Historical Fiction

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The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis 

To me, this book was all about family and relationships. I think the main point Curtis was trying to get across is that the Watsons, a black family living during the time of the civil rights movement, were exactly like any other family one may come across. The majority of the book is simple, everyday stories told from the viewpoint of Kenny Watson. He tells all about his life with his misbehaving brother Byron, his sweet-as-can-be sister Joey, and his two loving parents. I loved the book for this mundane, story-telling aspect because I could relate to it, and the way that Kenny told it was extremely entertaining.

The author really did not bring up the question of race until towards the end of the book. When the family travels south to Birmingham, some of the realities of racism and discrimination hit them hard. Although the characters are all fictional, the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist church bombing actually happened. I was crushed when I thought that Joey died in the bombing, and relieved when I discovered that she had made it out okay. The struggle that Kenny faced afterwards, though, was almost just as hard to read. Curtis did a wonderful job of showing how a family and a child might respond to such a tragic event as this. 

I would certainly recommend The Watsons Go To Birmingham to my students and have a copy available in my  classroom library. I think upper elementary or younger middle schoolers would love this book. It could be a great resource for getting students to think from the perspective of a black family who lived during the time of the civil rights movement. 

 

Response to Historical Fiction articles: 

Brown, Joanne. (1998). “Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults.” The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.

This article by Joanne Brown did a great job of explaining the hardships in writing and finding good historical fiction. People disagree about what constitutes historical fiction, how much of it should be history and how much of it should be fiction, who should write about what times periods, etc. Writing historical fiction is definitely not an easy task in that it requires extensive research of a particular time period as well as the ability to develop an engaging plot with interesting characters. Writers of historical fiction not only have to create a good story, but they also have to be sure to be as accurate as possible in their portrayal and depiction of history. This article touches on the question of accuracy even when it is brutal or hard to handle, especially for a young reader. Brown leans toward the stance that it should certainly be as accurate as possible, because that is what really happened. I agree with this stance, but I also do think that there may be some things that are not age-appropriate for a teacher to expose to students.

My favorite part of the article is when Brown explained the “interpretative nature of both history and fiction.” This is why I think historical fiction is so great. Yes, we know some of the facts about history, but history itself is also a story. Different people construct different meanings and interpretations of the same historical events and times. So to me, creating an imagined story based on historical facts certainly seems to be an awesome way to connect history to today’s students.

 

The other website we looked at had the opinions of several educators on using historical fiction in the classroom. Here are my reactions to two of them –

1. Keith Barton: Barton saw the good and bad in historical fiction. The main good thing he discussed is that students can usually better find meaning in the past through this type of reading. The narrative style allows students to find patterns and relationships in history, rather than just viewing it as a list of events. The main bad thing is that students will look at history in view of individuals rather than as a collective thing or in a broader context. Overall, Barton thinks that historical fiction can definitely be useful as long as it is carefully examined and discussed within the classroom.

2. Andrea Hayden: Hayden loves historical fiction, but she emphasizes the importance of pairing it with nonfiction texts in the classroom. She talks about using fiction texts as a way to begin a more in depth study using nonfiction resources.  I really like the questions she shares for helping students to look more closely at historical fiction. They are:

1. How does the book help me understand daily life in the past?

2. Could the events described in the book have happened? What evidence do I have?

3. Which events really happened? How do I know?

4. Which characters really existed? How do I know?

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One thought on “Historical Fiction

  1. Thanks for pointing out the simple but important questions that this teacher uses to help students interpret historical fiction. I also agree with the low-key nature of most of Watsons. Many children’s lit lovers and teachers have hoped for more books about racially diverse families that aren’t necessarily “race books” with race as a central theme. In some ways, this book accomplishes that well.

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