"Values and ideologies, human actions and reactions are not trans-historical; they are contingent on the historical context of the era and are radically different from the present.”
- Kim Wilson, Re-Visioning Historical Fiction for Young Readers (1)
“Historical novels are always products of a particular historical context. As a result, their characters and historical arguments reflect the knowledge, politics, and worldview of authors at a particular moment in time.”
- Sara Schwebel, Child-Sized History (2)
Below is a selection of classic children’s historical fiction published between the years of 1951 and 1985. While the “history” displayed in these novels has not changed, the context has. What Wilson and Schwebel say is true: historical fiction is a product of one’s own time. An historical story written in the 1950s will be different from one written in the 2000s. Many factors can contribute to this. As time passes, roles, attitudes, and expectations change. Characters who were once contemporary to particular historical settings, can now seem stereotyped and dated (3). The author's research and writing style also make a difference. These are often directly impacted by present-day social perspectives, political correctness, and cultural tolerance, replacing generations of racism, social superiority, and anthropological misunderstanding.
Does that mean we should discredit historical fiction written in the past as too racist, intolerant, and misguided? Not necessarily. Schwebel notes, “As historical scholarship shifts, the historical arguments embedded in middle-grade fiction endure. . . while the past itself is static, history—the interpretation of the past—continually evolves.” (4) Reading different books set in the same time period not only allows young readers to expand their historical knowledge, it also helps teach how events and issues can affect different people in different ways (5).
This presents the perfect opportunity to use historical fiction as a teaching tool. Pairing “timeless” historical novels with more contemporary works is a great way to teach historical awareness through the collective story of a certain time period.
Read two historical fiction books about the same time period (one from 1950-1980 and one from 1990-2015), or read 3-5 books set in the same time period (but written at varying times). Then explore the differences and similarities between the books. You will not only learn a little more about the past, but also begin to think about how these things contribute to our understanding of knowledge, truth, and point of view. (6)
Speare, Elizabeth George. The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Houghton, 1958. 249 pp. Grades 6-8.
Speare, Elizabeth George. The Sign of the Beaver. Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 135 pp. Grades 4-6.
Avi. The Fighting Ground. HarperTropy, 1984. 157 pp. Grades 4-8.
Collier, James Lincoln. My Brother Sam is Dead. Four Winds Press, 1974. 216 pp. Grades 6-8.
Frontier & Pioneer Life
Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1973. 275 pp. Grades 4-6.
MacLachlan, Patricia. Sarah, Plain, and Tall. Harper and Row, 1985. 58 pp. Grades 3-6.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls.
Little House in the Big Woods. Harper and Row 1932. 238 pp. Grades 4-6.
Little House on the Prairie. Harper and Row, 1935. 334 pp. Grades 4-6.
Farmer Boy. Harper and Row, 1933. 371 pp. Grades 4-6.
On the Banks of Plum Creek. Harper and Row, 1939. 338 pp. Grades 4-6.
By the Shores of Silver Lake. Harper and Row, 1939. 290 pp. Grades 4-6.
The Long Winter. Harper and Row, 1940. 334 pp. Grades 6-8.
Little Town on the Prairie. Harper and Row, 1941. 304 pp. Grades 6-8.
These Happy Golden Years, Harpers and Row, 1943. 288 pp. Grades 6-8.
Hunt, Irene. Across Five Aprils. Follet, 1964. 223 pp. Grades 6-8.
Taylor, Sydney. All-of-a-Kind Family. Dell, 1951. 188 pp. Grades 4-6.
Armstrong, William. Sounder. New York: Harper, 1969. 116 p. Grades 6-8.
Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Dial Press, 1976. 276 pp. Grades 6-8.
World War II
Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. New York: Crowell, 1980. 216 p. Grades 6-8.
1. Wilson, K. (2011). Re-visioning historical fiction for young readers the past through modern eyes. New York: Routledge. p. 125.
2. Schwebel, Sara. (2001) Child-sized history: Fictions of the past in U.S. classrooms. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. p. 3.
3. Vardell, S. (2014). Children’s literature in action: A librarian’s guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. p. 220.
4. Schwebel, Sara. (2001) Child-sized history: Fictions of the past in U.S. classrooms. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. p. 5.
5. Vardell, S. (2014). Children’s literature in action: A librarian’s guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. p. 202.
6. Schwebel, Sara. (2001) Child-sized history: Fictions of the past in U.S. classrooms. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. p. 6. and Vardell, S. (2014). Children’s literature in action: A librarian’s guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. p. 202.