Five Reasons to Encourage the Youth in Your Life to Read Good Historical Fiction

Saturday, June 13th, 2020     Marie Sontag     Start the Conversation

What is good historical fiction? Why should we encourage students to read it? According to an article by The Atlantic, good historical fiction avoids the promotion of myths and stereotypes. It also presents individuals—both fictional and historical, as they are, neither all good nor all bad. Most of all, good historical fiction provides a compelling story based on factual events that make history come alive, leaving readers wanting to know more. Here are five reasons why we should encourage the young people in our lives to read it.

1. Good historical fiction exposes readers to the complexity and diversity of life in age-appropriate ways. Many textbooks often reduce famous people to two or three sentences. This makes it difficult for tweens and teens to see these figures as complex individuals who are usually neither all good nor all bad. Also, people from a diverse background whose lives have impacted history are often not mentioned at all in these textbooks. Good historical fiction reflects the complexity and diversity of life.

2. It introduces readers to people with different points of view, showing how they did or did not work through those differences. For example, in my middle-grade historical fiction novel, California Trail Discovered (fall 2020), James Reed, a member of the Donner Party, fights with another wagon train companion, Lewis Keseberg. While traveling across the Great Plains, Keseberg steals a buffalo fur from a Lakota Indian burial ground. When Reed demands the man return the fur to the burial site, Keseberg says, “Why? The Indian was dead. He will not need it to keep warm.”

Jim Savage, another historical figure, fires his pistol into the air. He then challenges Keseberg. “This isn’t open to discussion. If the Lakota come after us because you stole that robe, they’ll take our scalps and kidnap our women and children. Return it at once!” Jim had once lived with Indians and knew the custom of the Lakota. His experiences were different than Keseberg’s, providing the man with a clearer perspective of the problem. Keseberg returned the fur. Jim’s confrontation with Keseberg may well have saved the travelers from a Lakota Indian attack.
3. It reveals the consequences of certain decisions. Readers of good historical fiction can learn from the past as characters make decisions that lead to specific consequences. In California Trail Discovered, the wagon train members couldn’t come to a consensus about which path to travel after they reached the Greenwood Cutoff. Some followed the longer northern route. Others, like the Donner Party, chose to take the untried Hastings Cutoff because it was shorter and faster. History proved them wrong.
After reading California Trail Discovered, an adult in a middle schooler’s life could discuss the pros and cons of current-day situations that present different solutions. For example, in June of 2020, protests after the murder of George Floyd led to discussions of defunding the police. Most of the cities considering this option, like the Donner Party, had no idea how it would turn out. Help the young readers in your life find articles relating to both sides. Discuss possible outcomes of either decision.

4. It makes past events come alive in a more inviting and personal way. Linda Levstik, a professor at the University of Kentucky, says historical fiction helps embed history in a narrative arc. Because good historical fiction touches readers’ emotions within a historical context, this wedding of narrative and history creates a web of meaning that helps readers make sense of, and better able to remember what they’ve read.
5. It encourages empathy. Reading stories about someone who is different than you provides a window into another person’s world. Have the tweens or teens in your life ever experienced hunger because their source of food had been destroyed? California Trail Discovered and Yosemite Trail Discovered give readers this opportunity as they experience life alongside the Lakota and Yosemite Indians.

In addition to providing a window into someone’s life, Rudine Sims Bishop professor emerita of education at Ohio State University states that historical fiction also provides something akin to a “sliding glass door.” It gives readers a safe way to move in and out of their own experiences into that of another. This kind of “sliding glass door” can promote empathy for those different than us. If nothing else, the protests and riots of June 2020 prove we can all benefit from seeing life through the lens of those whose life experiences are different than ours. Let’s give our future generation the ability to do this by supporting and encouraging the reading of good historical fiction.


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