Historical Fiction as a Teaching Tool

This afterschool educator discusses how historical fiction is an effective tool to teach youth about underrepresented people and identities in classrooms and in U.S. history textbooks. 


The youth I work with read almost exclusively nonfiction for school. In history class, their readings are often biographies that have been simplified and sanitized for childhood consumption and histories that focus only on the perspective of a particular individual or group. These readings leave out many historical figures and viewpoints. They also often list one fact after another and do little to nothing to humanize the participant(s). Not surprisingly, the youth don’t especially enjoy reading about history.

When my co-workers and I pull out historical fiction during the literacy part of our afterschool program, the youth are usually reluctant to pick up these books. They prefer to escape into the realms of Dork Diaries and Minecraft books and whatever other fiction is popular that semester. But, when we read to them from historical fiction—as I often do with small groups of fourth- and fifth-grade youth and less frequently with older youth—they want the story to continue. They want to know more about the individuals or time period. They want to know why history in class isn’t as interesting.

And to me, this is where historical fiction plays a critical role in education. It’s one accessible avenue through which youth can learn about parts of history—including people—who are underrepresented in most U.S. classrooms. They can recognize themselves in characters from the Dear America series or identify with young boys who joined in the American Revolution and the Civil War. They can relate to displaced children who don’t seem to belong to any single adult. They can begin to see that there’s a part of U.S. history that looks a little like them.

Here are some recommended readings:

Out of Darkness (2015) by Ashley Hope Pérez unfolds as a story of Romeo and Juliet, set in the late 1930s in the town of New London, East Texas. Naomi, a Mexican-American girl, and Wash, a black boy, fall in love—but the Jim Crow South forbids them to be together. Their narrative is complicated by the fact that Naomi has a white stepfather. The story climaxes with the New London School explosion, which results in many fatalities. Readers bear witness to myriad racial tensions, the restrictions imposed by Jim Crow and how intolerance leads to tragedy upon tragedy. Recommended for grades 9 and up.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941) by Lois Lenski tells the true story of a young white girl captured by Seneca tribe members in 1758. When she is given the chance to return to white settlers, she refuses as she’s found love and refuge in the arms of her adoptive family and no longer understands the ignorant cruelty and intolerance exhibited by settlers. The book is based strongly on Mary Jemison’s experience and her own writings. Recommended for grades 4-8.

The Book Thief (2005) by Markus Zusak is set in Germany in 1939. Death, as the narrator, depicts individuals who act with compassion and bravery during the horror of this time period. This book emphasizes the value of knowledge as an equalizing force in society and how groups that wish to forcefully take power can see knowledge as dangerous. Recommended for grades 6 and up.

Orphan Train (2013) by Christina Baker Kline is suitable for high schoolers who are strong readers. It depicts a forgotten portion of U.S. history: the orphan trains that began in the mid-19th century and transported “orphaned” children from the East Coast to the Midwest, where they often became something like indentured servants. The book depicts racism, growing up within the foster system and how to accept oneself. Recommended for grades 9 and up.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (1977) by Eleanor Coerr highlights the short life of Sadako Sasaki, who developed leukemia as a result of the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima. It’s useful for peace education, in particular for talking about the unintended consequences of our actions. Recommended for grades 5 and up.

Bud, Not Buddy (1999) by Christopher Paul Curtis follows the story of an orphaned 10-year-old boy during the Great Depression and the Jazz age as he tries to find his father. Curtis addresses issues of homelessness, poverty, racism and cruelty. By doing so, Curtis allows readers to empathize with a person who is experiencing all of these things or to reflect on their own experiences.

There are, of course, so many beautiful works of historical fiction that can be used to help students understand history and to help them learn acceptance and compassion. What are some of your favorites? Please share them below in the comments section.

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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