Choosing High Quality Children's Literature/Historical Fiction

by Mary Leininger and Becky McMichael

What is Historical Fiction? Sarah Johnson, Assistant Professor, Eastern Illinois University, states that "the obvious definition that comes to mind is that historical fiction is simply "fiction set in the past" (March 2002). The words "historical fiction" themselves represent a controversy of meaning. To be considered historical means that the story is based on fact or attained from research. To be considered fiction means that the story is not true. So how is it that this literary genre can be both? Historical fiction uses real characters along with fictitious characters to tell about factual events which occurred more than 50 years ago. In this way the story can give shape to the past while also making it come alive in the present. It allows children to see that those characters also dealt with problems that we still face today. Johnson (March, 2002) concludes that the "very best historical fiction presents to us a TRUTH of the past that is NOT the truth of the history books, but a bigger truth, a more important truth - a truth of the HEART."

Types of Historical FictionEdit

According to Tunnell and Jacobs, (Children's Literature, Briefly, 2000) there are four types of Historical Fiction:

  1. A Story of Historical Events Happening Before the Life of the Author
    Stealing South by Katherine Ayres Katherine Ayres
  2. A Contemporary Novel Becomes Historical Fiction With the Passage of Time
    The Sound of Music, 1949 The von Trapp Family Story
  3. An Author Chronicles his/her Own Life Story in a Fictional Format
    The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are books of this type. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frontier Girl
  4. The Protagonist Travels Back Into History
    The Magic Tree House books Mary Pope Osborne

Criteria for selecting High Quality Historical FictionEdit

  1. The historical facts must be correct and true without being overbearing to the story.
    "Telling a good story is the essence of historical fiction." (Tunnell and Jacobs, Children's Literature, Briefly, 2000)
  2. The dialogue, thoughts, actions, and motivations of the characters must be true to the time period of the story.
    The stories should not be "candy coated" to appeal to reader simply to shield readers from the horrific and disturbing events of our history. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". (George Santayana)
  3. The setting, characters, plot, mood, word choice, and themes need to be interesting to keep the attention of young readers.
    The story must be written so that the reader feels as if they have time-traveled to a place of long ago and immersed into authentic historical detail.

Examples of High Quality Historical FictionEdit

Picture Books
Rudy Rides the Rails: A Depression Era Story written by Dandi Daley Mackall and illustrated by Chris Ellison
This story weaves an accurate picture about the lives of hoboes during the Great Depression. The theme is of family love that drives "Rambling Rudy" back to his home in Akron, Ohio. The author and illustrator share symbols, dialogue and action from this time period with the reader so that one feels as if they are riding the rails, searching for work and food, along with the characters. Teacher's Guide
The Wall written and illustrated by Peter Sis
This story depicts Peter Sis' view of growing up behind The Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. The author is true to the time period and does not shield the reader from the atrocities of the brain-washing done by the government in the Soviet Union. His illustration horrifically reveal the mindset of the time by the Soviet leaders. Together the story and illustrations show one little boy's "awakening" of a better life because of the crack that rock-n-roll had put in the wall that kept him from the western world.
Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride written and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
This book is a light-hearted story about the first hot-air balloon ride. It recounts the travels of a sheep, a rooster, and a duck who were the first to take flight in a hot-air balloon. Luckily, theirs was a happy ending which led to Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier making the first public flight.
Chapter Books
Worth by A. LaFaye
This is a heart-felt story about the struggles of two boys during the late 1800's when orphan trains were a way of life for some unwanted children. The author's word choices and use of figurative language throughout the book pull the reader into the text. The dialogue gives the reader the feeling that they have stepped back in time to the old west. There is a mix of historical facts and literary elements that make this story's theme come alive as the plot unfolds. This book leads to many enriching discussions about friendship, family, and right versus wrong. Kids really enjoy reading this story.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
This story is truly written to touch the reader's heart as it draws us into the lives of several women in war-torn Afghanistan. The struggle, fear, and raw perseverance of the main character truly reflects the depth of despair that the human spirit can be capable of enduring. The author successfully conveys the horrific lives of Afghan women without too many details about their plight. The plot, setting, and characters bring this historical time period alive for the reader.
Remember My Name by Sara H. Banks
This story is a masterpiece of emotions ranging from courage to heart-breaking defeat about the Indian Removal Act of 1838. The author's word choice and dialogue help the reader envision a much less "sophisticated" world.
Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
This is the story of Elijah Freeman, the first free black person born in the settlement of Buxton, Canada. His claim to fame is throwing up on Fredrick Douglas when he visited the colony when Elijah was a baby. Elijah is an eleven year old boy who is treated like an adult because he is an only child. He is born into freedom which makes him innocent and gullible so when he experiences the evil of slavery and crime his mind is opened to the cruelty around him. What is so special about this book is it's authenticity. The settlement of Buxton, Canada actually existed as a place for runaway slaves. Douglas did visit this settlement at one time. The fear and treatment of the slaves is accurately detailed, they hide from the slave traders while trying to survive in a new place. The book is written in southern twang with a slightly educated tone to it because Elijah is going to school and the teacher is from New York. Elijah faces many decisions that the students can relate to.

Internet Links to High Quality Historical FictionEdit


  • Tunnell, Michael O. and Jacobs, James S. Children’s Literature, Briefly: 2nd Edition. 2000.
  • Norton, Donna E. and Norton, Saundra E. Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children's Literature, 7th edition, Prentice Hill
  • Johnson, Sarah. What Are the Rules for Historical Fiction? speech, 2002
  • Ayres, Katherine. Stealing South: A Story of the Underground Railroad. Dell Yearling, 2001.
  • von Trapp, Maria Augusta. The Sound of Music. Lippincott Company, 1949.
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Little House books. Harper Collins pub.
  • Osborne, Mary Pope. The Magic Tree House books. Random House pub.
  • Mackall, Dandi Daley. Rudy Rides the Rails: A Depression Era Story. Thompson Corporation, 2007
  • Sis, Peter. The Wall. Francis Foster Books, 2007
  • Priceman, Marjorie. Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride. Atheneum/Anne Schwartz Books, June 2005.
  • LaFaye, A. Worth. Scholastic, 2004.
  • Ellis, Deborah. The Breadwinner. Scholastic, 2000.
  • Banks, Sarah H. Remember My Name. Scholastic, 1993.
  • Curtis, Christopher Paul. Elijah of Buxton. Scholastic Press, 2007.