Learning from the past
(This post includes affiliate links)
Children’s historical fiction serves many purposes. It engages young readers in history by presenting it from their point of view, usually with a protagonist who is about the age of the intended reading audience. It also presents important aspects of history – the Civil War, for instance – in an age-appropriate way. Slavery and the Civil War, in all their gruesome reality, rival any horror story ever written for adults. But, in children’s historical fiction, the basics of our nation’s troubled past can be presented without overwhelming young readers with graphic details.
Historical fiction can also be helpful when a child is learning to read. It presents the ideal stage for separating plot from theme, for example. Using the timeframe of the Civil War again, the plot of a book about a young protagonist escaping from slavery would be how she managed her escape and the setbacks she experienced along the way. The theme, however, would be that all people are created equal no matter what circumstance they are born into and deserve to live free.
The best historical fiction books for kids
When looking for children’s books in the historical fiction category, watch for award winners; books which have earned the Caldecott award, for instance, or the Newbery Honor. These books are usually well written from the point of view of plot and characterization, but they are also scrupulously attentive to the historical timeframe in which they are set.
Keep in mind the needs of individual young readers, as well. Some kids might be ready for more realism, while others will be more sensitive and may not be ready for the unabridged truth of our past – especially if they really identify with the young protagonist. In other words, especially in the early reading years, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending.
The best historical fiction books for preschoolers
Surrounding babies and toddlers with books of all kinds, and spending time reading with them, introduces them to the idea that books are a fun part of life. It instills a lifelong love of reading.
Historical fiction books for children this age should be light-hearted and uplifting. At this age, we simply want to introduce the idea that the world we see around us hasn’t always looked the way it does; it’s a direct result of our shared history.
|Legend of the Indian Paintbrush – Based on a Native American legend, this book by Tomie de Paola, tells the story of a young Native boy who receives a message in a dream telling him he must make the perfect re-creation of the most beautiful sunset.
|Cowpokes – With bright pictures of cowpokes and their ponies, this lively book by Caroline Stutson and Daniel San Souci, follows a group of cowboys all through their busy day.
|Wee Gillis – Wee Gillis is an orphan from the Scottish Highlands. This evocative tale by Monro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson, follows Gillis as he learns the daily chores of his people and has to make a big decision about his future.
Historical fiction books for emergent readers (grades 1 – 3)
During these early school years, young readers are better able to understand the abstract idea of “history.” They can most easily identify with characters in a book when those characters are close to their own age. They can then “see” themselves living the life that the book describes.
Remember, too, that pictures are still a big part of the reading experience for kids this age. Illustrations help them visualize the story they’re reading and can also break up large segments of intimidating text.
|Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos – This engaging story by Robert Lawson gives kids a mouse-eye view of our famous founding father, as the two of them work together on some of Franklin’s most famous inventions.
|Rescue on the Oregon Trail – In this book, written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Kelley McMorris, Ranger, a failed search and rescue dog, finds a mysterious first aid kit that transports him back to 1850 where he helps young Sam save his sister.
|Inside Out and Back Again – This story, a winner of the “National Book Award for Young People’s Literature” and the “Newbery Honor,” tells the story of a Vietnamese family through the eyes of their youngest child, as they struggle to escape their war-torn country and start a new life. Author Thanhha Lai based this book on her own family’s experience.
Historical fiction books for the middle grades (grades 4 – 6)
As children get older, the deep complexities of adult life start to become more and more apparent. Children in the middle grades are starting to look around themselves and develop ideas about who we are as a nation, and how the past affects the present.
This is a good time to expose them to books that can help them grow into the compassionate, caring adults we hope they become. Books that tell history from many different viewpoints are vital in helping shape their world view.
|Sing Down the Moon – This “Newbery Award” winning book tells the story of a young Navaho girl forced from her homeland by white soldiers. Author Scott O’Dell confronts some of the harsh realities of this time in history, but ultimately tells an uplifting story of a young girl’s resiliency.
|Number the Stars – Set during the first years of WWII, this story by Louis Lowry, also a Newbery winner, describes the heroic efforts of the Danish people – as seen through the eyes of one young girl – as they work to save their Jewish population from Nazi exportation and murder.
|One Crazy Summer – This “Coretta Scott King Author Book Award” winner and “Newbery Honor” book by Rita Williams-Garcia tells the coming-of-age story of three sisters who cross the country during the turbulent 60’s in search of their mother, and end up learning some valuable lessons about themselves and their country.