In Vardell’s book she describes historical fiction as the most difficult to promote because children cannot relate to the characters, get confused with the history, or simply consider the stories boring. However, it is important to remember that a good book is simply that regardless of the genre. Nothing is a better friend to a teacher trying to teach a historical period than a well written historical fiction book.
In my classroom, I have used Patricia C. McKissack’s Goin’ Someplace Special, as part of a thematic unit on the Civil Rights Movement. By this point, they have studied Martin Luther King, Jr., they know about Rosa Parks, but they can’t quite grasp the difficulty people of color had at the time. The children right away feel an attachment to, and are even protective of, Tricia Ann, the protagonist in Goin’ Someplace Special. The first year we read this story, in the midst of reading it together a second time, I had a student passionately blurt out in the middle of reading, “I hate Jim Crow Laws!” and his classmates quickly agreed. At that moment I realized two things: that my students understood the importance of Civil Rights, and that I understood the power of a good historical fiction story. I’ve had similar reactions every year since. Historical fiction is a time machine that takes them to another place in time, allows them to walk among the people of the time, and for a little while they also walk in their shoes.
Vardell, S.M. (2008). Children’s literature in action: a librarian’s guide. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.
Curtis, C. P. (1995). The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963. New York, NY: Delacorte.
In The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, the middle child of the Watson’s, Kenny, narrates for us. The family lives in Flint, Michigan, where they are not subjected to harsh segregation, violence, and prejudice that occurs in the South. However, because Kenny’s older brother Byron keeps making one bad decision after another, the Watson’s decide he could use a dose of Grandma Sands. Grandma Sands is a real disciplinarian who lives in Birmingham, Alabama. The Watson’s decide to make the trek down South to deposit Byron with his grandmother for the summer or until he gets himself straightened up. Curiously, though, once they get to Birmingham, Byron does change, and starts being nice. They are exposed to racism they weren’t used to, and the author integrates the actual historical bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church into the story where they think they may have lost Kenny’s little sister, Joetta. Luckily, she was able to get out of the church just in time. This event causes a great amount of guilt and anxiety in Kenny who feels that he was cowardly in not trying to save his sister, and eventually he has a breakdown that his brother, Byron helps him through.
There are so many themes to be analyzed in this book such as, coming of age, family, friendship, race, mortality, and guilt. This book which was named the Newbery Award Honor Book in 1996 is a perfect addition to a cross content thematic unit on the Civil Rights Movement.
This movie trailer includes clips from the author, screen writer, and actors, and really gives the viewer an idea of how the historical time period impacted the Watson family, and how it will impact those who read the novel.
Lindsay Zahner developed this literature focus unit for her class at Marian University which has CIF (Common Instructional Framework) activities embedded throughout with printable pages for students. It is an excellent, ready-to-use resource!
In addition, this website has kid-friendly questions, that will have students taking a closer look at the motives of the characters in the story, and analyzing the various themes.
Nelson, K. (2008). We are the ship. New York, NY: Hyperion.
We Are the Ship is the story of Negro League Baseball that lasted from the 1920’s through 1947. An elderly fictional narrator tell the stories from the standpoint of teammate, which is makes this book historical fiction, otherwise the stories are basically factual accounts of real Negro League players. The chapters, set up as innings, put the various accounts in chronological order, and highlight important people that made an impact in the league.
This book discusses the hardships the players faced during this point in history, which serve as themes: prejudice, segregation, and inequality. However, it also shines a light on the achievements of these men, and a whole other set of positive themes can be analyzed: perseverance, leadership, courage, opportunity, and ingenuity. Nelson’s beautifully detailed illustrations take you back to the place and time of the Negro League, where the sun seems to be shining overhead all the time.
Interview with the author, Kadir Nelson, on the creation of his book and illustrations
RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) offers a Multicultural Lending Library Resource Guide with printable templates and thematic literature guides, including We Are the Ship. Download it here: RIF_Multicultural_Lending_Library activities
Schlitz, L. A. (2007). Good masters, sweet ladies. Boston, MA: Candlewick Press.
This 2008 Newbery Medal Award winning book contains a collection of monologues of children from different classes living in and around an English manor in 1255. The children write about their experiences in their daily life in either poetry or prose. Because some of the language and terms are no longer used, the author includes notes in the margins of the pages that readers can use as reference. Embedded in the monologues and essays, the author provides historical facts about medieval times.
The watercolor and ink illustrations are reminiscent of the medieval tapestries and art of the time period, and are a useful tool for teachers when students are studying this time period.
Candlewick Press offers a Teacher’s Guide to go along with this text. Click on the link below to access it.
Thinking about purchasing the audiobook on Amazon? Click on the link below to hear a sampling of it before you buy.
Michelle Bennett offers A Culminating Project: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village as a free download on Teachers Pay Teachers. Click on the link below to access this resource suitable for middle school students.