Historical Fiction is A-Changing!

Many folks hear the genre, “historical fiction” and smother a yawn. They want fantasy, dragons, action, danger, incantations, magical wands and lightning bolt scars on their main character’s forehead – BUT STOP! WAIT!

The saying, “Kids don’t really like historical fiction” is a long-held mantra, and it’s true that many publishers  don’t publish much historical fiction, and some publishers none at all. I don’t really blame publishers for being leery of a type of book that will only a few hundred or a few thousand copies because bookstores want the hot new thing and even librarians often have a hard time luring kids into reading it.

And yet.

When I was growing up, I was a Nancy Drew and Phyllis Whitney mystery fanatic, but I also vividly remember reading books about Jenny Lund, the famous singer, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.

There’s a book that has stuck in my head (although the title has not – so if this rings a bell for anyone I would love a clue about it!) about a young woman who was a Confederate spy during the Civil War. As the enemy was about to ambush her, this girl spy ATE the secret note she was carrying! Chewed it up and swallowed it! How daring and thrilling!

Oh, and love me some Abraham Lincoln! I read everything I could get my hands on about him. I also loved stories like The Endless Steppe, about a girl and her family who were exiled to Siberia.  And then there are all those exciting stories about European queens getting their heads cut off.

Of course, this was long before Harry Potter and fantasy tomes as thick as your thigh. Kids are different nowadays, folks say. They have shorter attention spans. They don’t care about dead people. Kids today have grown up with computer games and IPhones and 10,000 television channels.

Screech! Put on the brakes, people. Shorter attention spans? Me-thinks-not. They’re reading 800 flippin’ pages of Harry Potter, for crying out loud. Recently, a local librarian told me that her nine-year-old daughter loves thick books. Thick books have become a status symbol.

So it all comes back to content.

Can historical fiction grab a reader? You betcha.

Can historical fiction be heart-pounding, exciting, fast-paced and thrilling? You betcha.

Can parents and teachers and librarians introduce these books in meaningful ways and get kids hooked on stories and time periods THAT REALLY HAPPENED? Yes! And I believe that’s they key to historical fiction: parents and teachers and librarians introducing those books to their kids, reading them aloud, talking about them – and I also believe that the historical fiction of today is written in a more relevant way to our lives, finding those common, universal feelings and problems of kids no matter what time period they live(d) in.

Historical fiction is better written, better researched, and more in-depth than ever before. Children’s Literature in general just gets better and better every year and a high quality of research, superb writing and fully developed characters and plot shows in historical fiction, too. So if you haven’t picked up a title before–or given it a shot in a long time, try it, you might like it!

Since I’m a writer and not a librarian or teacher, my job is to bring the historical fiction I’m working on alive, to make it relevant and exciting to my readers – and that will be the topic of my next blog post when my turn comes around again here on the Mixed-Up Files: How I research and why – and does it matter?

Kimberley Little
  1. I am looking for really accurate historical novels or fiction, I found a web site that has 5000, but I am unsure of which ones are accurate and which ones use creative license. I hope that this makes since. I don’t want smut, or bad language, looking for any and all good books that are accurate to that time period.
    Anyone have a favorite Author?

  2. Great post…and I like the books you picked to highlight. Historical fiction for children/young adults is my favorite genre. On occasion I “make” myself read books in other genres, but really my heart lies in historical fiction. And I totally agree that historical fiction is better now than it has ever been!

    As a teacher, I’ve seen firsthand how it can turn around a disinterested student, help him or her step into that time period. This led me to create category lists of great historical fiction books for children, which then morphed into a website to help teachers find good historical fiction books to coincide with their curriculum. If you’d like to take a look, here are the pages with historical fiction for kids:

    <a href="American History Books for Kids
    <a href="World History Books for Kids

    Great post. I’ve added you to my Google Alerts so I can keep up to date. 🙂

  3. Great points and observations Julie, Ms. Yingling and Katie – thanks so much for your comments!

    I wasn’t implying that there weren’t kids who don’t like historical fiction because there are very popular series like the Little House in the Prairie books and the American Girl series, but as a rule, the genre isn’t published in very big numbers and they are often the MOST difficult books for an author to sell because publishers see the numbers and get leery about investing the money into a book with so little return.

    But in many ways I see this changing because historical fiction is just getting better all the time and I hear rumors that in a couple years historical fiction is gonna be bigger – I hope so! And yes, books that are tied to curriculum does help sales. I’ve seen that with my book, THE LAST SNAKE RUNNER. It’s very popular in New Mexico because they study that history in 7th grade. And yet, I tried to also make it more exciting by adding in time travel along with the actual war that happened in 1599 with the conquistadors, and very real danger when the main character isn’t sure he will survive and get back home. Plus, it’s got a boy for the main character, swords and fighting and snakes – and yet there is a girl that plays a big role, too with just a smidgen of romance. 🙂

  4. I was told at a recent writers conference that any historical fiction would need to be tied to a curriculum area before it had a chance of being published. In other words, if it was set the in Civil Rights period or had to do with the colonies or some other clearly definable point in time that would induce teachers/libraries to buy class sets. It bothered me a lot, not least because the middle grade book I’m writing could be categorized as historical. I have to go back to the hope that its all in the writing – that good work will get recognized somehow.

  5. Some middle schoolers like historical fiction, but none of them like it when NOTHING HAPPENS. It also goes in cycles; my 6th graders now like it, but my 8th graders won’t touch it.

  6. I think it’s crazy to say that kids don’t like or want to read historical fiction. My daughter is enthralled by the pioneer period right now and what life was like back then (Little House anyone?). Or, if they aren’t interested, we need to get them interested, because a story is always going to be more meaningful and more interesting than a textbook.

    My daughter recently read and loved Anna Maria’s Gift, a story about a fictional orphan girl who studies violin with Vivaldi (who actually did teach music to orphan girls). Gloria Whelen also writes some great historical fiction for young readers.

    This post got me energized to go seek out some more historical fiction for my daughter! Can’t wait to read about your research process.

  7. I have learned more history from reading middle grade and YA historical fiction novels than I ever learned in a classroom. Great post.

  8. Hi Kimberely,

    I love your enthusiasm for historical fiction. It is bound to rub off on others. Keep pitching your ideas.

    Linda A.

  9. Jon, I love hearing about your book choices and the British *spin*. Must check them out.

    Andrea – right on, girl! That’s why I don’t believe in textbooks too much, except for math and grammar. Historical fiction, biographies, non-fiction, especially in the kid’s arena is superb. Those are the types of books I mostly used when I home-schooled my three boys.

    Cool, Elissa! And there have been many Newbery and Newbery Honor books over the years that are historical fiction.

    Good luck on your student teaching and writing of a historical picture book,, Melissa. It is too bad there isn’t more out there, but they are still being published. Join SCBWI and that will help you locate the right publishing house or agent.

    And Caroline and Ann – wow, what FANTASTIC personal experiences and stories. I loved reading about them, thank you so much for sharing. Great ideas for all you teacher’s out there! Steal widely and have fun! 😉 I’m so impressed by the student’s passion and response, Caroline and I will certainly check out the historical fiction website, Ann. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, all your comments made my day!

  10. I love this post! As a former middle school social studies teacher, I am a champion of historical fiction, too. Historical fiction, if done well, can bring to life some of the most exciting moments in time. And real life can be pretty crazy.

    And if you know of any teachers that are using historical fiction in their classroom, encourage them to rate a book at:


    because half the battle is finding the kind of historical fiction that will draw students right in. I’m looking forward to your next post!


  11. For years I taught both English and social studies, but when my last two years I moved just to SS, I knew I had to somehow keep literature in my classroom.

    So I created a project called Where In the World Are We Reading. Kids had to read a certain number of biographies, other non-ficiton, historical fiction, or contemporary stories set in a different location (PEAK and THE KILLER SEA were two popular titles). As my students read, they filled out a Travel Log to keep record of their reading journey. One of the many things I loved about this project is the freedom it gave my kids. Some wanted to focus on specific periods in history and read books only relating to this time. Others were interested in certain people or places and focused there. Still others flitted around in their reading — absolutely acceptable, too.

    Taking it all a step further, I started after-school book clubs with my sixth and seventh graders. My school bought several titles I requested, and any of my older kids could pick up a book, use it for their Travel Log grade, and come join the discussion (for extra credit).

    I’d bring a snack somehow related to the story. Conversations became so heated, we’d pass around an object for the speaker to hold while talking (otherwise, everyone wanted to talk at once!).

    One book that was a special hit was REBEL HART about a Confederate spy named Nancy Hart during the Civil War. There was much swooning, discussion, and several re-reads. Even boys liked this one.

    Thanks, Kim, for some lovely memories today!

    I’ve got PDFs of my handouts for Where In the World Are We Reading and a copy of the Travel Log, for any teacher who might be interested in doing something similar. Stop by!

  12. As a student teacher I love nothing more than introducing a lesson in Social Studies with a picture book. A children’s book is the largest tool in the elementary ed. tool belt! I was recently inspired to write my own historical fiction picture book and I am very disapointed to read most publishers are not very interested in this genre 🙁

  13. I hope historical fiction will make a comeback! And maybe it already has, now that the 2011 Newbery award was for Moon Over Manifest, which I hear is historical fiction (I haven’t read it yet). I can’t write historical fiction, but I love to read it.

  14. I think that historical fiction has an important role to play in helping kids learn about history and historical events. Would you rather read dry boring material full of dates and facts or a lively story that shows how someone may have lived and what they experienced? Just saying.

  15. I read a lot of historical fiction as a youngster, and still do today. I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, set in the Napoleonic wars, as well as series set in England during the time of Alfred the Great 🙂