Neither Spinach Nor Potato Chip
Good historical fiction engages students. It is neither spinach—good for you but not especially delicious—nor potato chip—salty and tempting, but of no nutritional value. It piques students’ interest in an historical period by transporting them to that period and showing them what their lives would be like if they lived then. And through that vicarious experience, the students not only learn about the past. They also learn empathy and compassion, because they are imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes. Good historical fiction meets young readers where they are right now in terms of comprehension by drawing upon existing background knowledge and life experiences that they can bring to bear on the story. Historical fiction celebrates the nature of the young reader, tickling the reader’s curiosity, energy, and humor, and being inspired by the reader’s hopes, aspirations, and Weltanschauung.
And how does historical fiction do this? Well, story is the “through-thread”; the students keep on reading because they want to find out what is going to happen. Emotion is the engine, the driving force that makes the students care. If the main character is believable and compelling, the student will make friends with the character and identify with him or her and, therefore, whatever happens to that character will matter to the reader.
But while plot and character may captivate, solid history must be the reason for the story. The history must be accurate, authentic, documented. Fiction may be the magnet, but history must be the purpose, the rock-solid core, that underlies the story.
So, when choosing historical fiction to use in the classroom as a way to interest students in history, I’d say: First, do no harm. That is, before it is used in a history classroom, historical fiction should be checked for bias, for anachronistic voice and views, and for shying away from honest presentation of the period. What is not said is as misleading as what is said! Does the author seem to you to have an open mind? If not, can the historical fiction be used to lead your students to question the writer’s agenda, to judge its validity for themselves, not with cynicism but with a healthy objectivity? Can it lead a student to ask: what is my point of view? Does the work of historical fiction gently lead students to comprehension, and subtly show students that every question has two sides—or more—and that all history is fluid and subject to new interpretation? As Toni Morrison wrote: “The past is not done, the past is not over, it is still very much in process. Which is to say that when it is intelligently critiqued, analyzed, it yields new insights about itself.”
Historical fiction is helpful to use in the classroom because it motivates students and sort of “sets the scene” for an historical period. But it should be partnered with a healthy dose of biography, and supported by preparation in vocabulary, concept comprehension, and a sense of chronology. Well-integrated historical fiction can show students how art, science, philosophy, and politics interacted during the period under study, and had great mutual influence.
Because of course, our goal as teachers of history is to help our students become informed and thoughtful, capable of putting facts in context, making connections, weighing dichotomies, even balancing two contradictory points of view at the same time. We want our students to enjoy history, and historical fiction truly helps them do so. Good historical fiction starts with a connection to the students’ current lives in order to engage and captivate them, and then it leads them on a journey back through time. But ultimately, the route of the journey is a circle. It leads the students back to their own time. They return changed and with added perspective, compassion, and awareness of what has gone before, which will help them make wiser decisions and to understand the important influence they’ll have on history, through their individual choices.