Revisiting Historical Fiction

Posted March 14th, 2011

Talkin' About BessieSince when did the American classroom become a democracy?

When I was in school, long after dinosaurs became extinct, I was made to sit through lessons on math, general science, and social studies, none of which suited my fancy.  I wasn’t particularly fond of Shakespeare either, at least not when his works were first introduced. With time, though, I learned to appreciate the value of general science, social studies, and even—dare I say it?—math. As for Shakespeare, that early classroom introduction to his works began a love-affair I’ve been having with his literary genius ever since.

None of that would have happened if my teachers had limited the scope of their teaching to what I, a fickle, unformed, and uninformed young person said I liked or disliked. My teachers never asked me my subject preferences, nor should they have. Their years of education, expertise, and real-world knowledge put them in a position to know, within the realm of education, what was good for me. They ran their classrooms accordingly, teaching those subjects they knew to be important, assigning those books they knew would expand my horizons, deepen my understanding of primary topics, and prepare me to succeed at the next level of my academic career, and beyond. While I wasn’t too thrilled at the time, snarky, angst-ridden little twerp that I was, I felt quite differently when I applied, and was accepted to, the colleges and universities of my choice.  I was happy, then.

Things are different now. Today, many educators seem to be taking their cues from their students. How is that possible? And when did that happen? And how on earth can that approach ever serve the student?

Before you take a cane to me, let me explain. I’ve got a reason for my rant.

I had no use for history when I was in school. Until, that is, I discovered historical fiction. That was the point at which the dry bones of history came to life for me. Once I discovered how individual historical figures were connected, and the real-word impact history had on my life, I got excited about history. I have been hooked ever since, and that has led me, primarily a poet and novelist, to delve into creating historical fiction of my own. I am, in fact, working on such a manuscript this very moment, and the research for it has given me no end of goosebumps! So imagine how disheartened I am when I hear, as I often do, teachers who love historical fiction say “I can’t assign historical fiction. My kids will never read it.”

Excuse me? Since when do students get a vote?

I’m sorry, but this kind of thinking makes me crazy. I heard something similar about poetry, for years. Teachers hesitated to introduce poetry to their students because they were convinced their young charges wouldn’t like it. Some of that thinking was a carryover from their own negative experiences of trying to memorize classics as a child, or being forced to dissect poetry in some strictly clinical fashion. (What a way to destroy affection for poetry before it is even engendered!) But when said teachers finally dipped their toe into the poetry pool, they discovered that their students not only liked poetry, but loved it. And, yes, some of that had to do with choosing the right poetry, aimed at the right age group of course. But the point I’m getting at is this: poetry has been transforming classrooms across the country for years. Now I think it’s time for teachers to revisit the idea of introducing students to historical fiction, as well.

“Why?” you ask. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe a student will learn something he didn’t know before. Perhaps a bit of history slipped in between the fiction will give him a jolt of excitement. Is that something to be feared? Really?

Whether you consider assigning historical fiction to be risky or not, children should not be allowed to dictate curriculum, and neither should teens. Yes, I think it is important to include popular fiction on your reading list to entice your students to climb between the pages of a book. With that in mind, if you want to include vampire lore and fantasy fiction in your classroom library because it’s all the rage, fine. But, please, don’t stop there. Expose your students to other books, and to a variety of genres, including historical fiction. If you know that a work of historical fiction will expand your students’ understanding of a particular era, for instance, by all means assign it! “But my kids won’t like it!” you say. Yes, yes, but you said that about poetry too, remember? And look what happened? Poetry enriched your students’ overall reading experience, and enhanced their writing to boot!

Here’s the bottom line: the young people in your classroom are there to learn. Your job—and I know that you know how to do this—is to teach. Challenging your students is part of the gig. You know what a treasure a beautiful collection of poetry or a solid work of historical fiction can be. Don’t talk yourself out of sharing it with your students just because they’re inclined to groan or suck their teeth. Find the best books and make them assigned reading. In the end, your students will love you for it. Trust me. I’ve got stacks of letters from kids who’ve read my books and fallen in love with poetry for the first time, and others who’ve read Talkin’ About Bessie who suddenly have a taste for history and, believe me, my work is scarcely scraping the surface of this genre. Today’s market is full of spectacular authors writing historical fiction for young readers, some of which have won the Newbery (Moon Over Manifest, anyone?). Just ask your local librarian for a list of recommendations.

Okay. I’m done. I hope you’ll feel challenged, encouraged, and empowered to embrace your inner history-geek. Go on. Go for it! You’ve got nothing to lose.