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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Historical Fiction III

How Can I Use This With My Students?

Every kind of book for K-12 readers lives an odd double life. It is a book like any adult book, but it can, or is built to be, or it can be turned into, a tool for education. The educational uses range from literacy in all its meanings — from decoding to thinking — to social skills to content knowledge to, I don’t know, how to read a map. That is just the fact of our world — certainly the world of the School Library — as in the host of this blog — but from the most personal YA poetry to the most experimental weird picture book that is seemingly closer to an avant garde experiment than a primer — all of our books lead double lives. For pure fiction, though, there is a tricky out. Some parents, teachers, librarians like a book b/c it is so literary, so unlike school reading — but even that is a step, bringing those bright engaged readers towards adult literary classics. Read Virginia Euwer Wolff, and soon you may read Virginia Woolf. But I suspect that in the range we live in, from historical fiction to pure nonfiction, that "out" disappears. Because our books directly overlap with content areas they are always weighed in terms of use as much as (or most often far more than) they are judged as pure writing (and thus pure reading) experiences.
         So if we agree that the best HF weaves a spell, alters reality, ensorcels us into a hallucination of a present past — that is the magic carpet ride, the "trip," the holographic, somatic, perception-changing experience it offers — how does that fit with the all too concrete, known, familiarity of the lesson plan, the chalk board, and the class discussion? Especially when the classroom so easily slips into the "gotcha" of catching apparent mistakes.
       I’ve often heard teachers say, the match is great: kids enjoy the HF book, then we take out the historical sources and compare, learn where the author took liberties and find out what really happened. Or the librarian will say, I hook them with the HF, then when they come back and ask to find out what Ancient Rome, or Arthurian England "was really like" I give them NF. Compare and contrast, hook. Ok, makes sense — with an engaged teacher or librarian (and kids who have the time, training, and interest). But lets get back to the reviewer — back to the question of what makes for good HF and NF? Is the reviewer judging the book as pure reading experience (even though no one, outside of a kid who finds the book on her own, is going to view it that way), or book plus presumed adult, or book plus available online teachers guide, or book plus great further reading list? In other words, if the actual future of the book is reading experience along with a guiding hand where and how is that reflected in the book — especially when for readers like Wendy that very apparatus clanks against and diminishes the initial reading experience of the book itself? 
     My own sense, tipping my hand, is that the problem is that HF and NF is judged by two different standards at the same time, without the reviewer being explicit enough (or even conscious enough) of those differing standards. So to get back to my last post — a book that shocks, disturbs, troubles a reader — perhaps shakes her out of the dream however true it was to a past time (N word, view of the past the reviewer was not aware of, different sexual mores)  is clearly a prime teaching opportunity. But I think too often reviewers stop with registering the disquiet and thus judging the book as flawed. Maybe, ala VOYA, HF and NF should have two scales — pure reading experience (which is not the same as popularity, since a book of high literary quality is not necessarily wildly popular and of course vice versa), and teaching opportunity. Your Thoughts?


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    As you know, this is a topic near and dear to my teacher heart. Years ago, after much fretting about the way kids misunderstood history by reading historical fiction (and some sparring with you on child_lit:), I decided to teach my 4th graders to read it critically. You can’t do links here, but if you do a google search for “edinger historical fiction’ you will get an archive of those post starting with one titled, “What Makes a Good Work of Historical Fiction?” (I’ve also got lots on this –articles, talks, etc — over at my educating alice blog and some chapters in the two books on teaching history.)

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    I forgot to say that the posts you get searching for “edinger historical fiction” are on the class blog, not my educating alice blog. Pretty much everything I do in class is on the edinger house blog.

  3. Monica: Thanks for the post — I can put links in my blogs if you want to send them to me, I can post them. I am also going to post an example from adult that I’d like you and others to consider.

  4. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    This is such a complex topic. I like how you raised the issue of a book’s “teaching opportunity”–especially when it comes to difficult/uncomfortable issues such as racism, abuse, etc. In those situations why couldn’t the idea of teaching be part of the literary review? I mean, as a reader of HF, a huge part of the enjoyment for me is indeed learning something new. And the more I sensorially experience that “new,” the better–as in, “eh gads, the Romans shared the wiping stick in the latrines! [shudder]” or “wow, I had no idea corporal punishment was so common or brutal in colonial schools,” or whatever. Still, I dislike the idea of rating a book by its usefulness as a teaching tool because of the sense that its “art” is subsumed to its usefulness in the classroom. Ack, I’m talking in circles here (sorry). Will have to give it more thought…

  5. as in all complex issues, I suspect a good part of what is required is consciousness raising. That is, the more aware, the more conflicted, a reviewer is, the better. There is no set answer, there are complex and often competing tugs. The problem comes when an adult, speaking for young people, trusts only his or her reactions and does not fully weigh the issues. Better Carter talks about a book teaching you how to read it. My concern is the opposite, when we assume, based on partial knowledge, how a book will be, or is to be, read

  6. Thanks for this great discussion, Marc. Most of my thoughts are too unorganized to share. But I do want to say that as a young person I gobbled historical fiction like it was blueberry pie. Looking back, I realize a lot of what I learned I have now reinterpreted because our attitudes about much of, let’s say, American history, have changed in the last 40 years. However, I also now realize that much of what I know about American history that is accurate I learned from reading historical fiction, not from studying at school. I remember in 7th grade being excused from the entire unit on American history from colonial times through the Revolution because the teacher gave us the final test before teaching the unit and I aced it before he taught one lesson. This due to reading historical fiction. So…I guess maybe my point is……kids need to learn to be critical and think for themselves with HF just as with everything they read. We parents and teachers can emphasize this.

  7. That’s a new teaching strategy — test kids on what they have not yet been taught. Of course kids need to learn to be critical readers and thinkers; the problem is that adults, not confident that they have, step in to think for them and demand that the books prevent and missteps or misunderstanding — be in loco parentis — which brings us back to use.


    As a life-long reader of HF (and those ubiquitous fictionalized biographies in the school library), I have often gone on to read nonfiction books on the era or people referred to. However, I strongly feel that HF has its own intrinsic value when it’s well written and not significantly historically incorrect.

    Too few young readers seem to enjoy HF these days, and to put off readers by forcing a tie-in with nonfiction seems to create an even greater barrier. On the other hand, a librarian or teacher who notices readers of HF, might gently suggest, or booktalk some nonfiction to go along with an already enjoyed book.

  9. I like your phrase, “not significantly historically incorrect.” I’ve given some talks on the question of “what is pleasure reading” — for example, if a teacher made his class read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Captain Underpants, would the books still be pleasure reading? Most people say no — pleasure reading is defined as that which is not assigned. So, to your point, the more HF is seen by kids as an assignment the less, ipso facto, it is a pleasure read.

  10. Well, I think there’s “pleasure reading” and then there’s “pleasurable reading”, and the second clearly can include things read in school. I confess that I’m totally uninterested in ensuring that books of any kind are classroom-friendly, or reviewing them on that basis; but I am amazed if there are still public-school classrooms where teachers have the time and freedom to incorporate novels in with the assigned and specified curriculum.

    Monica, please do send Marc your links; I couldn’t find the discussion you mention in a quick Google search. I’m interested in your feeling that the kids were misunderstanding history based on reading historical fiction.

  11. Monica Edinger says:

    Wendy, I have sent the links to Marc.