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Children's Historical Fiction, Historical Awareness, and the Professional Dilemma

When historical fiction is taught in elementary and middle school classrooms, it is often presented as literature, or alongside works of nonfiction and primary sources. Children’s historical fiction is not regularly taught for its own educational merit or as means of gaining historical awareness. While the pairing of fiction and nonfiction is a useful tool that teaches the importance of scholarly and primary sources, we must also consider how these stories alone can positively impact children to become better students and members of society.

Around the time that students enter middle school, their knowledge of the past begins to shift from snapshots of famous people and events, to a broader critical understanding of the context behind these things that happened long ago. Because of this, children’s historical fiction, primarily published at the middle-grade reading level, are perfect tools for gaining historical awareness. It is an understatement to say that educators and librarians encourage children to read such titles. Many children’s historical fiction titles are atop the Newbery Medal’s list of winners and honors books, recognized as distinguished contributions to American literature for children.

Yet what is the point of collecting and encouraging middle grade historical fiction? The numerous historic fiction chapter books sitting on shelves and being added to collections every day are not just for entertainment. They are pivotal tools for learning historical awareness in both libraries and classrooms, and perfect opportunities to promote reading, imagination, and discovery.

Historical fiction has the capacity to open a young reader’s mind to what life was like in the past. This is historical awareness. It not only gives “flesh and bones” to the history being learned from classroom textbooks, but it also provides an understanding of the way modern society functions, and the tolerance and attention that is needed to engage with individuals and ideas unlike themselves. In light of America’s current events—hot-button issues such as immigration, the economic recession, the refugee crisis, the Black Lives Matters movement, and political conflicts—middle grade historical fiction can provide young readers with relatable stories about similar characters and events from the past.

Using historical fiction to gain historical awareness may seem like an obvious choice for librarians and educators seeking to make learning about the past relevant. However, there are two main roadblocks that make such an argument necessary. One of these is the strict limitations of the Common Core State Standards, which require educators to teach history and social studies through non-fiction materials. Another barrier comes from library and education professionals themselves. I have observed a parallel, yet unconnected objective in how children’s historical fiction is used in the classroom and promoted in libraries. From the perspective of educators, the library has not been the best resource for gathering children's historical fiction. And on the other side of the coin, librarians often reinforce the idea that “teaching” historical awareness is not within their job description.

With all of this against us, how can we better promote historical fiction to young readers and foster an environment of historical awareness that not only makes children better students, but better members of society? This website seeks to do just that. Uncover the Past is a resource to help librarians and educators work together as they help children increase their understanding of the past, empathy for others, and critical-thinking skills.

Drawing from scholarly articles and books, professional blog articles, annotated bibliographies of children’s historical fiction, and similarly-minded websites devoted to analyzing historical fiction and children’s literature, Uncover the Past provides a balance between the goals of two professions, equipping educators and librarians to better serve young readers.

Rebecca Redinger
"Uncover the Past: Learning History Through Children's Literature"
Capstone Project, Master of Library and Information Science
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2016

Except for book cover images, unless otherwise noted, all photos and graphic design by Rebecca Redinger, 2020.


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