Part IV: In this post we will look at classic historical fiction books for kids and how to read these books with today’s generation.
IV. Classic Historical Fiction Books for Kids: Stepping into the Past
Historical fiction books for kids play a significant role in children’s literature, offering a unique opportunity to bring history to life and ignite a passion for understanding the past.
Through the lens of historical fiction books for kids, young readers can step into different time periods, immerse themselves in diverse cultures, and gain insights into historical events that have shaped our world.
Novels like “The Little House on the Prairie,” “Number the Stars,” and “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” exemplify the power of historical fiction to educate, inspire, and instill important lessons.
These historical fiction books for kids serve as portals to bygone eras, providing vivid depictions of the struggles, triumphs, and everyday lives of individuals from different historical contexts. “The Little House on the Prairie” offers a glimpse into the pioneering spirit of early American settlers, while “Number the Stars” explores the courage and resilience of Danish citizens during World War II. “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” delves into the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, shedding light on racial injustice and the pursuit of equality.
I “The Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder:
Based on the author’s own experiences, this beloved series recounts the pioneering adventures of the Ingalls family as they settle in the American frontier during the late 19th century. Through Laura’s perspective, readers witness the challenges and joys of pioneer life, from building a home to enduring harsh winters.
Points to Consider when read these historical fiction books for kids:
Stereotypical Depictions of Indigenous Peoples:
One of the main criticisms of the series is its portrayal of Native Americans. The books depict Indigenous peoples through the lens of the time they were written, often relying on stereotypes and presenting a limited and sometimes inaccurate representation of their cultures. The portrayal is harmful and stereotypes overlook the complexities and diversity of Native American cultures and histories.
Lack of Diverse Perspectives:
The series focuses primarily on the experiences and perspectives of white settlers, with limited representation of diverse cultures or perspectives. This lack of diversity may limit readers’ understanding of the broader historical context and experiences of different communities during the time period.
Racism and Insensitivity:
Some readers have pointed out instances of racism or insensitivity in the books, such as the use of racially derogatory terms or the romanticization of colonial expansion at the expense of Indigenous peoples. These aspects reflect the prevailing attitudes and biases of the time in which the books were written but may be problematic or offensive to contemporary readers.
Thoughts on Historical Fiction Books for Kids:
I loved these books and now that I am older, it is much easier for me to understand the complexities overlooked in the books. I had not considered them harmful at the time but now that I nuanced language and how they can be difficult for modern readers.
Again, I would say that exposing children to these books has value when we sit with them and discuss things we currently find problematic and work through their thoughts together.
This gives children insight and introduction in the past without overwhelming them with the harsh reality we have to discuss when they’re older.
II “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry:
Set during World War II in Nazi-occupied Denmark, this poignant novel follows Annemarie Johansen and her family as they help their Jewish friends escape to safety. Through Annemarie’s bravery and resourcefulness, the story explores themes of courage, resistance, and the power of solidarity in the face of oppression.
Historical Fiction Books for Kids vary in difficulty of content and subject matter.
Simplified View of Resistance:
Some readers have argued that the portrayal of resistance in “Number the Stars” is somewhat simplified. The novel focuses on the Johansen family’s covert efforts to help their Jewish friends, but it may not fully explore the complexities and risks associated with resistance movements during that time. Critics argue that a more nuanced representation could provide a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by those who resisted the Nazi regime.
Lack of Diverse Perspectives:
The novel primarily centers around the experiences of Danish characters, which may limit the representation of diverse perspectives. While the story provides valuable insights into the Danish resistance and the Jewish experience during the war, it is important to remember that the Holocaust affected people from various backgrounds, and a broader representation could enhance readers’ understanding of the global impact of the war.
“Number the Stars” is a work of historical fiction, and while it draws inspiration from real events, it may simplify or condense certain aspects for the purpose of storytelling.
I worked at a Hebrew private school a while back. The students were all Jewish and learned about the Holocaust from a very young age. They knew and understood a lot more about anti-semitism than many non-Jewish students know at the same age.
I think the story might be a good way for students to begin talking about the atrocities of WWII and anti-semitism in a fictional setting. It’s easier to ask questions and discuss ideas through fiction, as long as someone is there to guide them.
III “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” by Christopher Paul Curtis:
Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, this novel tells the story of the Watson family from Flint, Michigan, as they travel to Birmingham, Alabama. The book tackles themes of racial inequality, family bonds, and the impact of historical events on ordinary lives.
Stereotypes and Generalizations:
Some readers have raised concerns about the presence of stereotypes and generalizations in the book. The characters, particularly the African American characters, may exhibit certain stereotypes or conform to certain archetypes, which can limit the representation of diverse perspectives within the African American community.
Oversimplification of Historical Context:
“The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” provides an overview of the civil rights era and the events surrounding the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. However, some readers argue that the complexity and nuances of the historical context may be oversimplified in order to suit the book’s target audience, potentially presenting an incomplete picture of the era.
Conclusion: Historical Fiction Books for Kids
It is important to approach “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” with a critical lens and consider these concerns within the context of the book’s intended audience and purpose. This is still a children’s book and unfortunately it cannot go too deep because then it would not be a children’s book.
Discussing the issues within the text allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the content and its impact. This is a sentiment I find myself repeating with many people. I understand many times historical fiction books for kids are simplified but again, isn’t it a little kinder to introduce children to the harsh realities of the past gently?
IV “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan
One highly acclaimed historical text for young readers is “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan. This novel tells the story of Esperanza Ortega, a young girl from a wealthy Mexican family, who is forced to flee to California during the Great Depression.
“Esperanza Rising” offers several strengths for young readers:
The book authentically portrays Mexican culture and provides insights into the experiences of Mexican immigrants during a challenging period in American history. It encourages readers to embrace diversity and understand the complexities of identity.
Empathy and Perspective:
Through Esperanza’s journey, the novel fosters empathy by depicting the struggles faced by immigrant families and individuals adapting to a new country. It encourages readers to see the world through different perspectives and challenges assumptions.
Social Justice Themes:
“Esperanza Rising” addresses issues of social justice, including labor rights and socioeconomic disparities. It prompts discussions about fairness, equality, and the importance of fighting for one’s rights and the rights of others.
The book tackles profound themes such as loss, resilience, and the power of family and community support. It connects readers with the characters’ emotions and experiences, fostering a deeper engagement with the historical narrative.
Potential limitations with the book:
Simplified or Idealized Narrative:
Some critics argue that “Esperanza Rising” presents a somewhat simplified or idealized view of the immigrant experience. The challenges and complexities faced by real-life immigrants during the Great Depression may be condensed or omitted, potentially offering a more positive or sanitized portrayal.
The book primarily focuses on the experiences of a privileged Mexican protagonist, Esperanza, and her journey from wealth to poverty. While this perspective is valuable and illuminates specific aspects of the historical period, it may not provide a comprehensive representation of the diverse range of experiences and voices within the immigrant community.
Glossing Over Historical Context:
“Esperanza Rising” is set during the Great Depression, an era of significant economic hardship and social turmoil. Some readers have argued that the book may not fully capture the broader historical context and its impact on various communities beyond the central characters.
I think my students really enjoy this book. We have in-depth discussions about different parts of this book and they are all engaged. The novel offers valuable insights into the immigrant experience and fosters empathy. With some guidance, readers can deepen their understanding of history and its complexities.
Allow kids time to digest and spend time discussing historical fiction for kids so they can contextualize and synthesize information.
V “Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes:
Set in Boston during the years leading up to the American Revolution, this novel follows the life of Johnny Tremain, a young silversmith’s apprentice. Johnny becomes involved in the revolutionary movement, and readers witness his personal growth and the events that shape the birth of a nation.
Here are a couple of potential issues with the book:
One common concern is the limited representation of diverse racial backgrounds in the book. “Johnny Tremain” primarily focuses on white characters and may not fully reflect the experiences of individuals from different racial or ethnic backgrounds during the Revolutionary War era. This lack of representation may limit readers’ understanding of the broader historical context and experiences of marginalized communities.
Simplified Portrayal of Historical Events:
Some readers argue that “Johnny Tremain” simplifies or romanticizes certain aspects of the American Revolution. The complex political and social realities of the time period may be condensed or presented in a more straightforward manner to suit the book’s target audience. This oversimplification can overlook the nuanced challenges faced by individuals and communities during the Revolution.
I think the novel offers an engaging story and provides insights into the Revolutionary War era. With guidance, students will recognize areas that may benefit from further exploration, reflection, and the inclusion of diverse perspectives.
Remember, historical fiction books for kids are for kids. Allow them to be a gateway into a deeper discussion.
Historical fiction books for kids not only impart historical knowledge but also foster empathy, understanding, and resilience in young readers. Through historical fiction books for kids, kids learn to walk in the shoes of others, cultivating empathy and gaining a deeper appreciation for the diversity of human experiences.
It’s true some older historical fiction books for kids may present biased perspectives, perpetuate stereotypes, or omit important voices from marginalized communities. It is crucial to provide the necessary context, encourage open discussions, and promote critical analysis of the narratives.
By addressing potential problematic elements, contextualizing the narratives, and encouraging critical analysis, we can navigate the complex terrain of historical fiction books for kids and reap its educational and emotional rewards.
Historical Fiction Books for Kids – Conclusion
In our exploration of children’s literature across different genres, we encountered the enduring magic and relevance of these books in shaping young minds and fostering a love for reading.
Through fairy tales, children learn timeless moral lessons, engage their imaginations, and immerse themselves in enchanting worlds.
Adventure tales ignite excitement and courage in young hearts, taking readers on thrilling journeys filled with discovery and resilience.
Historical fiction books for kids offer a window into the past, providing insights into different time periods, cultures, and historical events.
In engaging with classic children’s literature, it is essential to appreciate the strengths of these books while acknowledging any problematic elements for meaningful discussions and reflections. Diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and open dialogue serve as valuable tools in navigating the complex landscape of children’s literature.
Embrace the wonders of classic children’s literature, encouraging young minds to engage with these stories, appreciate their strengths, and explore the complexities within.