Not all history lessons are created equal.
As a child, I had some history teachers who enthralled my classmates and I with epics of the past. And then I had teachers who gave us lists of dates and state capitols to memorize.
Luckily, I had one teacher who never let me down: books. My school’s library was chock full of historical fiction, and the stories I read in those books settled into a special part of my brain. They were unforgettable.
Today, many national education systems are reforming their curriculum to “emphasize the importance of narrative to the study of history […] and to make links and develop historical study skills in context.” Historical fiction plays perfectly into that plan. What better than a novel to show that history is a personal narrative?
What should you look for in historical fiction for kids?
You got the message. Historical fiction is a game-changer in your child’s education.
But, again, not all history lessons are created equal. These pointers can help you find the best historical novels for your kid:
- Character age. Generally, children are attracted to characters who are the same age as them or 1-2 years older.
- Familiar ideas. Children like to feel like they know what you’re talking about. Find a topic in which your kid has some background knowledge and choose books to build on that knowledge. You can match books with the topics your kid is studying in school at the moment, or you can give your kid several books from the same time period.
- New angles. One of the biggest dangers in your kid’s history class is the idea that history is a concrete, black-and-white timeline. Not true! History changes, depending on your angle. Try to find books from new perspectives, like a young boy who was caught up in Hitler’s Nazi Youth or a slave who was treated kindly by her master.
- Appropriate content. Unfortunately, history isn’t always pretty. Your kid will have to learn that someday, but if you’re not ready to answer hard questions about violence or sexuality, you might want to put some books off for a few years. You can find age-ratings and explicit content warnings here.
- Freedom. Then again, you could just set your kid free in the historical fiction section of the library. Even little kids have big personalities, so some books will grip his personality more than others.
A few masterpieces for your kid’s historical fiction book list…
With a feisty heroine and plenty of Medieval hijinks, Catherine Called Birdy tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who yearns to write and travel, instead of being married off to one of her grotesque suitors.
Lessons: Medieval lifestyle, struggles faced by women
When Mexico falls into an economic recession, pampered Esperanza and her aristocratic family are forced to leave their plantation and join hundreds of immigrants who are looking for work in the fields of California.
Lessons: class morality, struggles faced by immigrants, Mexican culture
Tree-ear thinks he’s stumbled into the opportunity of a lifetime when he becomes the apprentice of one of Korea’s legendary ceradon potters, but when he discovers just how difficult the work is, his opinion begins to waver.
Lessons: ancient Korean culture, apprenticeship
Bud has been shuffled from orphanage to orphanage ever since his mother died. Finally, he’s had enough. He sets off on a journey to find his father, guided by the one picture which his mother left behind: a man playing trumpet for all he’s worth.
Lessons: foster care, Civil Rights, Jazz Age
From King Arthur’s court to hidden samurai temples, Jack and Annie can go anywhere with their magic, time-travelling tree house.
Lessons: miscellaneous introductory lessons (best for very young readers)
Do you remember the history lessons you learned in middle school? What books would you add to this list?
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