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Evaluating Children's Historical Fiction

Great historical fiction is time travel, we feel we are in another place, seeing more than the record of the past allowed us to know.
- Marc Aronson (1)
Blending stories into a study of history turns the past into a dynamic place.
– Tarry Lindquist (2)
Think back to when you were 10 or 11 years old. Can you remember browsing the library shelves for your next favorite chapter book?

In school and public libraries across the county, so many of the middle grade chapter books sitting on the shelves have some sort of historical connection. Some are defined by their historical characters and events, while others rely on just a pinch of historical surroundings. Some are considered good historical fiction (even great literature!), while some are judged as fictionalized history. As librarians and educators seeking ways to promote and teach with historical, we must learn how to differentiate between good and “just ok” historical fiction. It is not enough to say that you will use historical fiction in your curriculum, or that you will make a percentage of your booktalks about historical fiction. Knowing how to determine accurate historical fiction and teaching young readers how to do so as well, is a key element to gaining historical awareness.

So how does one know if a work of historical fiction is any good? Well, first of all, you have to do some reading. You can begin by reading reviews from notable publications, but there is no substitute for actually sitting down and reading the book (or listening to the audiobook)!

Social Studies teacher, Tarry Lindquist, offers her list of Tips for Choosing Good Historical Fiction. The historical fiction you choose should:
  • present a well-told story that doesn't conflict with historical records,
  • portray characters realistically,
  • present authentic settings,
  • artfully fold in historical facts,
  • provide accurate information through illustrations, and
  • avoid stereotypes and myths. (3)
Librarians recognize historical fiction as an important part of children’s literature. And as with any work of literature, we evaluate the quality of historical fiction based on following elements: characterization, plot, setting, theme, and style. Yet Vardell rightly argues that the key to finding high quality literature in this genre is authenticity! (4)

Essentially, fiction written in a historical setting is only as accurate as the scenes and themes the author portrays. Fiction written about a specific time in past, on the other hand, is supported by the historical events or characters in the story. The accuracy of the history depends on the research and sleuthing the author did in preparation for the book. Each author has a different style. Some emphasize individual people and events, others make an effort to cover sweeping changes over time. But what makes authors of historical fiction unique is their role as a researcher. Not only do they conduct careful research, they often cite their sources and offer recommendations for further reading (5).

When an author writes a fictional story surrounded by a historical setting, how do we know whether the story is authentic? This is where it’s important to remember how context influences the characters and scenes in the story. When you read a work of historical fiction, ask yourself, “Whose story is this?” “What other stories were going on at this time?” Understanding the social, political, economic, or cultural background at the time helps us determine whether the author’s descriptions and details are authentic to the history in the story (6).


The following are ideas for engaging young readers in this discussion:

TRY IT!

Educators:
Implement a book unit in your social studies or language arts curriculum. Divide the class into groups of 4-5 students; assign each group a different historical fiction book about the same time period.

Begin by word mapping about the time period. After the student’s have read the books, have each group report back whether they agree or disagree with the class’s original assumptions. Discuss why the author chose to portray events the way they did, or why they chose to focus on a specific character or place.

Librarians:
Host a book/author event for an author of children’s historical fiction. The month before the author arrives, promote the book, as well as other works of historical fiction about that same time period. Post a sort of word-web and broad questions for students to consider as they read. Have a physical station and a Twitter account where readers can submit questions and thoughts they have of as they read.

When the author arrives, have fun! Have the librarians dress up like characters in the book and welcome readers to do the same. Have the author select questions to answer during the session, and also open the floor so the audience can interact with the author.

Bring them Together:
Have a class field trip to the book event at your local library. Make it interactive. Not only will librarians be dressed in period costumes, the special collections or archival departments can bring our some historical artifacts and documents to share with the group before the author speaks. If you aren’t able to share actual objects, enlarged color photographs will suffice. Ask readers examine the objects and remember what they have read in the story, as them to consider what other ways the author might have approached the topic/subject differently. Set up easels around the room where readers can write their own alternative beginning or ending.


NOTES:

1.  Aronson, M. (2009, October 23). What makes for great historical fiction? Nonfiction Matters, School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.slj.com/nonfictionmatters/2009/10/23/what-makes-for-great-historical-fiction.
2.  Lindquist, T. (1995). Why and how I teach with historical fiction. Scholastic Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/why-and-how-i-teach-historical-fiction.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Vardell, S. (2014). Children’s literature in action: A librarian’s guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. p. 201 and 207.
5. Ibid. p. 201.
6.  Barton, Keith. What role should fiction have in the U.S. history classroom? Roundtable discussion: A balanced and critical approach to historical fiction, TeachingHistory.org. Retrieved from http://teachinghistory.org/issues-and-research/roundtable-response/25287.


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