Monday, March 23, 2015

Four Reasons Why Reading Historical Fiction is Good for Kids

by Michelle Ule

Many children are first introduced to historical fiction in elementary school as a springboard into history. While not being the actual history they may need to master, reading fiction can help children process and understand events in a healthy way.

Here are four reasons why reading historical fiction is good for kids.

1.     History is best told in story.

You’ve heard the saying, “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.” That may seem far-fetched to your children, but reading historical fiction introduces them to events and places in a dynamic way.

By reading about historical events wrapped into a story, readers get a sense of what happened without having to read boring facts.

 Esther Forbes’ Newbery Award-winning Johnny Tremain provides readers with insight into what Boston was like in the months leading up to the Boston Tea Party, while providing a young person’s impetuous interpretation. 

Johnny Tremain allows us to glimpse famous men like Paul Revere and John Hancock in their setting and makes them more familiar and understandable. Forbes also presents the humanity of some of the British soldiers, which provides a different point of view of a famous story.

2.     A personal connection heightens interest

    When you read about an historic figure, you get a deeper sense of who they are—what motivated them, how and why they made their decisions. That person becomes a “marker” for your interest and while a character may be fictional, a good writer puts within them traits which help explain events.

    One of the first historical novels I read as a child was Elizabeth of the Mayflower by Myrtle Trachsel. It’s a now out-of-print fictionalized tale of a real person—Elizabeth Tilley—who sailed to North America with the original 1620 Pilgrims. Through Elizabeth’s eyes, I learned of the religious persecution that sent the families to the New World, along with a great appreciation for the risk they took on the voyage.

    When my family moved to New England years later, one of the first places I wanted to visit was the recreated Plimouth Plantation and I was thrilled to stand in Elizabeth Tilley Howland’s cottage. I knew more than the docent did because of that book loved so very long ago!

From Elizabeth, I moved on as an adult to Nathaniel Philbrick's terrific Mayflower--for the real and fuller story!

3.     Historical fiction reminds us people’s dreams and motivations are the same.

    It doesn’t matter what year you live, people are motivated by the same yearnings: love, family, security.

    Whether you’re reading about a little girl captured by Native Americans in Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive, or a young woman washed up on a Southern California island without family as in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the BlueDolphins, novels allow you to experience unusual historic settings with knowable problems.

    Living within the mind of someone long ago opens our eyes to things we take for granted with empathy. Both Indian Captive and Island of the Blue Dolphins allowed me to connect with Native American problems in a way I hadn’t considered before. Literature will do that for any reader if it’s taken seriously.

4.    Historical fiction encourages us to read the fuller story and learn more about both the history, the world and ourselves.

    “They” say if you want to learn about political history, read a text book. If you want to know about social history, read an historical novel.

      Obviously, once a child becomes interested in a time and place because of an historical novel, they can go back (and often will) to read the history behind the novel.

      My reading of Dr. Zhivago as a teenager propelled me into a life-long fascination with Russian history—a period as far removed from my Southern California childhood as you can get.

      Out of that fascination came a desire to explore, to better understand the culture of what-was-then America’s number one enemy. As I read the history and discovered the poignancy of Russian history, I understood better some of the uncomfortable wariness my nation had with the Soviet Union. I wasn’t in a place to influence policy, of course, but your child someday could be.

      You never know.

    Historical fiction provides a personal connection with historic events. It’s important, of course, to read good history and avoid obvious exaggerations. But from reading historical fiction, we all gain insight and interest into times and places that helps us look at our present life from a different angle.

    Kids and adults, all, can benefit from reading historical fiction.

What young people’s historical fiction has helped you understand history and world events differently?

(Michelle is in Rome today and may not be able to respond to comments.)


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Michelle Ule is the author of a Navy SEAL novel and five historical novellas. For more
information about her and her writing, visit her website:  And follower her on Twitter @michelleule


Terri Wangard said...

I loved Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. Also The Hornet's Nest by Sally Watson. Books like that whet my interest in history and led me to major in history.

Michelle Ule said...

I'll have to check for Watson's book. Thanks for the suggestion!