Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thinking About Historical Fiction

As the semester winds down, I find myself already thinking about the pieces my class will read next fall. During 2004, when I first taught Integrated Curriculum Methods, I decided to include one piece of historical fiction as a required reading. I selected The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. This was a Newbery honor book in 1984. Colleagues told me it was a poor choice because it was dated and portrayed Native Americans in an unflattering manner. I selected it anyway, having decided that my students could learn much about stereotypes from it. I gave them Charlotte Huck's guidelines for evaluating historical fiction, they came to class having read the book, and away we went. However, before we discussed the book, we used the "Book-in-a-Day" technique to read the first half of the book The Boy Captive of Old Deerfield, a fictionalized account of the capture of Stephen Williams by a French and Native American raiding party. Written in 1939, the story is brutal and graphic in its portrayal of the events that befell the settlers. But what of the Native peoples. The comparison of the relationships between the settlers and Native peoples in these two pieces, and a discussion of the "real" history made for a very difficult, but interesting discussion. In the end, the students agreed this was not a book for classroom consumption, and one that they didn't think would benefit students in its use.

When I read my course evaluations at the end of the semester, the students all claimed that they learned a great deal from the reading, but wanted to know why I'd chosen a "boy's" book. Hmmmmmmm... I guess I hadn't really thought about it as a book belonging to one gender, but rather as a book to teach other lessons. For more on this notion of gendered books, read this post from Lessons from the Tortoise. The fact that the class had 21 students, 20 of them female may have had something to do with this!

I did take these comments seriously in searching for books for the fall 2005 class, so I spent my summer reading a huge range of books. I decided that I would use my weekly literature circle groups to serve as discussion groups for a set of 4 selected works. I chose books that represented a range of time periods, books with both strong male and female characters, and books with non-white protagonists. The four books we read were:
  • Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (set in Philadelphia in 1793 (duh!), young female lead, yellow fever epidemic)
  • Dragon's Gate by Lawrence Yep (set in China and California in 1867, young Chinese immigrant boy, building the transcontinental railroad)
  • Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt (set in Maine in 1912, young white male lead with African American characters, based on Malaga Island history)
  • The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (set in Michigan and Alabama in 1963 (of course), young African American male lead, life of an average family during Civil Rights Movement and Birmingham bombing)
Once again I had a class with only one male to a large group of females (17). With the exception of Dragon's Gate, the books all received ringing endorsements from the students. Only one of the four students who read Dragon's Gate liked it. The three who didn't claimed there was "too much talk about blowing things up," and "just too many boys."

I found that I enjoyed all four books, but was most moved by Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Watson's Go to Birmingham. On the day we discussed these I also read excerpts from Julius Lester's Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue aloud and asked students to think about how we teach these difficult subjects in today's diverse classrooms. We discussed important issues of sensitivity and raised many good questions, some of which are still in need of answers.

This year, I decided that I wanted more students to read the same book, but I wanted that diversity of perspective. I went in another direction entirely and selected two books for each student. One was a short chapter book from the Scraps of Time series by Patricia McKissack. The other was a young adult book focused on immigration. Here are the pairings my students were assigned:
I had a small class this semester, only 12 students, with 11 women and one young man. I would digress here and talk about why we need more men in elementary education, but I'll save that for another post. I was disappointed that the students were altogether unimpressed by these choices. In straying from the Newbery list, they seemed not too find much of value in these selections. When prodded they suggested they might reluctantly use them in instruction, but felt there were better books out there.

So, now you know why I have already begun my quest for the "right" books for next fall. I purchase the current issues of Notable Trade Books for Young People (NCSS) and Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12 each year for my students. I want to impress upon them how important it is as future teachers that they read widely and deeply from the range of children's literature that is available, and that they must consider how works can serve them across the curriculum. I suppose I failed this year to lead them to particularly inspiring choices. This just means I'll have lots of reading (good reading, I hope) ahead of me.


  1. have you read Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak?

  2. Yes, and loved it. Too bad it doesn't fit within my narrow confines of subject area works. Also, much too old for the k-5 crowd.

  3. speak is wonderful, but more for the high school crowd. I think 8th graders would read it and enjoy it, but not as a book recommended by the teacher. My students read Ashes of Roses in their summer before 8th grade as one of their choices. It has remained a favorite of the girls. In fact, girls who don't read much talk about this book!