“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.” – William Martin
While my primary love has been literature, my second love has been history. The two get along well and frequently overlap. It can be difficult to distinguish one from the other. History’s imprint can be read through the books of any given time and through the evolution of literature. Similarly, there are books that have had an impact on people that can be seen in history.
I loved reading historical fiction as a child. It’s a great way to get children not only interested in history, but to show them that it isn’t always as clear as presented in textbooks. It was a while before I was able to distinguish between historical fiction and fiction written during a specific time in history I was interested in (I was very confused in part because of the Little House books; the ones written by Laura Ingalls Wilder were more fictionalized memoirs but there have since been so many written about her foremothers and her daughter that are almost purely historical fiction).
Like many young girls of my generation, the American Girl series were some of the first chapter books I read. Each girl was living during a special time in American history from Felicity during the American Revolution to Addie an escaped slave girl on the brink of America’s Civil War and Molly who listened to FDR on her radio during World War II. The company that makes the dolls and the books that tell their stories has also made an attempt to tell the stories that haven’t been told with the introduction of dolls from the American southwest and more. In recent years, the focus seems to have shifted more to making money, but the first five characters (Felicity, Kirsten, Addie, Samantha, and Molly) and their initial six-books each are still great for young girls starting to read who are interested in history. Spin-off series including the History Mysteries and American Sisters series are also very good.
Another series that showcases American history are the Dear America series (with it’s My Name is America series geared more towards young boys and The Royal Diaries series featuring famous royals). The diary/journal format is ideal for elementary and middle school aged children, always told from the perspective of children roughly the same age as their target audience. Some of the more popular original titles will soon be re-released along with new additions to the series.
For older middle schoolers or junior high age girls interested in historical fiction, Ann Rinaldi is one of the better authors. In some cases she finds a particular incident in history to work with like the Salem Witch Trials or the Boston Massacre while at other times her characters and the events of history are more general, the American Revolution or the Civil War. She has a knack for examining prominent historic figures through the eyes of their daughters or young household servants. I would highly recommend Mine Eyes Have Seen, the story of John Brown as told through the eyes of his daughter (though many of her other books are equally compelling).
Some lesser-known writers/books I enjoyed:
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse Presented primarily through poetry, Out of the Dust takes place in a home ravaged by tragedy beyond its Dust Bowl time setting.
The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney Though she’s best known for her Face on the Milk Carton series, Cooney’s other works are just as engaging and a few have historic connections, though none like the story of Mercy Carter, kidnapped by natives (maybe it just appealed to me so much because of the role the Native American raids of King Phillip’s war play in local history for my area).
Titanic: The Long Night and Remembering the Titanic by Diane Hoh I did a project on the Titanic two years before James Cameron’s movie made it cool when I was ten. I read many young adult novels about April 14, 1912 but these two books by Diane Hoh were my favorites. There were characters representing the different classes as well as both genders to show how each was treated during the crisis. Where most books concerning the Titanic end when the ship sinks and the survivors are rescued, Hoh wrote a sequel examining how those survivors dealt with their losses in the year following their rescue.