Whether we are reading it or writing it ourselves, historical fiction is an amazing classroom tool. Rather than slogging through page after a page of a textbook (although textbooks have their place!), historical fiction allows students to absorb the facts, faces, nuances, and varied perspectives of the past from characters who they can relate to. The books below are just a few of the ones that my students have particularly enjoyed (and learned from!).
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper is one of my all-time favorite books, and I have yet to find a student - male or female - who hasn't also been drawn in by its magic. Copper Sun is the story of Amari, a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in a small village in Africa. But then one day the "milk-faced visitors" arrive, and shatter the only world Amari has ever known. The pale-faced men kill many of Amari's friends and family as she watches. Then the survivors are chained together, forced to walk through miles of jungle, shipped across the ocean to America, and sold to the highest bidder.
After Amari is bought as a birthday present for a wealthy farmer's son, she meets Polly, an indentured servant. From that point on, Amari and Polly take turns narrating the rest of the story. Through their voices, the horrors of life on a southern plantation are given a human face. Although there is no shortage of cruel, white stereotypes, Amari and Polly learn that nothing is completely black and white. After a failed attempt to help cover up their mistress's scandalous secret, the two girls must work together to find their way to freedom.
I honestly cannot say enough good things about Copper Sun. Sharon Draper is an incredible storyteller, and as the granddaughter of a former slave, her depiction of the past is something that no reader will soon forget.
47 by Walter Mosley is a very, very different kind of story about slavery in the south, blending together both historical and science fiction. Fourteen-year-old 47 is a slave on the Corinthian Planation, going through the motions of every-day life, believing Mama Flore when she says, "White peoples gots as many ages as you can count, but slaves on'y gots four ages. That's babychile, boy or girl, old boy or old girl, an dead." But all of that changes the day he meets Tall John, a man who portrays himself to the master as a runaway slave. To 47, Tall John reveals that he can "read dreams, fly between galaxies, and make friends with any animal no matter how wild." He explains that he has come to the planet to defeat the evils of the Calabash, who have manifested themselves through 47's master and others like him. In order to win against them, he needs 47.
As he prepares for the ultimate war against the Calabash, Tall John works to re-train 47's mind, to show him that all people are meant to be equal, frequently repeating the refrain, "Neither nigger nor master be." I love the way this passage reveals how the young boy's perceptions were slowly transformed:
"...back then, in the days of Negro degradation, white people either laughed at our color or, even worse, felt sorry for us because of our obvious ugliness and inferiority. In my childhood being black meant poverty, slavery, and all things bad. I was, before Tall John came, ashamed of my color and everyone who looked like me. And so when I first looked upon Eighty-four I was afraid and disgusted. But when I remember her now there's a wholly different image in my mind's eye. Eighty-four was tall and slender with high cheekbones and large, almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was a dark black that had depth to it like the night sky. In later years I had the pleasure of seeing her laugh many times and so I know her teeth were ivory of color and powerful. Eighty-four was beyond good-looking... she was regal."
Although there is a great deal of the fantastic in 47's story, the horrors of history are presented in all their stark truth. Through 47's deeply engaging, flashback-style narrative, Walter Mosley has proven himself to be a stand-out author for young adults. To learn more about Mosley's experience writing 47, listen to his interview on NPR.
Hannah's Journal appears to be written for an elementary school audience, but it was the perfect compliment to my 6th graders' investigation into the immigrant experience. Although we were studying Baltimore immigration, and Hannah arrived on Ellis Island, she painted such a clear picture of what it would have been like for a young person to sail across the ocean and create a new life in America. Through Hannah and the people she meets on her journey, author Marissa Moss introduces a wide variety of immigrant experiences, demonstrating again and again that no two stories are alike.
"Hannah's" hand-written narrative added another layer of realism to her story, and the accompanying hand-drawn, comic-style illustrations had my students cracking up laughing. In addition, Hannah's Journal was the perfect jumping off point for one of my favorite writing assignments: a series of letters written "home" to Europe, in the voice of a young adult immigrant in Baltimore in the late 1800s.
If you start flipping pages in Hannah's Journal and you're thinking, "Hmmm... this looks familiar!" that could be because Marissa Moss is also the author of the popular Amelia's Notebook series. As I looked through her website, I was thrilled to discover that she has recently written a novel about Ancient Egypt, a piece of my history curriculum that I have had an extremely difficult time finding a companion novel for. Maybe my search is over!
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse first caught my attention because the entire story is written as free verse poetry. I loved having the opportunity to teach the elements of poetry alongside the Social Studies content of the 1930's dust bowl.
The narrator, teen-aged Billie Jo, is living with her father and pregnant mother on their failing farm in Oklahoma. Although the story is sprinkled with glimpses of light, Billie Jo's story is primarily one of darkness and dust. In spare blank verse, she describes the death of her mother and brother, the departure of her closest friend, and the daily struggle to survive in the dust.
I have to be honest and say that, while I certainly saw and appreciated the merits of Hesse's story (a Newbery winner at that!), this was not one of my students' favorites. I think that Billie Jo's depression actually spread through them as we worked our way through the story. In a way, I feel like Hesse's ability to so deeply affect the mood of her readers is simply a mark of good writing. On the other hand, this is one of the few books I have used where a whole class of students actually didn't want to finish it. (Don't worry; we finished it anyway!)
If you're looking for more ideas on teaching in this genre, I found both teaching tips and good book recommendations in this Scholastic article. Now I want to hear from you! What gems of historical fiction have you uncovered?