Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I feel its importance extends well beyond a narrative. It is a means of connecting a past life to a current reader. However, I know that historical fiction gets overlooked by young readers because they may fear it will be dry and boring (perhaps like their textbooks?). Reader's advisory is essential to connect kids to historical fiction. If you begin to tell them the story--the real story--they often want to learn more. I have compiled a list of my favorite historical fiction book for each age range, and why I feel that they can be teachable books for all who read them.
Author: Marty Crisp
Grade Range: PK-3
Why? This book, which shares about a cat on the Titanic, sounds simple in its story. But it can teach children as young as preschool about the historical sinking of the Titanic. It also helps younger readers start to understand the impact of social class on travel, and in this case, survival.
Title: Out of the Dust
Author: Karen Hesse
Grade Range: 4-8
Type: free-verse poetry
Why? Out of the Dust is written in the poetry form, and it enlightens the reader to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Both areas are covered lightly in history books, especially the Dust Bowl. But Out of the Dust uses a family to demonstrate what it was like to live during this time in our country.
Title: I Survived Series
Author: Lauren Tarshis
Grade Range: 2-6
Why? The I Survived books are such important historical fiction works for kids, I had to include them all. As dark as it might seem, kids are fascinated with disasters. It is very normal and natural, and it is part out of fear and part out of the unknown. Lauren Tarshis has created a series of books that places characters in some of the greatest disasters in history. These books teach kids about these disasters--from what precipitated them to their outcome. This series rarely stay on the shelves in my library, and they take historical events and create suspenseful works that keep the young readers coming back for more.
Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Rita Sepetys
Grade Range: 7 and up
Why? In this book, Rita Sepetys (who also wrote Between Shades of Gray, another quality historical fiction YA novel), brings to light the period of time near the end of World War II, where the immigrants in the story are caught between fleeing Germany and fearing the alternative, the Soviet Union. The characters are working to reach the ship, Wilhelm Gustloff. History has already taught us that the ship is the greatest maritime disaster of all time (and if students don't know that, which I did not when I first read the book, they will learn about it by the end of the story). But, of course, that is dramatic irony in this story. There are many books about the horrors of the Germans during World War II, but few that explain how the liberation by the Soviets left for little relief in Eastern Europe. Between that component and the shipwreck (that many history classes skip over), it is a book packed with learning opportunities.
Recently, I was reading an article about some remarks that were made a few years ago on the Senate floor regarding children with special needs in general education classrooms. The words “old school” stood out to me in the article. Throughout my career--both in the library and in education--I have heard people say, “Well, I’m old school, and I think it should be done this way.” That phrase has always been said so emphatically by those who say it, that it was seemingly said with pride. But it wasn’t until this article that I began to think of using “old school” and education together, and how concerning that really is.
When I was a young teacher and I heard those words, I would often think, “Am I doing something wrong?” I mean, I didn’t even know what old school was; I hadn’t been around long enough! And the idea straight rows of silent students sounded pretty miserable (both for me and for the students). I would hear it in connection with curriculum writing--”I’m old school, I think every high school student should read____.” You can fill in the blank with any book that is considered part of the canon. The hardest part of that conversation was trying to convince people of the modern fiction that will never be read if we only stick to classics. Not only will those books be missed, the classics don’t always connect with kids. But it was the “it has always been done so it must be good” mentality.
Change is hard. Updating is hard. When I started at the North Manchester Public Library last year, I had to hire a circulation manager in my first week and a new children’s librarian within my first three months. Because we are our own people and our own team, we didn’t do everything the way it was always done before. Some of that was because we didn’t even know how it had been done before. Some of it was that we were able to pull-in experience from our own work backgrounds to make improvements. Our intention was always to do what was best for the library. However, we were met with resistance from various people because it wasn’t the way it had always been done. Even though we were doing what we saw as improvements, they were unhappy that there was change.
By stating that one is “old school” is implying that they are uninterested or unwilling to change. But when it comes to educating our kids, we must realize that the kids we are educating live in an ever-changing world. Being “old school” won’t cut it, because “old school” doesn’t take into account that our current students live in a very different world than students even ten years ago.
This brings me to our genre for the month--historical fiction. “Old school” teaching of history was from a textbook and only a textbook. But there is so much to be gained by teaching history through literature and primary sources. When I was a student in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t have primary sources at our fingertips. Now, they are accessible through databases with the click of a button. I know a lot of students who will never voluntarily read a textbook but can’t wait to curl up with their own book. No, it’s not traditional teaching, but it might meet the needs of this generation better than the methods that we used to teach kids a decade or more ago. Being afraid of change or updates--in literature, education, and in life--only stalls us in a world of inevitable change.