Sunday, August 5, 2012

Historical Details vs. Modern Beliefs in Historical Fiction for Children

Writers of historical fiction must deal with times in which modern values and understandings are absent. 

How "true" to the period should historical fiction be in dealing with cultural mores and gender issues? 

How faithful should an author be to the attitudes and language of the times? 

Should publishers of historical fiction include a note about the author's research and a list of sources? 

Books such as Christopher and James Collier's War Comes to Willie Freeman, Pam Conrad's Prairie Songs, William Armstrong's Sounder, are among those that have been the object of criticism for their use of language and portrayal of minority groups. 

Do authors need to provide a balanced point-of-view when writing fiction based in historical issues and events? 

What can teachers do if historical details conflict with modern beliefs? 

How will (or do) you deal with these issues in your classroom?


  1. Oh my!
    Shouldn't the authors be true to the time period? Why call it historical fiction if they are not? Yes, authors should do TONS of research, and it would help their cause if they explained their research, as well. I haven't run into these issues in class - we do lit circles in May, but I feel that the books we choose are written with rigorous research, and students treat them as such.
    I'd love to know your favorites for 7th grade, so I can add them to my list!

  2. Joy,
    I agree they should be true to the time period, but maybe a question is how blunt do they present it? I think it can still be written for children, in spite of dealing with the racism and language that is no longer tolerated. Even when I was a child, I said and did things that I am ashamed of, and I would not repeat them even if I was writing a book about the 50s and 60s.

    Unfortunately, I don't read many historical fiction books with my students. Johnny Tremain is no one's favorite, but one we've endured over the years. :( Maybe no longer, now that I have a new philosophy thanks to Nancie Atwell and Donalyn Miller.) However, I may still use it as a read aloud or a shared reading book (since we have a class set).

    I've read aloud Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. It's always a favorite, and I think he did a great job. Two more sober, but wonderful, reads about Nazi Germany are Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy.

    A few more I think every classroom library should have...
    Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
    Lyddie by Katherine Paterson
    Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
    Witness by Karen Hesse about the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont of all places

    But I could go on and on...Have you read some of these? Which historical fiction titles are your favorites?

    Thanks, Joy!


    1. Denise,
      Let's see how good my memory is this morning...
      I use Witch of Blackbird Pond, Esperanza Rising, Catherine Called Birdy, Clay Marble (dropping that one), Dragonwings (may drop that one), Glory Field (Walter Dean Myers), and I can't remember the others! We used to use Shabanu, but the kids complained that it was just too mature for 7th grade, and I was wondering about Kite Rider or In the Time of the Butterflies, but I'll have to read them again, looking at them through a 7th grade eye... We save the Holocaust for 8th grade, but they read The Cage, I Have Lived a Thousand Years (my favorite, and nonfiction, too), and...? Night is read at 9th grade, and my kids read The Boy Who Dared, which is great, too. Our 6th grade advanced classes have read Tom Sawyer, and last year my students and I completed an iPad pilot using The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, but that, of course, is nonfiction, so I guess it doesn't count. GOOD reading and writing and discussions from this, though! They rose to the challenge, and I think those were the best two weeks of discussion we had all year.

      That's what I've got off the top of my head, and without access to my materials... :-)
      Thanks for the question! Made me think!

  3. I think historical fiction should be true to the period in dealing with cultural mores and gender issues, otherwise it’s not really historical in nature. In order to have authentic books, the author should be faithful to the attitudes and the language of the times. I don’t know that publishers of historical fiction need to include a note about the author’s research with a list of resources- that seems a bit much since this is fiction. A balanced point-of-view would be appropriate; however, it is the author’s story and they write with their own insight and thought process and should be able to express the story as they wish. If historical details conflict with modern beliefs, this gives teachers the opportunity for discussion about this. Students need to feel comfortable to express their opinions in a safe environment. In my classroom, I would foster the conversation. Students could also journal about their feelings; this could be shared with the teacher or kept private if they wish. It’s important for kids to realize that life isn’t always fair- people were treated poorly because of their skin color, women were treated as second-class citizens who couldn’t vote, children worked long, hard hours to help their families survive, Jews were killed because Hitler wanted to eliminate their race- the list goes on. Historical fiction will also help students realize that people lived life without television, iPads, cellphones, and iPods!

  4. It's important for the author to stay true to the specific time period, culture, gender, etc. Otherwise, if they don't, then it's not really accurate for the time period. Also, for the reader's interest about the topic, it's important to stay true to the language of the time period. That's how the reader can become engaged in the book, the historical time period, and be able to relate it to today's real life experiences.
    I understand it could be a touchy subject if there are students in your class of a specific culture that you are studying or reading about, so I think it's important for your students to be in a safe environtment and feel comfortable telling their feelings, or jotting them down in a journal, or expressing them with you (the teacher) or others.

  5. Carie and Emily,
    Thanks for your thoughtful responses. I agree with you about accuracy. Unless, of course, we are reading a book that's historical fiction mixed with another genre, as I read today. The book was 47, which was mentioned in our textbook. Written by Walter Mosley, this book is described as historical and speculative fiction. It is about a boy who endured slavery in 1832. The historical dealing with slavery and the treatment of slaves is rich and hard to read, and it seems authentic. However, there is another element of science fiction/fantasy that makes this a can't-put-down book because it's so intriguing about what is going to happen.