Now I Get What It Was Really Like: Reading Historical Fiction to Understand History

Encouraging students to read historical fiction can lead to a greater interest in historical events. Historical fiction adds the human element to events that can sometimes seem remote and dull to students. Fictionalizing history enables young people to "feel" what it was like to have been there. Enjoyment of historical fiction is often a starting point in developing a love of history.

Historical fiction helps the reader ...

Understand and remember an historical event.

I remember never being quite able to remember what Bacon's Rebellion was and why we had to learn about it in history class. After reading My Brother, My Enemy by Madge Harrah, I began to have an appreciation of what it felt like to be attacked by Indians on the Virginia frontier in the early 1600s. When the government ignored the farmer's call for help, I could understand why the colonists would resent a government that would "hang them out to dry." I began to see how this event became one of the steps in our country's quest for independence in a way I could never have understood if I had only read about the event in a history book alone.

Understand the complexity of historical events.

Historical fiction can help us see the varied and complex issues that are part of any significant historical event. In Shades of Gray, the main character moves from hatred of his uncle who is a conscientious objector to the Civil War to respecting his uncle's position even if he doesn't agree with it. In Cecil's Story (a picture book), a young boy begins to understand that his life will never be the same when his father comes home from the Civil War missing an arm. In Nettie's Trip South, a young girl witnesses a slave auction that shapes her feelings about the need for change in this time period. Reading all these books would give fourth and fifth grade students who study the Civil War a balanced look at that conflict.

Develop a personal relationship with the event.

Because historical fiction is a story and not just a statement of facts, the reader gets personally involved with the characters. In Gloria Whelan's story, Night of the Full Moon, the main character follows her Indian friend home. As she is trying on her friend's clothes, the cavalry comes to force the Potawatomi Indians from their tribal lands. In the ensuing confusion, she is assumed to be one of the tribe and is rounded up with them. Her anguish helps the reader understand the brutal treatment of Native Americans as they are torn from their homes and forced into other areas of the country.

Be more receptive to straight history because he or she has a connection or familiarity to it based on story.

The book, Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki while history instead of historical fiction, reads like a story. A Japanese diplomat gives visas to hundreds of Jews who would otherwise have been destined to concentration camps. It would be hard to believe that anyone could read about his bravery without becoming interested in other stories of heroism surrounding World War II.


Place books on a timeline as the student reads books from different periods. As each book is listed on the timeline, students will have a visual that reinforces the chronological order of historical events. Placing books on a map based on the setting also strengthens students' knowledge of geography and history.

Here are just a few historical fiction titles that you and your students might enjoy reading:

Colonial Life

The Bear That Heard Crying by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, Puffin Books, 1997, pbk, 0-14-055854-3, RL: 4.2.

A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla, HarperCollins, 1981, hc, 0-690-04097-0, RL: 3.9.

Meet Felicity: An American Girl (Book 1) by Valerie Tripp, Pleasant Co., 1991, hc, 1-56247-005-1, RL: 5.2.

My Brother, My Enemy by Madge Harrah, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 1997, hc, 0-689-80968-9, RL: 4.8.

Revolutionary War

Katie’s Trunk by Ann Warren Turner, Aladdin, 1997, pbk, 0-689-81054-7, RL: 4.9.

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln, Scholastic, Inc., 1989, pbk, 0-590-42792-X, RL: 5.8.

Thomas in Danger by Bonnie Pryor, HarperCollins, 1999, hc, 0-688-16518-4, RL: 3.7.

The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart by Kristiana Gregory, Scholastic, Inc., 1996, hc, 0-590-22653-3, RL: 4.8.

Frontier Life

Next Spring an Oriole by Gloria Whelan, Random House Children’s Publishing, 1997, pbk, 0-394-89125-2, RL: 4.1.

Night of the Full Moon by Gloria Whelan, Random House Books for Young Readers, 1996, pbk, 0-679-87276-0, RL: 4.5.

Westward Movement in the 1850s

Addie Across the Prairie by Laurie Lawlor, Albert Whitman & Company, 1986, hc, 0-8075-0165-4, RL: 5.4.

Boston Jane: An Adventure by Jennifer L. Holm, HarperCollins, 2001, 0-06-028739-X, RL: 8.2.

Rachel’s Journal: The Story of a Pioneer Girl by Marissa Moss, Silver Whistle (Harcourt), 1998, hc, 0-15-201806-9, RL: 5.2.

Imagined Adventures in the mid- 1800s of Adaline, Kit Carson’s daughter

Adaline Falling Star by Mary Pope Osborne, Scholastic Press, 2000, hc, 0-439-05947-X, RL: 5.3.

Civil War

Cecil’s Story by George Ella Lyon, Orchard Books, 1991, lb, 0-531-08512-0, RL: 3.5.

Eben Tyne, Powder Monkey by Patricia Beatty, William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1990, lb, 0-688-08884-8, RL: 5.6.

Nettie’s Trip South by Ann Turner, Aladdin, 1995, pbk, 0-689-80117-3, RL: 3.0.

Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder, Aladdin, 1999, pbk, 0-689-82696-6, RL 5.5.

Winnebago Are Forced Out of Their Homelands in the 1860s

Kunu: Winnebago Boy Escapes by Kenneth Thomasma, Baker Book House, 1992, pbk, 0-8010-8892-5, RL: 4.9.

Westward Movement in the 1870s

Wagon Wheels by Barbara Brenner, HarperCollins, 1993, lb, 0-06-020669-1, RL: 2.4.

World War II

The Morning Glory War by Judy Glassman, Dutton Children’s Books (Penguin Putnam), 1990, hc, 0-525-44637-0, RL: 5.1.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin, 1989, hc, 0-395-51060-0, RL: 4.9.

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki, Lee & Low Books, 1997, hc, 1-880-00049-6, RL: 4.2.

The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark by Carmen Agra Deedy, Peachtree Publishers, 2000, hc, 1-56145-208-4, RL: 4.6.

Aftermath of the War in Vietnam

Goodbye Vietnam by Gloria Whelan, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1992, 0- 03-066513-2, RL: 6.1. Out-of-print.

Overall View of American History

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (Rachel Field’s 1930 Newbery Award-winning Story) adapted by Rosemary Wells, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 1999, hc, 0-689-81716-9, RL: 5.0.

Explores the Great Lakes

Paddle-to-the-Sea by Clancy Holling, Houghton Mifflin, 1969, hc, 0-395-15082-5, RL: 4.5.

Watts Schwab

MLA Citation Schwab, Watts. "Now I Get What It Was Really Like: Reading Historical Fiction to Understand History." Library Media Connection, 24, no. 2, October 2005. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 2151522

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