Here's the story on historical fiction in my classroom: It illuminates time periods, helps me integrate the
curriculum, and enriches social studies. Just take Amy's word for it. At the end of our westward-expansion
unit, while modeling her journal entry after a fictional account we'd read, this fifth grader wrote: "Dear
Diary, July 30, 1852: This journey has been heart-wrenching, thirst-quenching, and most of all, an
adventure I will never forget." Blending stories into a study of history turns the past into a dynamic place.
Of course, historical fiction doesn't stand alone in my instructional program; even the best literature
cannot address skills and processes unique to social studies that kids must learn. I have students balance
fiction with fact, validate historical hypotheses with research. Historical fiction is the spice.
To help you build good fiction into your social studies program, below you'll find:
Seven Reasons I Teach with Historical Fiction
Tips for Choosing Good Historical Fiction
Fifteen Fabulous New Historical Fiction Books
Is Pocahontas Real? Discovering Where History Stops and the Story Starts
Seven Reasons I Teach With Historical Fiction
It piques kids' curiosity. Although I sometimes begin units with chapter books, more often I start
with picture books because they're engaging and full of information. Before I read aloud, we make
a class list of what students already know about the topic, and then I say: "When I finish reading,
I'd like each of you to ask a question related to the story. The only rule is, no question can be
asked twice." Afterward, I launch investigations, saying, "Now that we've looked at what
happened to one pioneer family, let's find out if their experience was typical or unusual."
It levels the playing field. Some kids come to class with a deep background knowledge to draw
upon, while others have just shallow reservoirs. Reading historical fiction promotes academic
equity because comparing books from one unit to the next provides kids with equal opportunities
to develop historical analogies. I ask, "How is the story we read for this unit similar to and different
from the one we read last month?"
It hammers home everyday details. Picture books today provide visual and contextual clues to
how people lived, what their speech was like, how they dressed, and so on. When accurately
portrayed, these details are like a savings account that students can draw on and
supplement — each deposit of information provides a richer understanding of the period.
It puts people back into history. Social studies texts are often devoted to coverage rather than
depth. Too often, individuals — no matter how famous or important — are reduced to a few
sentences. Children have difficulty converting these cryptic descriptions and snapshots into
complex individuals who often had difficult choices to make, so myths and stereotypes flourish.
Good historical fiction presents individuals as they are, neither all good nor all bad.