It’s Monday! What are you reading? Historical Fiction

IMWAYRLater this week I will have a chance to sit down with a group of librarians, teachers, a few children’s book enthusiast and an author of historical fiction. The discussion question on the table is –

How is historical fiction being received by young people … and how do we interest more young people in the genre?


So I read Catch you Later, Traitor by Avi, Revolution and Countdown by Deborah Wiles, and This War Saved My Life by  Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Avi is a tried and true historical fiction 9k=author who I have shared with students for years. Bradley is new to me so it has been fun to explore her style of writing. Wiles, I knew from her fiction work and was excited by the research done for these two books. (She is currently working on the third book for this countdowncover31series about the 60’s.)

I needed to start with just thinking about what makes a book historical fiction. Based on Literature and the Child. 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace: by Cullinan, Bernice E. and Lee Galda. 1994.18527498-198x300

Here is what they say – Evaluating historical fiction: Historical accuracy:

  • Story is grounded in facts but not restricted by them; events are consistent with historical evidence; characters reflect the values of the period; social issues are portrayed honestly.
  • Setting: Vivid historical setting; setting consistent with historical and geographical evidence; events and characters are true to the setting.
  • Language: Dialogue is in keeping with the time and place; colorful words are retained which reflect the culture.
  • Characterization: Characters represent people of the time; their feelings and values reflect the time; they believe and behave according to the standards of the time.
  • Plot and theme: Plot is credible in the period; story holds interest; theme has universal appeal; events possible in the period; story avoids anachronisms and distortions.
  • Illustrations: Historically accurate; extend the story; enhance understanding.

Other thoughts about historical fiction are:

The question of how long ago does the event have to be? Is a novel which is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience make it historical fiction.

Should a novel only be called “historical” if the plot reflects its historical period so well that the story could not have occurred at any other time in history.

Wiles and Avi have done a great deal of research for their books. Wiles pulls in music, styles, news events, and lots of details from homes, and books read from the 60’s.  Avi also includes the little details but really fills us in on one specific historical event of the early 50’s, the communist scare in the United States. We learn a lot about how people acted and how the event affected families during this time. As an adult reader it is clear they have gathered a great deal of information. These books need this time period to make their story.

Bradley has also done research but the plot does not completely depend on the historical time period. You could take the young girl out of this time period and put her story in another one and I think it would still be a great read. Yes, you learn about WWII and the children who leave London but the heart of this story is the growth of Ada and how her moved into the country to a loving adult changed her life. We have a story of survival that happens during a war but not because of the war. It is the move that helped her find people who cared for her. I think we could set this story in another time period and it would work. So is if historical fiction?  (Personally – I still say yes.)

All that said I am have still not come to a clear answer about how do we interest more people in this genre?

As  a teacher it might just be that we need to do a better job of book talking these books, of reading this genre as a read aloud in class. They are stories of people and their adventures, their lives and what they learned along the way.

Authors need to hold on to the personal stories and adventures that come out of a specific time period. They need to write from how this event changed the people or the children who were experiencing this time. It is the story that brings children to the book – the history is best learned along the way.

Many of us grew up with history front and center – that was full of dates, large events and often times half truths. It made history boring and something I did not trust. It meant I was not very excited about teaching it. I wasn’t the best motivator for learning history and didn’t motivate fictional fiction books either at first.

As I began reading a wider variety of historical fiction that I realized what was missing from my history classes. We were missing the real lives of people who participated in those events. We were not shown how these events changed peoples live sometimes for the better and sometimes not. We were not shown that history can be complicated and there is not always one right answer but there are lots of question.

I do believe this genre has been sitting quietly to the side due to teachers, and parents who did not enjoy history in school. People who didn’t make the connections to their personal life. People who didn’t see the questions due to how the material was first presented.

Historical fiction can helps us make that connection, can bring forward those questions. We can begin to see that during these events this is how people might have felt, what they might have experienced and what they learned about the world around them. We can see these these questions of the past are still being talked about today.

All of these books have interesting characters that we learn from, all of these books teach us something about a historical time or event. All of these books make a certain time period more interesting to read about. They all leave us this bigger questions to think about.

It is our excitement about these books that will bring students to this genre. As teachers and parents we need to help students make the leap between history and now. We need to help them see the big questions that connect to them.

What do you think? What historical fiction are your read?

What historical fiction are your students reading?

How do we interest more young people in historical fiction?

I would love to hear your thoughts and to share them with this discussion group this coming Thursday.




About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, help in schools and write. Life is good!
This entry was posted in Reading, Teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It’s Monday! What are you reading? Historical Fiction

  1. Lisa says:

    My kids love historical fiction. We’re reading The Cay right now. They’re transfixed.


  2. I loved the Deborah Wiles books. I’m old enough to remember living through those times, so for me I could make all kinds of connections as well as enriching my knowledge of what was happening in a different part of the world. I can’t wait for the next one in this series to come out. I’m just reading Red River Raging a story by Penny Draper about the 1997 Winnipeg flood. It is certainly recent history, but the readers in my elementary library, were not even born then. (Actually, I think this one might be historical fantasy as while the historical and scientific information is spot on, there is a ghost who warns the protagonist about the magnitude of the impending catastrophe)

  3. carriegelson says:

    I love your musings and questions on this topic. I found these Wiles books so engaging and my daughter also loved them. I think they have a young character front and center and that drives the interest of the young readers – the history is secondary. Some children are just really interested in another time and all of its details – others can be sold on the story line in terms of character and plot. Some historical fiction read alouds are very important I think. I read my class Turtle in Paradise and they were very interested to talk about a different time (with adult guidance) so our youngest readers/listeners really do benefit from adult support to navigate this genre and hopefully hook them further!

  4. Myra GB says:

    Hi there Joanne, thanks for sharing your reflections about historical fiction novels – I still believe that novels-in-verse would be one good way to go about this – Margarita Engle’s in particular are superbly done with such authentic voices that young readers (and adults too) can not help but resonate with.

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