“What matters in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality.”
- György Lukács (1)
Accurate historical fiction, written by hard working authors (and illustrators)-turned-historians, can both educate and entertain. In the social studies classroom, educators often pair historical fiction with works of non-fiction and primary sources. Other times, works of historical fiction are read purely for fun. It’s possible the book was purchased at an online bookstore, given as a birthday gift, or checked out from the local library. Regardless, by the time a young reader has finished reading a work of historical fiction, they have gained some amount of historical awareness.
What is so important about history anyways? It’s often said that we study history so that we won’t repeat the past. The past may be full of dates, places, and people, but history is made up of their stories. What better way to uncover and understand the past than through story—the great literary device that has the ability to grab our attention, shape our opinion, spark our interest, and engage our imagination. But not all historical fiction is the same. Some stories are very serious, others will make you cry, and still others will make you laugh. Here we will explore some sub-genres and blended genres of historical fiction. While exhibiting different formats and styles, they all have the ability to “re-imagine the past through the lives and relationships of their protagonists,” and the events and issues that affected them and their families. (2)
In this genre of historical fiction, authors bring the past to life by drawing from their own family’s experiences. Lee Galda, a professor of children’s literature, notes that good biographical stories “illuminate the interaction between an individual and historical events” and help young readers “envision what life was like in the past” (3).
- Taylor, Mildred D.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Dial Press, 1976. 276 pp. Grades 6-8.
The Land. Phyllis Fogelman Books, 2001. 375pp. Grades 7-9.
(and the rest of the Logan family series)
- 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.
Mystery Historical Fiction
Historical fiction in the form of a mystery is a fun way for authors to take actual historic people, places, or events and flesh out their stories. When a protagonist is involved in solving a mystery of some kind, details from the past come alive in a unique way.
- Flake, Sharon. Unstoppable Octobia May. Scholastic Press, 2014. 288 pp. Grades 5-7.
- Hannigan, Kate. ’s The Detective’s Assistant. Little Brown & Co., 2015. 368 pp. Grades 5-7.
- Melvin, Treva Hall. Mr. Samuel’s Penny. The Poisoned Pencil, 2014. 254 pp. Grades 5-8.
- Scattergood, Augusta. The Way to Stay in Destiny. Scholastic, 2015. 224 pp. Grades 5-7.
Poetry and Historical Fiction
Novels in verse, historical or otherwise, are a relatively new poetic form, which allows a narrative to unfold, poem, by poem. The poems can come from multiple perspectives and often include colloquial language. (4) Poetic historical fiction is great for read-alouds, dramatic or otherwise (5).
- Burg, Ann. All the Broken Pieces. Scholastic Press, 2009; 218 pp. Grades 6-8.
- Hesse, Karen. Out of the Dust. Scholastic Press, 1997. 227 pp Grades 6-8.
- Helen, Frost, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. Frances Foster Books, 2013. 160 pp. Grades 6-8.
Humor and Historical Fiction
Not all historical fiction is serious. In fact, many authors present their historical fiction with unlikely characters and strange interactions. Humor has great appeal for late-elementary and middle schoolers, especially young male readers. Try hooking a reluctant reader with one of these books:
- Choldenko, Gennifer.
Al Capone Does My Shirts (Al Capone at Alcatraz #1). Putnam's Sons, 2004. 228 pp. Grades 4-8.
Al Capone Shines My Shoes (Al Capone at Alcatraz #2). Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009. 274 pp. Grades 4-8.
Al Capone Does My Homework (Al Capone at Alcatraz #3). Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013. 224 pp. Grades 4-8.
- Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2011. 341 pp. Grades 5-8.
- Peck, Richard.
A Long Way from Chicago (A Long Way from Chicago #1). Dial Books for Young Readers, 1998. 148 pp. Grades 6-8.
A Year Down Yonder (A Long Way from Chicago #2). Dial Books, 2000. 130 pp. Grades 6-8.
Fair Weather. Dial Books, 2001. 139 pp. Grades 5-7.
Fantasy and Historical Fiction
Historical fiction can also be blended with other genres, in this case: fantasy. These blended stories usually involve a time-slip or magical transportation back in time. However in other types of fantasy-historical fiction blends, the protagonist only interacts with the past in a supernatural or abnormal way.
- Behrens, Rebecca. When Audrey Met Alice. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2014. 272 pp. Grades 5-8.
- Reiss, Kathryn.
PaperQuake: A Puzzle. Harcourt,1998. 264 pp. Grades 6-8.
Paint by Magic: A Time Travel Mystery. Harcourt, 2002. 288 pp. Grades 6-8.
- Tyre, Lisa Lewis. Last in a Long Line of Rebels. Paulsen Books, 2015. 288 pp. Grades 5-7.
Historical Fiction Blends for Younger Readers
The following historical fiction book series fall outside the focus of this site but are still worth mentioning. They are great examples of combining fantasy, humor or adventure with historical fiction. Also note that the series cover time periods throughout world history, not just American history.
- Osborne, Mary Pope. The Magic Tree House Series. Random House, 1992-2016. Grades 1-4.
- Scieszka, Jon. Time Warp Trio Series. Viking, 1991-2005. Grades 3-4.
- Tarshis, Lauren. I Survived Series. Scholastic, 2010-2016. Grades 1-4.
Historical Fiction Series
More than any other type of historical fiction book, series titles receive the most criticism. Author Kim Wilson argues that historical fiction series books tend to “rescue from oblivion the inarticulate, the forgotten people, even the ‘losers’ of history”, leaves the young reader with a skewed view of the past. It intimates, that rights and freedoms are easily won, making a mockery of those who suffered and endured (and by implication did not have the courage to take a stand).” (6)
While this can be true of any historical fiction book, historical fiction series do often lack historical accuracy, instead “re-writing history” in favor of mass-market appeal (7). While Vardell argues that the series format can help “provide an avenue for continued reading” (8), librarian Nina Lindsay points out a gap in this argument. Addressing library and education professional’s role she says, “I doubt that the historical fiction series books I read promote the kind of inquiry that many of us would hope for. It is up to librarians, teachers, and caring adults to provide the environment for this to happen—it’s not part of the publisher’s packaging” (9).
That being said, here are some series to take with a grain or two of salt:
- Various authors. American Girl Collection and BeForever Series. American Girl, 1986-2016. Grades 4-6.
- Various authors. American Girl History Mysteries. American Girl, 1999-2004. Grades 5-8.
- Various authors. Dear America Series. Scholastic, 1996-2004. Grades 6-8. Features female protagonist.
- Various authors. My Name is America Series. Scholastic, 1998-2004. Grades 6-8. Features male protagonist.
1. Adamson, L. (1987). A reference guide to historical fiction for children and young adults. New York: Greenwood Press. P. xiii.
2. Crew, H. (2014). Experiencing America's story through fiction: Historical novels for grades 7-12. Chicago: ALA Editions. p. ix.
3. Galda, L. et.al. (2013). Biography and memoir. Literature and the child. New York: Cengage. p. 283, 288.
4. Vardell, S. (2014). Children’s literature in action: A librarian’s guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. p. 124.
5. Ibid, p. 200.
6. Wilson, K. (2011). Re-visioning historical fiction for young readers the past through modern eyes. New York: Routledge. P. 125.
7. Lindsay, N. (1999). Packaging the past. School Library Journal, 45(7), p. 35.
8. Vardell, S. (2014). Children’s literature in action: A librarian’s guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. p. 198.
9. Lindsay, N. (1999). Packaging the past. School Library Journal, 45(7), p. 35.