I know all kinds of facts about Anne Boleyn. How do I know these facts? Not from reading history textbooks or historical documents…at least, not initially. I know these facts because I got hooked on Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction novel, The Other Boleyn Girl (Gregory, 2002). In fact, most of what I know about history comes from historical fiction. Of course, reading these historical fiction novels inspires me to read informational texts to learn even more about the historical subject. As such, historical fiction is a “gateway genre.” It straddles the information and literary worlds. Based on historical settings and events, these texts are informed by primary and secondary sources. (Find an explanation of primary and secondary sources in Annenberg Learner’s America’s History in the Making.)
Authors of historical fiction texts tend to be researchers of history, if not historians. For example, as one of the authors for Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America (James and Loh, 2013), I spent a great deal of time researching the Chinese-American immigration experience at Angel Island. Historical fiction writers take great care to accurately and authentically represent the historical time period; however, the “truth” of history is often fictionalized in order to move the plot along. Even though historical fiction writers can take certain liberties, especially with characters and dialogue, they still need to present the story in such a way that it is historically probable.
Given this, historical fiction is a goldmine for educators implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). As part of my job at the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, I designed a robust unit of study aligned to 4th grade CCSS entitled, Analysis of Historical Fiction: Paper Son. In this unit, students analyze the historical fiction text by critically examining the firsthand and secondhand accounts that informed it; they are essentially deconstructing the research process and learning about the history. They have opportunities to become “truth detectives.” (Of course, this can lead to discussions about how true is history given its interpretative nature.)
In addition to deepening their knowledge about literary and informational texts, students are also gaining historical knowledge; as such, historical fiction is valuable in both English Language Arts classrooms and History/Social Science classrooms. After reading Paper Son and engaging in the unit mentioned above, a 4th grader shared: “It taught me about Chinese-American history. I had not learned much about Chinese immigration from 1849-1920 before reading this book…I did not know that people sold information about themselves and their family to help someone come to the United States of America. I had heard of Ellis Island and the many people who came through there when coming to the U.S., but I did not know that Angel Island was where immigrants visited when coming to the U.S. in the West. I also learned what a coaching book was and how it helped people study for their immigration interrogations.” We can be impressed with this young student’s increased knowledge base about a complex historical topic. The next step would be to lead this student from information to inquiry, to think like a historian.
In order to effectively teach historical fiction, educators must provide students with the historical context. To this end, Annenberg Learner’s Artifacts & Fiction and American Passages: A Literary Survey focus on teaching American literature in its historical and cultural contexts. This will facilitate teaching with lenses. Students will greatly benefit from seeing history from various and multiple perspectives (Appleman, 2010). In addition, this list of resources cover American and world history topics related to literature that students are reading.
Another benefit of teaching historical fiction is the potential for it to connect to readers in such a way that social justice and multicultural understanding can be enacted. From reading historical fiction texts, readers can perhaps become both empathetic and sympathetic to how certain groups are treated unjustly by being able to feel the protagonist’s plight (Brooks and Hampton, 2005).
A graduate student of mine who is also a high school teacher added, “Even though [historical fiction writers may have] manipulated and amalgamated fiction and fact, [they do] this to help people understand the plight of a race in [a particular historical time period]. This manipulation helped readers in a beneficial way. History when taught by fiction writers may be trusted to an extent, but it should never be trusted fully. Students need to be aware of the text as a piece of fiction.” Historical fiction encourages readers to be critical consumers of information. Students can verify the history by working within and across texts and learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.
In closing, historical fiction offers teachers wonderful opportunities to teach both literary and informational texts, to teach research and critical thinking skills, to teach historical lenses, to increase content knowledge, and to learn to love reading because of its power to teach.
Appleman, D. (2010). Critical encounters in high school English: Teaching literary theory to adolescents. (2nd Edition). NY: Teachers College Press.
Brooks, W. & Hampton, G. (2005). Safe discussions rather than first hand encounters: Adolescents examine racism through one historical fiction text. Children’s Literature in Education, 36, pp. 83-98.
Gregory, P. (2002). The other Boleyn girl. New York: Pocket Star Books.
James, H.F. & Loh, V.S. (2013). Paper son: Lee’s journey to America. MI: Sleeping Bear Press.