Slice of Life—Thinking about Historical Fiction
As readers we need to connect to characters—to their hopes and dreams. We need to be able to empathize, use prior knowledge and relate to the text in some way. The literacy strategy of making connections plays such a big role in reading historical fiction.
I have just finished reading One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (A Newbery Honor book, as you know). It was such a great adventure with lots of action, questions and historical details. It made me wonder what really makes a story historical fiction. More importantly how do our students connect with these stories?
Timberlake’s story is pretty easy to get lost in with the adventure of the characters. But what makes it a valuable read is the bits and pieces of history that she throws in along the way. As an adult reader, I can make all kinds of personal connections. I can make pictures in my head about the old pioneer town—a lot like the farm town my mother grew up in—and the clothes people are wearing. I can see the swarms of passenger pigeons swirling in the sky because I am a bit of a bird watcher. It is easy for me but what about the reader who does not have that prior knowledge? What happens to the reader who cannot make those mental pictures?
One Came Home can be read on two levels. One is purely adventure, which will pull in that reader who can visualize the story but not make strong connections to place and time. The second level is understanding the history that this story is built on and being able to see the struggles the characters must endure due to the time period they are living in.
When students don’t make connections
What happens with students who open up a book that doesn’t take them on a fast-paced adventure—a book that is dark, with images that are uncomfortable or unfamiliar, perhaps with writing structure that’s different from what they are used to reading? My guess is students stop reading, just like I did.
I started The Book Thief by Markus Zusak three times before I was caught and couldn’t put it down. As I began that book the first two times I could only see the depression, the hurt and sorrow. I just didn’t want to read that one more time. I got it, I understood, but I was not making personal connections. It was easy for me to stop.
I think our students often feel that way when they can’t find a connection. When asked to write about their text-to-self connection, they don’t have one. They probably can’t make any links: text to text, text to world, text to self. If you can’t connect you aren’t going to want to stay with a book especially if the text is more difficult.
Helping students make connections
When your students are turning away from a book, especially historical fiction, think about connections. Think about how you might help a student fill in a few of the gaps. What questions can you ask? What web sites might give them some prior knowledge to help them make the leap into a really great story?
This is where historical fiction may need a bit of a guide as a kick starter. Readers need someone to help set up the connections to this time and place—a person who can either fill in just a few blanks, provide come context for the story, or ask the right questions that will have students seeking answers as they read—the anticipatory set to your reading.
A personal experience of making connections
I realized this need for connection for myself so clearly when I returned to reading The Book Thief this weekend. I had been going through some family history that took place around the same time period.
My mother would have been about 21 during the time of this book. Wow. I had so many questions. What did she know and understand about the war living in her small Iowa town? Did she really understand what was happening across the ocean in Germany? What would she think about this book now? I was now reading with a different point of view. I had personal connections and questions about my family, their relationships with Jewish families here in the States during this time—my grandfather’s comment that “people are people and they are always welcome” took on more meaning.
The context for the story had changed for me. I now had a bit more prior knowledge to help me make connections. I had questions to drive my reading, questions that made me want to find out what happen to Liesel. I now have pictures in my head that I had viewed over the weekend from that time period. It did not take much but I needed another way into the story and this family reading did just that.
I am an adult reader and I know how to go out and seek connections. I know that it is important to read widely to help me find ways into stories and into history. I also know my students do not have those skills yet. I need to provide them with that background knowledge, with books, images, and questions to help them open the doors. I need to be the bridge to making connections.
It often times does not take much pushing! Think about it. I only needed to read a few pages of family history which really did not relate to the war (just the time period) and now I have a book that I can’t put down.