Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present

The novels offer more than a good story—they can also be integral to critical-thinking skills, especially during periods of political turmoil.

AP / LOC / Getty / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Shanna Johnson, a middle-school language arts teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had just begun teaching the historical-fiction novel Dragonwings when it took on added relevance during the 2016 presidential election.

The book follows a young Chinese boy at the turn of the 20th century as he migrates to the United States to live with his father. The context of the story and its setting in San Francisco is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major piece of U.S. legislation that restricted immigration and which, in targeting an ethnic group, set the precedent for subsequent restrictive immigration laws. As Johnson pointed out, the book touches on themes of “racism, discrimination, and the anti-immigration attitude of the nation” that uncannily reflect the hostility and divisiveness of the recent election.

These same historical themes and trends came to the forefront over the course of President Donald Trump’s campaign and transition. His surrogates and supporters referenced Japanese American internment as a viable precedent for a possible Muslim registry. Trump loyalists also cheered on his intention to build a wall along the border with Mexico and to deport millions of undocumented immigrants—the latter of which he justified by invoking President Eisenhower’s controversial deportation program, “Operation Wetback.” In his first week in office, Trump signed a now-blocked executive order that halted the admission of all refugees for 120 days, and stopped entry for nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days. The action, whose stay by a U.S. district judge was upheld earlier this month by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, was issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, drawing parallels to the time  the U.S. turned away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

And just as has happened in past periods of upheaval, the cultural tensions exacerbated by the election have pervaded schools. Immediately following the election, there was an uptick in incidents  of hate crimes and hate speech around the country, and teachers reported an escalation of harassment in schools as well. A survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), with responses from over 10,000 educators, found that “eight in 10 report heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students” and “four in 10 have heard derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants, and people based on gender or sexual orientation.” In marked contrast to the increase in anti-black offenses after President Obama’s 2008 election, as Carly Berwick explained in The Atlantic, now “the hate crimes and bias attacks are being conducted in the name of the president-elect—not against one.”

What is it like for teachers, such as Johnson, and their students to read historical fiction at this discordant time—a political moment that summons the label “unprecedented” at about the same rate as the number of historical analogies stirred up by the Trump election? How are teachers best able to help students make sense of the many historical comparisons and the controversial issues facing the nation?

For elementary- and middle-school students, historical fiction can provide a helpful way into difficult subjects—for example, the Holocaust (Number the Stars), the civil-rights movement (The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963), or slavery and racism in America’s founding (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation). Maureen Costello, the director of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance initiative, explained in a phone interview that, for certain topics such as slavery, teachers can employ the genre to “talk about the subject in a child appropriate way.” But beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied.

Successful historical fiction makes past events come alive in a more inviting or personal way than textbooks can. Linda Levstik, a professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, studies how children engage with historical thinking. The combination of a good book and factual story, she said in an interview, can help “embed history in a narrative arc” so that “instead of it being isolated bits of information, it ties together, and the story and the history make a web of meaning for the kids that helps them to remember what they read.” Unfortunately, no comprehensive data exists that measures the use of historical fiction is in schools.

Alice Kunce, who teaches sixth-grade English and seventh- and eighth-grade “exploratory fiction” in Little Rock, Arkansas, uses historical fiction, specifically the book Fire From the Rock, to engage her students with their city’s history of integration. As the class reflects on the various characters’ choices, Kunce asks her students to consider: “How does society influence those decisions? What limitations are put on characters? By themselves? Friends? Family? Society?”

Humanizing history not only means it’s easier for students to connect the historical dots, research shows that it also encourages empathy. Being told a story via historical fiction helps students identify with the characters’ points of view, and that ability to recognize different outlooks, Levstik explained, is an essential historical skill: “How is it we understand how the world looked to other people? And how do you get kids to care enough to do the work of figuring out somebody’s perspective [back then]?”

In that vein, humanizing history means making it recognizable for all students. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of education at Ohio State University, wrote a seminal article in 1990 that advocated for increased diversity in children’s literature. Bishop presented a model of literature working as mirrors, which reflect and affirm readers’ experience; windows, which provide insight into other’s experiences; and sliding glass doors, which allow readers the ability to move from their perspective into the experience of another.

Not only do minority students need stories with people who are like them, she argued, a lack of diversity in literature also negatively affects the majority group by reflecting back only what they know. Bishop wrote, “Children from dominant social groups … need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connection to all other humans.”

Terrie Epstein, a professor of education at Hunter College, studies the differing frameworks with which students of various races and ethnicities approach the history they’re taught in school. Her research found that minority students tend to have a more skeptical view of textbooks and traditional historical narratives. For any narrative, whether historical or otherwise, Epstein says students who don’t see their stories reflected are usually “less likely to give the source credibility than a source that has their story in it.”

Psychology studies show that children develop a strong sense of fairness at an early age and understand when they are receiving less than others. Kids in some countries, including the U.S., have been shown to have “advantageous-inequity aversion,” meaning that they’re bothered when they receive more than others. As Levstik and her colleague Keith Barton recommend in their book, Teaching History for the Common Good, teachers can build on students’ strong sense of justice to connect discussions of historical events to contemporary civics and issues, guided by the question “what can we do to help the world function better for everyone?”

And while teachers must obviously be wary of making false equivalencies or grand generalizations, understanding history more thoroughly than what’s offered in a textbook leads students to an educated examination of current events. For example, referring to possible comparisons with the treatment of Japanese Americans during the internment, Levstik explains the need for teachers to ask: “When somebody says they’re going to lock up people on the basis of their religion, their ethnic background, their point of origin, what does that look like in our history?”

Reflecting on the past’s relationship to the present is a priority for some of the instructors I contacted, including Mikko Jokela, a seventh-grade history and language-arts teacher in Berkeley, California, who says he uses historical fiction to engage with multiple perspectives to help his students become better-informed citizens. In his classroom, students focus on analyzing “who we are as a nation and how we came to be who we are” while paying attention to “the reality of each student’s life and the role of the U.S. in the world.” In an email interview, Jokela wrote: “Historical fiction (along with entertaining non-fiction)” is a component of teaching students “to have the ability to discern truth from falsehood, propaganda from fact.”

However, teaching historical fiction has its inherent challenges: Kids, like the rest of us, love a good story. As Levstik explained, they will connect strongly with the perspective they read, and may initially reject alternative points of view. Lesvick says they are also more susceptible to a well-written book with a shaky grasp of history that a poorly written book that contains solid historical research. But their initial, limited reactions can be challenged when instructors introduce critical-thinking skills to history and  expose students to a variety of opinions. Sara Schwebel, a professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms, sees historical fiction as an opportunity to introduce historiography, and to counter the often static and monolithic view of the past.

In a telephone interview, Schwebel spelled out the value of an “interdisciplinary approach where students and teachers together engage with the novel as literature, enjoying the story, thinking about the language, thinking about characters but then stepping back from historical fiction as a work of lit and considering the novel in fact as work of history that’s making a historical argument in addition to telling a story.” For young readers, this genre can serve as a starting point from which teachers and students put novels with different accounts and points of view in conversation with each other to create a more comprehensive understanding.

While this multidimensional approach to reading might sound challenging to younger readers, it aligns with the Common Core guidelines, the set of academic standards adopted by most states, which recommend textual complexity. As Schwebel pointed out, fiction is usually more complex than textbooks, and the overlay of historical arguments on works of fiction can offer a deeper and more nuanced perspective for students. In fact, one Common Core literature standard details that middle-school readers should “compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.”

History is a narrative after all, whether the information presented or arguments made are in standardized textbooks or fictionalized accounts. The ability to decipher and interrogate historical assertions—by comparing, contrasting, and fact-checking them—is a vital tool, and one that it’s never too early to start learning.