N.C. Historical Fiction Must-Reads

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

I love all genres of children's literature.  I grew up on realistic fiction, dreaming of being a member of The Baby-sitter's Club.  I love fantasy; I rank Roald Dahl at the top of my favorite children's authors and I'm a huge Harry Potter fan.  As a teacher, I've seen the power other genres like mystery, graphic novels, and informational text has to attract reluctant readers.  But perhaps no genre of children's literature is more powerful than historical fiction.

We've heard it said many times: "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." I've invoked the famous quote once or twice in my classroom when my students ask "why" we have to learn about a particular topic or read a particular book.  I believe it, and I also believe the best way for children to learn from history in a way that makes as impact is to immerse themselves in it.  There's no better way to accomplish that than with a good book.

This summer I've been reading through the North Carolina Elementary Battle of the Books (EBOB) list and I recently finished Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter.  Any book that has me wiping tears on the beach on vacation deserves a nod and this one did just that.  I read a lot of children's books but only once in a while does the content truly change my personal outlook.  I want to share with you three historical fiction novels rooted in North Carolina that impacted my views on racial, political, social and/or physical oppression. These books shaped a little corner of my heart, and I believe they'll do the same for yours and any children with whom you share them.

We'll start with the one I read first and know the best.  You may notice this copy is well-worn, and that's for good reason.  Five years ago, my grade level heard about Soft Rain by Cornelia Cornelissen and we decided to start teaching it every year in every classroom.  We had all just missed it as kids (it was published in 1998) but we didn't want our kids to miss it.  I wrote a Novel Unit for it and we ran with it.  It's a simple book and definitely the easiest read of these three, but it truly has changed the way I feel inside every time I hear the phrase "Trail of Tears."  It is written from the perspective of a nine-year-old Cherokee girl named Soft Rain who, along with her family, is driven West from their North Carolina mountain home.  Year after year, we read this book and students cry out for reasons ranging from worrying about the main character's dog left behind to asking with big eyes, "How could the government do that?"

There are plenty of present day examples we can use to talk about tolerance, diversity and quality with children.  However, there are also age-old examples like this one that serve to show 1) we have made so much progress as a society but 2) in order to sustain that progress, we must be vigilant.  I tell my students every year it is up to them to be aware of what's going on around them, look at situations from other people's points-of-view and most importantly, to stand up for those who aren't being treated fairly.  I always hope that they'll remember their frustration at not being able to help Soft Rain when they find themselves with an opportunity to help someone else.

Next is the book that took me by surprise on my vacation.  I always take my Kindle when we travel, so didn't have any idea what this book was about when I started it on the beach that day.  Blue by Joyce Meyer Hostetter is the story of a young teenage girl named Ann Fay Honeycutt who lives near Hickory in 1944, as her father goes off to fight in World War II and polio strikes her small town, including her family.  This book is beautifully written, and Ann Fay's plight took hold deep in my heart as I turned those pages.  I just kept thinking how daunting these challenges were only 75 years ago and how fortunate we are to live not only in a time of relative peace but also of medical advancement.  This book offers much needed perspective today for the young and the old.

Added bonus: I just found out there's also a sequel (Comfort) and it's in my Amazon cart now!

I read Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper school year before last when my EBOB team made it to the finals.  It was a pretty new release then, published in January 2015, and was one of the books we analyzed together.  The more I studied this novel, the deeper impression it made on me.  It is set in the 1930s and focuses on the daily challenges faced by an African American girl alongside her family and community.  We focus in schools on times of slavery, including the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.  But what happened next?  Reading this book goes a long way to fill in those blanks and to give children a deeper understanding of the long, hard and tense battle fought for fairness, respect and equality.  You can hear more from the author here...

Whether there's still some room on your summer reading list, you're lesson planning for next school year or you just want to enlighten yourself or your own children, I highly recommend getting your hands on any of these three novels.  As Sharon Draper writes in Stella by Starlight, "Words fall out of the sky like leaves, girl.  Grab a couple and write 'em down." (p. 156)  In this case, grab a couple and read 'em, share 'em, learn from 'em... It'll change your heart!

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