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Historical fiction — why didn’t I use it more?

One Crazy SummerA librarian friend of mine* recently asked me why historical fiction doesn’t make its way into social studies and language arts classrooms more often. The thought keeps rattling around in my brain. First, I should say that I don’t know for sure that there aren’t tons of classrooms where historical fiction is a great pillar of the curriculum. I’m sure they exist, though that hasn’t often been my experience.

But I do remember feeling like it was a tough genre to work into my classroom, so I spent some time today thinking about why. I mean, I do occasionally like to read historical fiction, and I found myself in the classroom teaching some books that were old. But historical fiction rarely entered the game.

Here are a handful of thoughts why that might have been and what I’d do differently nowadays:

  • The whole novel pickle — I think I spent too much time feeling like if I took on a book, I had to do the whole thing. I don’t think I realized all of the ways that excerpts could be used, but now I know I could take an episode from a novel and use it in a variety of ways.
  • The historical accuracy hook — I think part of me always worried about historical fiction and questions of historical accuracy. I was hesitant to teach anything I felt might not be “accurate.” How silly of me! We could have learned so much from reading all sorts of pieces! Pieces that were accurate would be great, but pieces that were good stories that took some liberties could have been too. I was supposed to be teaching about credibility and sources, and I missed shots at working on some of those questions by worrying too much about the hook.
  • The ever-present time crunch — I often avoided this genre and others because of time. “I don’t have enough time.” Though time is finite and short, I can see now that my representation of genres repeated lots of things and dispensed with others. I think I’d try for a bit more balance in genre now, by considering what time periods I was representing solely by older books written in their own times.
  • The building background vortex — I think sometimes I wasn’t sure what historical fiction could do for my students. But I think I missed chances to help expose students to the background knowledge they needed for older literary works by neglecting historical fiction. So I spent time describing time periods and looking at photos and such (which was good, I think), but maybe using passages and excerpts from historical fiction could have helped students visualize times like the roaring 20s in a real experience-driven way.

So all in all, I’d like another shot at it with historical fiction. I can think of ways to make it work. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them!

* Thanks to my friend Shelley Mains for the idea for this post!

Christina Dobbs About Christina Dobbs

Christina Dobbs is an assistant professor of English Education at Boston University. She is a former high school teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist, and she studied adolescent literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.



  1. When I was a kid, my AP history and English classes used to coordinate….i.e. English would do Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare at the same time history was covering the Salem Witch Trials…it worked well, and made both the English and history classes that much more interesting.

  2. Years ago on childlit I took umbrage at those who kept arguing that historical fiction was the only way to get kids interested in history. They were assuming dull teachers who only used textbooks which many don’t. In fact, I would argue, through primary sources and good nonfiction you can easily get kids to enjoy learning about the past. I then began to think about just how I might use historical fiction in the teaching of history and came up with a unit where the kids write their own. I’ve written about this in several places, among them in some books for teachers and on my blog.

    I teach 4th and our yearlong study is on immigration. We start with recent immigration and head back in time culminating with the Mayflower passengers. This works well because the primary sources are accessible to spring 4th graders and we also do an overnight trip to Plimoth Plantation (just back yesterday from this year’s). We look at works of historical fiction to consider what makes it good (or bad — I’ve got examples of both:) and then the kids create a composite characters and write their own. The following are some blog posts I did some years back that are pretty much good descriptions of what my colleagues and I still do (although, unfortunately, the links to the school blogs won’t work anymore as they were made private a couple of years ago).

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