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Loving History's Stories

Earlier this year I received an email from the National Science Teachers Association with the “Five reasons they love science”:

  1. Science has stories.
  2. Science has mysteries.
  3. Science can make us laugh.
  4. Science challenges us.
  5. Science is everywhere.

I love science, and found myself in agreement while reading this list. I also love history, and for history buffs, it’s easy to simply replace the word “science” with the word “history.” The fact that history has stories is one of the easiest ways to make it come alive for students, especially at the elementary level. We can capitalize on the excitement that students have for a good story while helping them gain a better understanding of and appreciation for history.

Students’ reading diets need to have a healthy balance of fiction and nonfiction texts.

I want my students to love history, and to have an enthusiasm for studying the past. I want them to get caught up in the mystery and the emotion of the past, and I want them to wrestle with the challenges that history presents us with. This makes books in the historical fiction genre a natural path for me to explore with them. Historical fiction helps to tell stories by giving us characters we can connect with and historic settings we can envision. It draws us into history.

But is that enough? Is captivating students and telling them a good story my only goal, or are students best served if their experiences with historical fiction lead them to a deeper understanding of history? While historical fiction may help immerse them in the stories of our past, and while they may glean some historical facts along the way, I think we may be dropping the ball if that is all we expose our students to. Students’ reading diets need to have a healthy balance of fiction and nonfiction texts.

How do I help my students figure out what is history and what is imagination?

Great fiction books can certainly be a springboard for nonfiction. When my class reads Scott O’Dell’s Streams to the River, River to the Sea as part of our study on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, we will use it as a launch into further research. The book immerses students in the lives of the adventurers, and O’Dell does a great job of weaving in historical facts. But a good deal of the story is fictionalized. So how do I help my students figure out what is history and what is imagination?

In her book Making Sense of History (1), Myra Zarnowski presents several guiding questions to help students dig deeper into historical fiction:

  • How does the book help me understand daily life in the past?
  • Could the events described in the book have happened? What evidence do I have?
  • Which events really happened? How do I know?
  • Which characters really existed? How do I know?

These questions help students break open a historical fiction text and lead to further inquiry through the use of nonfiction resources, both primary and secondary. By helping students sort out what is fact and what is fiction we teach them to be critical thinkers, to value historical research, and to try to see multiple perspectives as well as the big picture.

We are called to make sure that the use of historical fiction is tempered with nonfiction on multiple fronts. As a result of the added emphasis on informational texts in the new Common Core Standards, many districts and schools are working to increase students’ exposure to nonfiction texts.

While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70. (2)

Another consideration is the quality of many contemporary nonfiction trade books. Many adults remember the nonfiction of our childhood as dry, dense, and dreary. The majority of nonfiction books written for children today have so much more to offer. They are written in engaging formats and often include powerful pictures and graphics.

Nonfiction books written for children today . . .are written in engaging formats and often include powerful pictures and graphics.

For one sampling, check out the books listed for the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. Anything but dry, these books are page-turners. They have incredible graphic components, engaging storylines, and a range of fantastic content. They show that we don’t have to fictionalize the past to make it interesting.

We get more bang for our education buck if we remember that it’s not an either/or situation, but that both genres can help us meet our educational goal of preparing the next generation of critical thinkers, historians, and citizens.


1 Myra Zarnowski, Making Sense of History (New York, NY: Scholastic, 2006).

2 Fernanda Santos, “A Trial Run for School Standards that Encourage Deeper Thought,” The New York Times, April 24, 2011.