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Looking Back: Literature that Brings History to Life

As a child, I loved reading books set in the past. Novels like The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell took me to a time and place far away that I found captivating. It wasn't until I was a classroom teacher that I realized that not everyone loved historical fiction as much as I did. That has set me on a lifelong quest to help students (and adults) see how fascinating and fun books set in the past can be—reading about inspiring characters, learning new and intriguing details, and delving into universal themes about identity and courage. Historical fiction dramatizes and humanizes the past for us, giving us the "virtual experience" of living in another time in award-winning books by authors such as Deborah Wiles, Jennifer L. Holm, Alan Gratz, Ruta Sepytus, Lauren Wolk, Kimberly Bradley Brubaker, Rita Williams-Garcia, Christopher Paul Curtis and Gennifer Choldenko, among others. Historical fiction typically consists of novels set in a historical period before the author's lifetime (most historical novels fall here) or novels that become historical with the passing of time (like Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer). But this genre has evolved so much in recent years to include exciting new formats such as historical picture books, novels in verse set in the past, blends of history and fantasy, "own voices" stories, and tales from around the world. With the popularity of the musical, "Hamilton," we can capitalize on this renewed interest in history by sharing good books for young readers that bring history to life.

Curricular connections

When selecting historical fiction to share with young readers it is helpful to remember that before age nine or ten, most children have little concept of history. Their cognitive abilities are still developing. To them, last summer or last Christmas seems like ancient history. But typically by age ten or so, historical stories can help provide young readers a context for beginning to learn more about human history, as well as a source of reading that involves exciting adventures and engaging characters—just set in a different time. When it comes to collection development, historical fiction definitely offers meaty content that has "teachable" value. Historical novels can supplement the history or social studies curriculum with human stories that bring events to life. They can help develop an appreciation of our historical heritage and provide the reader with a vicarious experience of the past through literature. A well-written historical novel can give children a sense of participation in the past, a sense of continuity, of our place in the sweep of human destiny. We can time travel through good books! Just as fantasy encourages children to imagine an alternative reality, so does historical fiction. Students can learn a lot about history without even knowing it, while engaging in a story with a hero just like them, struggling with important decisions and trying to grow up to become an independent person. Ultimately, historical novels not only show us that change is inevitable, but also that some things (such as the human need for love and connection) are unchanging.

Most historical novels published in the U.S. are set in the United States. This includes the New World (pilgrims, colonialism, the American Revolution), the American frontier, enslavement, the Civil War, and World War II. But that is changing. And more history with a multicultural or global focus is being published with former taboos discussed openly in an appropriate historical context. Books like Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai, A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, and Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden are exciting new additions to the genre. Over the years, many works of historical fiction have also been Newbery award recipients, such as:

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

More Formats

Although very young children may not be cognitively ready to delve deeply into history, I do believe historical picture books are worth sharing with them if they contain a good story to lay the historical groundwork for later understanding such as in Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle or This is the Rope by Jacqueline Woodson. Even better, however, is the usefulness of the historical picture book with older children. The shorter format is unintimidating, the clear focus of the story is memorable, and the illustrations help them visualize the historical era. Karen Hesse, on the other hand, blended poetry and history to create novels in verse that qualify as beautiful historical fiction, beginning with the Newbery medal–winning Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997). And authors like Margarita Engle (Jazz Owls), Joy McCullough (Blood Water Paint), Kip Wilson (White Rose) and Jeannine Atkins (Finding Wonders) fuse history with poetry in creating powerful verse novels set in the past. Some authors are using historical fiction in conjunction with other genres in new, creative ways, such as historical fantasy. Mary Pope Osborne, for example, features a brother and sister duo in the Magic Tree House series. Here we have a blend of history and fantasy. These often make for humorous, action-packed read alouds guaranteed to entertain while they weave in historical information.

Conclusion

Historical fiction that is well written and engaging is just as compelling a story as any suspenseful mystery or escapist fantasy. We just have to delve into the variety of current titles available to find a historical novel that will capture each young reader. Will it be humorous history? Medieval mystery? With an enthusiastic introduction by an adult, children can see that historical fiction has timeless relevance, lively writing, and interesting people. Many of these books can also be tied to film adaptations (e.g., Sarah, Plain and Tall) or audiobooks (e.g., Dead End in Norvelt). Exposure to historical fiction will certainly better equip children to tackle their history homework, but even more significantly, we hope they can also find stories from the past that are relevant and meaningful to their lives today.

CHILDREN'S LITERATURE IN ACTION

Librarians in Action: Making History Come Alive

After earning a degree in business administration, Marleen Gould Horsey changed directions, became a teacher, and then turned to school librarianship. Working full-time at Nathan Adams Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, she earned her master's degree in library science from TWU. She was awarded the Texas PTA (Parent Teacher Association) Lifetime Membership, their highest honor, and was named the Dallas Association of School Librarians (DASL) Elementary Librarian of the Year. In her very first year as an elementary school librarian she tried something different, and it just happened to mushroom into a major event covered in the newspapers, on radio, and on television. Here's the story.

A Sweet History Lesson
by Marleen Horsey

When I think of the phrase "literature in action," I think of making a story come to life for children, especially if it's the story of a historical episode that will link their lives with literature and social studies. I found such a story in Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot by Margot Theis Raven (Sleeping Bear Press, 2002). The story takes place in Germany after World War II, during the Berlin airlift. One American pilot bringing food and supplies to the city under siege began to drop parachutes made of handkerchiefs and candy to the children of Berlin. A young girl named Mercedes wrote a letter to Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen, whom the children called "The Chocolate Pilot," asking him to drop candy at her house, because she was too small to catch the candy at the airfield. Touched, Lt. Halvorsen mailed a letter and a package of candy to Mercedes. Years later, now-Colonel Halvorsen returned to Germany and met Mercedes, who had saved his letter and was now a pilot herself. They remain friends today.

After meeting with the principal, the PTA president, and the Reading Department faculty of our school, we decided to reenact the story on our elementary school campus. The PTA rented a helicopter and purchased the supplies, the language arts teachers and parent volunteers made 600-plus parachutes with Hershey candy bars attached, while I read and discussed the story with every class in the school. Students created Venn diagrams, learned new vocabulary and geography, and wrote letters of their own. Some classes even created dioramas of the story.

Early in November, the principal announced that in honor of Col. Halvorsen and Veterans' Day, we were going to have a "Spirit Rally." The students were to gather around the soccer field and have a contest to see which class could yell "U-S-A" the loudest. As the children were chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A!" the helicopter appeared and started dropping the parachutes and candy. I was standing beside a preschool class and knew the project was successful when I heard one of the children say, as she gazed up at the falling candy, "It's just like in the story."

I thought that was the end of the project. But I started to hear from military veterans who said they had been there in Berlin during WWII. One came to the school to give me a signed poster picturing Col. Halvorsen. The Dallas Morning News ran a full-page article showing a book discussion with our students and a group of veterans, including Col. Halvorsen himself (on speakerphone), who is now living in Utah. People called to offer photos and videos to share their personal war stories with the students. The Dallas Independent School District featured a piece about the project on their television show, School Zone Dallas.

What I envisioned had taken place—and more. Not only did the children make a personal connection between their lives, literature, and history, but they also learned the far-reaching effect of one person's act of kindness.

From Sylvia Vardell's Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, third edition. For more information visit Libraries Unlimited. You can also find professional learning activities, handouts, and related Web resources on the book's companion website at https://books.librariesunlimited.com/childrens-literature-in-action/.

About the Editor

Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA's Book Links magazine.

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Vardell, Sylvia M. "Looking Back: Literature that Brings History to Life." School Library Connection, January 2020, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2232720.
Chicago
Vardell, Sylvia M. "Looking Back: Literature that Brings History to Life." School Library Connection, January 2020. http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2232720.
APA
Vardell, S. M. (2020, January). Looking back: Literature that brings history to life. School Library Connection. Retrieved from http://schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2232720
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Entry ID: 2232720

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