Historical fiction is a great way to get your kids into history! Think of historical fiction like time travel without losing the comforts and conveniences of modern-day life.
Whether kids realize it or not, history is stories. And who doesn’t love a great story? Unfortunately, though, history books are often more interested in facts, dates, theories, political views, and ideologies, and they forget about the story aspect. Sure, all those other things are important, and they all affect and impact the stories, but the stories of history make history come alive.
The stories of history introduce us to real people, real problems, real thoughts, and real ideas that affect the world! So, use historical fiction to get kids connected to history.
What Is Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction is a literary genre that sets stories in a realistic historical setting, gives historical context to events and living conditions, and helps us better understand what life was like during different historical times.
Not everything listed as historical fiction is worth reading.
I enjoy reading historical fiction. But when I search my library’s ebook offerings under “historical fiction,” I am amazed at what that category includes. Just because a story takes place in another time does not qualify it as worthwhile historical fiction. Example: A steamy romance (in my thinking) does not qualify as historical fiction just because the story takes place during the 1800s. In my opinion, that is still just a steamy romance novel.
What Makes Good Historical Fiction?
So, what does classify something as good historical fiction? According to several explanations of historical fiction that I read, look for the following qualities in historical fiction books:
- It should take place at least 50 years in the past.
- The characters should be realistic.
- The book should be well researched and historically accurate.
- The book should accurately portray historical figures or events.
- The main characters do not need to be real people but could be connected to real historical persons.
- Everything about the setting, characters, language, ideas, and general life should be historically accurate.
I’m sure you have seen those lists of errors made in movies, those mistakes that don’t fit the historical era of the film. Examples might include an ancient Greek character wearing a watch, a modern-day light fixture in a movie set before the invention of electric lights, or coffee-to-go cups accidentally left on a set during a movie from the middle-ages. Just like those glaring errors in a film, watch out for glaring historical errors in books labeled as historical fiction. Accuracy is key to good historical writing.
How Will Your Kids Benefit from Historical Fiction?
Using historical fiction in your home school will benefit your kids. How? Let’s look at several ways historical fiction can help your kids and their education.
Your kids can learn history as a story.
Storytelling is a great teaching tool. Even Jesus used stories to teach important truths to his followers. Stories make history relatable. Have you ever watched a family slide show? And the narration to the slide show goes something like this: “This is Uncle George. He was a farmer who lived in 1903 in northern Minnesota. They live in a brick house. Boring, right? What kid is going to be interested enough to remember that?
Now, consider that same information given in story form? “Let me tell you a story about my Uncle George. When he was born, their house did not have any electricity. They didn’t even have running water inside! Can you imagine running out back to the outhouse in a Minnesota winter?” Which format is more likely to catch a child’s interest?
When we present history as a story, kids will be more inclined to learn history! Sure, dates, ideologies, and events are all important, but they will resonate better with kids if they see history as stories. (And adults!)
Your kids will learn how historical events impacted people’s lives.
Your kids may learn that the Civil War was a significant event in US history. But how did it affect real people? Learning about the Civil War through stories can help your kids see how the war tore families apart when family members fought on the two different sides of the conflict.
So, they built a wall in Berlin and separated the city into two parts. So what? But read a story about a child who could no longer visit his grandparents because the wall separated the family, and that makes the wall more realistic in our minds.
As we see how historical events impacted the lives of children and their families, we better understand the importance of history!
Historical fiction helps kids make connections between different events in history.
How did the treaties after World War I play into the rise of Hitler and the events leading up to World War II? That sounds like a typical question in a history book. So, a child would search through the text and list out the answers provided in bold text. So, the child completed the assignment. But did they learn anything?
Instead, imagine a story about two different children – one in post-war England and the other child living in post-war Germany. As the story unfolds, we see how life is different for the two main characters. We learn how the child in England is getting on with his life. While the food may be less than what he was used to before the war, there is still food. Life goes on for the English child, somewhat similar to what it did before the war.
But our character in Germany faces a far different life. Food is hard to find. The war destroyed many farmers’ fields, their money was worthless, and his parents could not find work. Life is bleak and desolate.
Stories will highlight these differences and give us more empathy than a history textbook. They will also help us make better relations between historical events. While they may instruct on the links between events, history textbooks don’t provide the personal connections that give us better empathy and understanding.
Your children will expand their knowledge of different cultures.
We said earlier that good historical fiction is historically accurate in every way, including how characters speak, act, relate to the world around them. This historical accuracy should also include cultural aspects surrounding the characters.
What was it like to live in a village in central Africa during the 1800s? I can’t think of a better way to learn that than reading a story about a believable character who lived in a small village in Africa in the 1800s.
I don’t know about you, but I will probably never travel to Mongolia. But I can read about a character who lived in a yurt in Mongolia during the early 1900s to understand daily life for that character.
Reading historical fiction is a great way to learn about different cultures during different historical eras.
Your kids can get a better understanding of geography.
Contrary to what many people think, a good knowledge of geography matters! Maybe you don’t need to place every country in Africa accurately, but you should have a general idea of where those countries are. How can you understand current events without knowing geography?
Geography helps explain culture. Why are people in various regions of a country so different? Look at the geography! Is there a significant mountain range between the two areas? That could explain cultural differences. Difficult access to diverse ideas gives rise to cultural differences.
Stories can help explain geography. One of our favorite historical fiction novels was Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. The story takes place in Norway during World War II, and the geographical features of Norway are a significant part of the story. Mountains, fjords, and cultural components like skiing and sledding are integral to the story. Hey – I don’t want to say anymore because you should read the book! Grade school historical fiction at its best!
How Can You Use Historical Fiction in your Home School?
It’s not hard to incorporate historical fiction into your home school. Here are some ways you can easily do that:
- Assign historical fiction books as part of your reading or literature curriculum.
- Do you have a read aloud time? Include historical fiction books in your read aloud list.
- Add historical fiction to your history assignments. Relate the books to the history your child is studying.
- Do you ever give extra credit? Offer some bonus points for reading relevant historical fiction books.
- Challenge your children to include historical fiction books in their leisure/pleasure reading.
- Are your kids participating in any reading contests? Add historical fiction books to their contest books.
How Do You Find Good Historical Fiction Books for School?
Unfortunately, there is no section in the library labeled “Historical Fiction.” So, how do you find good historical fiction books?
You can always do Google or Pinterest searches for historical fiction at the appropriate grade level.
Also, ask the librarian at your local library for recommendations.
I have used a couple of reference books to help me find some of these treasured books:
- Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt
- Honey for a Teen’s Heart by Gladys Hunt
- Let the Authors Speak by Carolyn Hatcher
Here is a list of some favorites of our favorite historical fiction books.
- Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan
- Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
- Books by Lois Lenski
- Books by Jean Fritz
- Books by G. A Henty
- Any of the Trailblazer books by Dave and Neta Jackson
- American Girls books
- American Girls History Books
- Books by Rosemary Sutcliff
- Books by Scott O’Dell
- Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Orphan Train books by Joan Lowery Nixon
- The Josefina Story Quilt by Eleanor Coerr
Can you add any other books to my list? Do your kids have favorite historical fiction books? I’d love to hear your favorites! Let me know what they are in the comments.
Looking for more information about reading and teaching kids to read? Check out these posts:
How to Teach your Child to Read
How to Develop Reading Comprehension Skills
Oh, where to begin…
Don’t forget the Ann Rinaldi books. (She has some that are not HF that I’m not a big fan of, but I do like her HF, especially as she has a section at the end where she discusses what was fiction and what wasn’t)
Roll of Thunder series
Escape from Warsaw (used to be called The Silver Sword)
Year of Impossible Goodbyes
Thin Wood Walls
Farewell to Manzanar
Ashes of Roses
A Place to hang the Moon (the audio version is the best!)
Someplace to Call Home
Journey of Sparrows
A Boat to Nowhere
The Clay Marble
Chain of Fire
Under the Blood-Red Sun
Under the Sun
Goodnight, Mr. Tom
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbilt
The Red Scarf Girl
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Hiding Place
North to Freedom (Also called I Am David)
When My Name was Keoko
My older girls really enjoyed many of the journal/diary type series like the Dear America books and the Royal Diaries, etc. And on a different media note, my kids have really been enjoying the Liberty’s Kids series since I found a brand new collection of the whole series on DVD for $1.99 at the thrift store.
And there are so many more great options. Some of these are definitely for older readers (but we need to read books too, right? 😉 ), and as always read with discernment and make decisions on what is right for your readers.