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What Role Should Fiction Have in the U.S. History Classroom?

Keith Barton
Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, Adjunct Professor of History (Indiana University)

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Historical fiction has a number of important advantages for engaging young people in the study of the past, but it also has some significant drawbacks. Teachers need to be aware of these potential problems so that they can help students bring a more critical and balanced perspective to their study of history.  Read more »

Bárbara C. Cruz
Professor of Social Science Education (University of South Florida)

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Fiction should play a vital role in the U.S. history classroom. Historical fiction in particular can support and foster multicultural and global understanding by including perspectives that are often missing from textbooks.  Read more »

Joanne Brown
English Professor (Retired, Drake University, IA)

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Historical fiction can supplement history courses, offering characters whose emotional responses to actual events give readers a more immediate, human sense of what is being studied.  Read more »

Andrea Hayden
Elementary Teacher, Albany County School District (Laramie, WY)

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While historical fiction has the power to captivate students and draw them in to history, they are best served if teachers partner fiction with nonfiction texts. This enables them to critically think about the stories being presented and to analyze them for historical accuracy and significance.  Read more »

Keith Schoch
Sixth-grade Teacher (Bedminster, NJ)

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The ability of good fiction to transport the reader into another time and place is one factor which makes it such an essential tool for teachers of history.  Read more »

Valerie Tripp

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Historical fiction should serve as a captivator, a way to catch and hold students’ attention and interest. But it must be carefully scrutinized and judiciously used.  Read more »

I have long enjoyed utilizing

I have long enjoyed utilizing historical fiction in both my secondary and collegiate classrooms. As many of these commentators have pointed out, historical fiction can pull students into a time period more easily than some historical monographs. Part of the problem with monographs is that very good histories might be written by historians who are expert at analysis and research, but not trained in effective storytelling. Keith Barton's concern that "historical fiction derives from its emphasis on individuals rather than on abstract entities such as governments or the economy" is perhaps true in some instances, but I'd like to offer some examples of texts that balance the stories of individuals with "broader social contexts."
1. James Sturm, Satchel Paige, Striking out Jim Crow - a fictional sharecropper relates his story on Paige's abilities and how his barnstorming team had to deal with Jim Crow in the south
2. M. T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing, Traitor To The Nation, Volume I and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves - while technically the tale of an individual, Anderson's broad understanding of enlightenment philosophy and struggles over concepts of liberty and loyalty bring life to the revolutionary experience for African Americans
3. Sherman Alexie, Flight - time travel text telling the story of a teenaged native boy and his effort to fit into society (not necessarily one of Alexie's best, but an interesting approach and effort)
4. Kathleen King, Cricket Sings: A Novel Of Pre-Columbian Cahokia - interesting tale that offers a glimpse of pre-contact native life in Cahokia
As with most fiction, all of these works tell the story of an individual, but I would argue that its that approach that can pull readers into the story. When historians describe larger social events and change within the context of individual stories, readers can often relate to these past events. Should we as historians always take care with our choices? Absolutely. We need to remind students that just like primary or secondary sources, historical fiction can, and should, be subject to close scrutiny and critique.

Nicholas J. Aieta
Assistant Professor of History and secondary education program coordinator (Westfield State University)

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