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.
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
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.
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.