Growing up, even though I was a good student, I never felt that I had a solid grasp of history. All those dates and events would merge together in my head and leave me overwhelmed and sometimes bored. However, history is such an important part of our world and understanding it is part of being an educated thinker.
This is where historical fiction can come in handy as a learning tool for children. Presenting factual information while embedding it in a fascinating story with relatable characters can make it real and memorable. Having a character that a child can feel invested in will make the lesson have more of an impact than simply learning about when something happened and why. For example, we all know about the horrors of September 11, but experiencing it through the words of a child who has lost his parent in this atrocity can make it more meaningful than any mere explanation of what terrorism is all about. As written by Keith Barton, a Professor of History at Indiana University, children “can be especially captivated by stories that give them the chance to imagine taking part in the events of the past, or to explore how people responded to dramatic circumstances such as those involving fear, discrimination, or tragedy.”
Of course, depending on the age and maturity level of the child, books have to be chosen with care. Some topics like the holocaust and slavery are difficult for even adults to digest, so one must know how much information a child can handle and in what form. When researching historical fiction for children, look for books that have won awards such as the Newbery Honor or the Caldecott Award. Also, your local librarian will be able to recommend appropriate books, and there are websites that can help guide you to the right ones as well.
My nephew, who is now 11 and fascinated by the Civil War, World War 2, the American Revolution, and many other past events, starting asking me for historical fiction years ago. Of course, as an avid reader myself, I am overjoyed that he loves to read, but I’m also glad that he is obtaining important information while doing it.
Some teachers also make use of historical fiction in their classrooms. As Tarry Lindquist, a social studies teacher and author from Washington, states, “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.” During books discussions, teachers can also help separate and point out the “true” history from the fiction.
Of course, history textbooks have their place in schools, and should stand as a foundation for learning facts and figures. However, adding historical fiction to a child’s education can be a wonderful supplement and give the past a deeper meaning.
Written for About Families magazine – March 2018