2012+ series) by Caroline Lawrence follows twelve-year-old Pinky on his swashbuckling adventures in the American west. This highly reviewed series includes maps and a glossary to help tween readers explore the area surrounding Virginia City, Nevada in the 1860s.
Rise of Industrial America (1877-1928)
Although the turn of the century is marked by industrialization, the West was still wild. Bo at Ballard Creek (2013) by Kirkpatrick Hill tells the story of frontier living in the wilds of Alaska in the 1920s.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (2009) by Jacqueline Kelly mixes history and social issues with science. Calpurnia is a young girl who who wants to learn about science but is faced with the restrictions girls face in the 19th century.
Sometimes you read a book that sends you directly to Google to learn more about the history surrounding the story.
A Northern Light (2003) by Jennifer Donnelly is such a book. Based on a true story, I wanted to see photographs of the real people and read the court transcripts from the murder trial.
I had a similar experience when reading The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (2009) by Jacqueline Kelly. I wanted to go back and read Darwin's Origin of the Species.
Have you ever read a book that sent you on a search for more information?
Karen Hesse is well-known for both her realistic and historical fiction. Newbery winner Out of the Dust (1997) and Witness (2001) are both verse novels. Letters from Rifka (1992) examines a Jewish family's emigration from Russia in 1919, to Belgium and ultimately to the U.S.
Graphic novels with historical settings are becoming increasingly popular. For example, Boxers and Saints (2013) by Gene Luen Yang tells the story of young people on opposite sides of the Boxer Rebellion. Teaching materials are available to go with many works of historical fiction such as Boxers & Saints. Click the image below right for an excerpt.
Watch the trailer for Boxers and Saints.
Think about the value in showing trailer for graphic historical novels.
Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945)
Some young people find historical fiction very text-heavy. Look for works that might appear to visual readers. The Storm in the Barn (2009) by Matt Phelan is a wonderful example. This graphic novel style work is beautifully illustrated and will appeal to a wide range of readers.
A Long Way from Chicago (1998) and A Year Down Yonder (2000) by Richard Peck are two books that do an excellent job reflecting a specific time period. Click on the page below right for an excerpt.
Many outstanding books explore the horrors of World War II. It's important to match books with the developmental age and needs of children. Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry is often used by elementary school teachers, while The Book Thief (2006) by Markus Zusak has become a favorite of high school teachers. The Book Thief is narrated by Death. Read an excerpt below right.
Superpowers, Diplomacy, and Global Economics (1945-Present)
An increasing number of young adult books are being set in 1960s and 1970s.
Seek out humor in historical fiction to draw in a different crowd of youth. For instance, Dead End in Norvelt (2011) by Jack Gantos is set in 1962 against the Space Race and Cold War. Click the page below right for an excerpt that places you in the time period.
Walter Dean Myers is best known for Fallen Angels (1988) focusing on young men in the army during the Vietnam war.
Historical Fiction Transmedia
The Sixties Project (2010+) by Deborah Wiles are three novels set in the 1960s. The books each include archival materials including historical photographs, advertisements, song lyrics, newspaper articles and other materials. Readers can download an iTune playlist and watch the "Duck and Cover" video that Franny watched in school on YouTube. The teacher's guide provides lots of other connections. The book contains lots of historical photographs and primary source materials such as the image below right.
The Value of Historical Fiction
Young people are able to have vicarious experiences through works of historical fiction. Youth learn about our past, think about how they can avoid repeating mistakes of the past, and sometimes even connect with ancestors. Good historical fiction provides a wonderful bridge to art, science, and social studies topics.
Censorship of Historical Fiction
Many works of historical fiction deal with the topic of war. Some parents are concerned about exposing their youth to death and violence, however these elements are common in battle scenes. Both Fallen Angels (1988) by Walter Dean Myers and My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier are on ALA’s 100 Most Commonly Challenged Book list.
When I was growing up, I sometimes visited by Aunt Janice who is just three years older than I. If school was in session, I attended class with her.
She was reading the "new" book My Brother Sam is Dead (1974) set during the American Revolution that included violence, drinking, profanity, and what might be viewed as "unpatriotic views". I thought it was very groovy and much cooler than the book Johnny Tremain (1943) that I had read.
Did an older friend or family member impact your experiences with reading? In what way?
Evaluation of Historical Fiction
If you're looking for exemplary works of historical fiction, be sure to check out the Scott O'Dell Award winners. This award is given to the best in youth historical fiction.
Quality historical fiction immerses readers in the past. Although most of the characters are usually fictional, they should be believable within the historical setting. The plot should surround actual events or activities that could have taken place. In many cases, fictional characters participate in real events. For instance in the book Dragonwings (1975) by Laurence Yep, the Lee family experiences the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Seek out works that weave historical detail into the narrative without overwhelming the reader with endless facts and boring statistics. Youth seek out young protagonists who fit naturally into the time period. Readers learn about the history through the eyes of the characters living it.
It’s important that historical events are portrayed accurately. While the horrors of the Holocaust and the brutality of slavery can be unsettling, it’s essential that young people gain accurate depictions of these topics. Tunnell (2012, 151) states that “history should not be sugarcoated.”
Historical accuracy is paramount. While dialogue may be invented between fictional characters and real historical figures, the events surrounding the fictional character or situation must be true. Irwin (2013) notes that
“to accomplish this, the good historical fiction authors spend a lot of time conducting research before they begin to put pen to paper. If the events aren’t true, it defeats the value of the genre.”
Although accuracy is important, it’s important not to overgeneralize the facts. History has many perspectives that should be represented. Avoid books the perpetuate stereotypes. For instance, not all southern slave-owners were cruel and not all northerners were abolitionists.
Even the small details of daily life should reflect the time period represented by the book. Common diseases and ailments, clothing of everyday men and women, as well as, food and eating habits must be accurate to the period. One of the most difficult aspect of a work of historical fiction is the use of language. While archaic language can help readers with a sense of the time and place, it can also be difficult to read. On the other hand, dialogue incorporating modern phrases can seem out-of-place.
Not all youth are immediately drawn to historical fiction. Begin with short works like Sarah Plain and Tall (1985) by Patricia MacLachlan. This timeless story appeals to young readers.
When selecting historical fiction, keep your eye out for quality works that represent different cultural experiences. For instance, Esperanza Rising (2000) by Pam Munoz Ryan explores as aspect of the Great Depression often overlooked. It tells the story of a young girl who leaves her home in Mexico for a new life in California during the Great Depression.
Huck et al. (2004, p. 488) add the following suggestions for evaluation:
- Does the author provide background information in an afterword or author’s note that will help readers distinguish between what is fact and what has been fictionalized?
- Are different points of view on the issues of the time presented or acknowledged?
- Is the language of the narrative appropriate to the time, drawing figures of speech from the setting?
- Does the theme provide insight and understanding for today’s problems as well as those of the past?
Huck, C. S., et al. (2004). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School, 8th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.
Irwin, Marilyn (2013). Materials for Youth. Lecture notes.
Tunnell, Michael O., Jacobs, James S., Young, Terrell A., & Bryan, Gregory (2012). Children’s Literature, Briefly. Fifth Edition. Pearson.