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Teaching History with Literature

Learn how to use fiction to make history come alive for kids and help them remember their lessons even better

If you ask me what historical periods I am most acquainted with, it would be a toss-up between Victorian England and the Dark Ages.  I know things about these time periods that on a daily basis look like just worthless trivia, but they enrich my life and my perceptions in more ways than I can list.

Why do I know so much about those eras?  Well, I’ve mentioned before that Charles Dickens is my all-time favorite author.  (So, yeah, I’m even up on the French Revolution.) And my dirty little secret is that I seriously own more than 100 books about the Arthurian legends.

Seriously.  Yes, I have read them all.

Literature as an educational tool

When I talk about teaching with literature, it comes from a place that is so integral in me I can’t remember where it started.  I just knew as a young child I was learning more than my peers simply by immersing myself in stories they wouldn’t dream of tackling.  I have always especially loved books that were written by authors who were contemporary at the time–Dickens, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters, Alexandre Dumas.  Because you know the history in those stories is going to be pretty accurate.  I’m also a big fan of well-researched stories that were written more recently.

Well.  You know.  I’m just a big fan of books.

My boys have benefited from being taught many subjects through fiction.  Whenever we read a book set in a real-world location, we find it on a map and study the country or city of the setting.  Science, philosophy, and politics find their way into our daily lessons from the books we read.  History is practically a given.

After 8 years of this, I’ve watched my boys become the same fonts of trivia information that I’ve been accused of being.  They have a better grasp of politics, sociology, and philosophy than many of their peers because they have incorporated those things into their learning through fiction.

I ain’t gonna lie, it’s incredible to me that this idea I had for teaching them with fiction panned out exactly the way I hoped it would.  I would have hated to put in all that work only to find out I was wrong.

Teaching history with literature enriches your child's learning experience and can provide fun lesson ideas and context for nonfiction

Teaching History with Literature

Teaching history to kids can be overwhelming, especially if you’re not sure where to start.  Historical fiction provides a brilliant place from which to plan all kinds of fun lessons.

The books you choose to add to your curriculum should be well-written and -researched or (better yet) written during the time period you’re studying.  Fiction is fiction, but in a contemporary book you can get a real idea of how society worked, what the government was doing, and which thought processes were prevalent during the time period.

Why should you use lit to teach history?

Lots of reasons.  It adds context to the facts they’re learning.  It takes characters they read about in nonfiction and brings them to life.  It provides a window into everyday details.

Because historical fiction is full of the various characters of the period, it can often help children see both sides of the story.  It shows kids that human issues continue to be human issues.  Problems and joys and triumphs are very similar throughout history, so it gives your kids a chance to see that their own issues aren’t as big and overwhelming as they may seem.  It also gives a little spice to the lesson, makes it a little more fun.

Finally, studies have shown that the brain doesn’t really differentiate between a story it has read and a memory, so learning history with fiction is a great way to help your kids cement what they’ve learned in their minds.

Some things to remember:

  • Make sure your littles understand that the book is a story and, no matter how historically accurate, it is still fiction.
  • Make sure the books you choose are historically accurate and the historical facts are integrated into the story in fluid manner.
  • Make sure the book is relevant to the topics you are teaching.
  • Make sure the story is interesting.

Great books for teaching with history

There are so many wonderful books from which to teach history, it would be impossible to list them all, but here are some of our favorites:

The Odyssey retold by Robin Lister

We used the Odyssey when we were studying Ancient Greece.  It was incredible for introducing the boys to the Greek Gods and the Trojan War.  Middle developed a life-long love of all things Greek from reading this book and went on to read all the Percy Jackson novels because he couldn’t get enough of it.  Lister tells the story in prose which makes it easier for kids to follow.  Of course, I made the boys aware that reading this children’s version wass a preface to when we read Homer’s epic poem version in a couple years.  I loved using this book, not only for its historical worth, but for the foundation it gave them for future readings of Homer.

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

We read this one when we were studying Ancient Rome.  I felt it gave insight into how other kingdoms felt about Roman imperialism.  It also taught some valuable lessons about forgiveness and the futility of revenge.  Also, I love Elizabeth George Speare.  If you’re as big a fan as I am, check out my Activities for Learning for The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

King Arthur and his Knights by Sir James Knowles is a great fiction book for teaching history

King Arthur and His Knights by Sir James Knowles

Historically accurate?  Probably not.  But I couldn’t resist introducing the Littles to my favorite hero when we studied Medieval Europe.  I just happened to have this one in my collection, but trust me when I say there are Tons of books about this legend to choose from.

The Crystal Cave provides rich historical context for the Arthurian legend and is perfect for teaching history with literature

My personal favorite Arthurian series is the Mary Stewart series–The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day.  Stewart provides a rich historical background to the legend and makes it seem much more real than most of the other choices.  Plus, she writes beautifully.  The boys were enthralled by it as I am.

Middle also read Guinevere by Sharan Newman, the very first book I ever read about King Arthur way back in my 6th grade year.  Do I recommend it?  Well, it did start my obsession. 🙂

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

No revolutionary study is complete without Johnny Tremain.  What’s great about this book is that it is told from a boy’s perspective, but it gives true insight into what was happening in the minds of the leaders of the revolution.  Whenever I am reminding my boys to be brave and stand up for what is right, I have them recall Sam Adams proclaiming that the revolutionaries were acting so that, “a man can stand up.”  Nothing more important than that.

We also read Attack of the Turtle by Drew Carlson, the amazing story of the first U.S. submarine, and Mr. Revere and I by Robert Lawson  during our Revolutionary War studies.

The Slave Dancer is a great book for teaching history with literature

The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

If you want your kids to really see just how terrible the slave trade was, this is the book.  It’s about a ship that transports slaves, and though written for young people, it really drives home just how horrific this time period was for Africans.  I seriously cannot recommend it enough.

For our Civil War studies, we also read Shades of Gray (just two, not fifty) by Carolyn Reeder, about a bitter young boy dealing with the fallout of the Civil War, the death of his parents at the hands of the Yankees, and an uncle he considers to be either a coward or a traitor.

Oliver Twist is a brilliantfor teaching history with literature

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Studying Victorian England would be flat with the addition of Charles Dickens, and we all loved not just Oliver’s story, but discussing the plight of the poor during that era and comparing it with modern problems.  The boys also enjoyed Great Expectations, and I didn’t even threaten them or anything to get them to like my all-time favorite book.

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The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

We didn’t read the whole series when we studied Westward Expansion, but we did read a couple of the Little House Books.  Really, they are so full of details about that time period it would be ridiculous  not to use them.  We also read the American Girls short story Kirsten on the Trail by Janet Beeler Shaw.

 

All Quiet On the Western Front is a brilliant book about World War I for teaching history with literature

All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I still get shivers when I think about this book, and I’m so glad I chose such a raw, real, and accurate story for the boys to read while they learned everything about the Great War.  I’ll warn you, it’s pretty graphic, but if you’re aiming to teach your kids about the realities and horrors of war, this is the book.

The Grapes of Wrath is a brilliant book about World War I for teaching history with literature

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

We’re currently reading this superb book as we study the Great Depression, and I can’t even tell you how well Steinbeck plops you right down in the middle of the Dust Bowl and holds you there, mesmerized.  The boys are enjoying it so much that we’re often reading past our normal schedule of a chapter a day.  We just finished up The Great Gatsby while we learned about the Roaring  ’20s, and I thought it was going to end up as their favorite for the year, but Grapes looks like it’s going to outshine even Gatsby for them.

I know.  I gotta stop now.  I said ‘a few’ and then I gushed.

But isn’t that why you love me?

Love wins,

KT

KT Brison
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KT Brison

KT Brison is a former children’s librarian and educator who gave all that up for the most important job in her life—homeschooling her boys.Though she loves the outdoors and rambling around her farm, she can usually be found with her nose in a book. Any book. As long as it has words.
KT Brison
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About KT Brison

KT Brison is a former children’s librarian and educator who gave all that up for the most important job in her life—homeschooling her boys. Though she loves the outdoors and rambling around her farm, she can usually be found with her nose in a book. Any book. As long as it has words.
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13 Comments

  1. My son LOVES the little house books! He is9 and literally cries at the end of each one because it’s over!

  2. Benjamin West and his Cat Grimalkin is one of our very favorite books. http://bfbooks.com/Benjamin-West-and-his-Cat-Grimalkin

  3. The Bronze Bow…wonderful book!

  4. Fantastic list! I am pinning this! And I love that you mentioned Little House! I want the boys to read them all this summer b/c I can see how much they are learning!

  5. Ashley Wornell

    Thank you! I’m looking for good books I can read out loud to the kids that relate to the parts of history we’ll be studying. Since S is just a beginning reader, I’m guessing our chapter book time will happen as a family.
    That said, do you have any suggestions for ancient history? We have Aesop’s Fables, but I haven’t heard of any Egyptian tales… 🙂

    • Ashley, there are a couple I can recommend. The Cat of the Bubastes by G.A. Henty. I like Henty, he wrote in late 1800s so he’s cool. 🙂 Also, the Royal Diaries series has a Cleopatra book-Cleopatra VII-Daughter of the Nile. If all else fails for littler ones, fall back on the Magic Treehouse Series with Mummies in the Morning.

      • Thank you! I’m getting really excited for the next level, but we aren’t even done with this one! Haha

  6. Awesome list!! We are adding literature to our history studies. Although next year we are biting off more current history (WWI up to modern) I bookmarked this list for use in years to come!!! Thank you

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