Of all the things we learn as children, perhaps none are as important as integrity and empathy. It is these qualities which encourage us to complete our endeavors diligently, value customs and beliefs different from our own, and bravely stand up for those who cannot protect themselves.
Historical fiction can do much more than educate about what has been. It can remind us what is and what should be. Because great books stretch our imagination, engage our senses, and invite us into realms otherwise unknown to us, it is easy to forget that many stories from the past can instruct us on everything from playground politics to larger world dynamics. Accuracy and authenticity are vital in historical fiction, but to a child who has no precise context for such history, it is the accessible characters that provide compassion and insight. Novels like Number the Stars and Road to Topez offer a child’s view of the Nazi occupation in Copenhagen and the American-Japanese internment camps during WWII. Stars and Topez challenge readers to contemplate such issues as fear, prejudice, abuse of power, mob mentality, bravery and sacrifice. The great depression, poverty, racism, identity, and the familial bonds which help us endure are beautifully explored in Esperanza Rising. The child protagonists of the I Survived series take young readers through such chilling events as the Battle of Gettysburg, the San Francisco Earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on September 11th. Distilled enough for young minds, but invaluably enlightening, the list of beautifully written children’s historical fiction is ever-growing.
When personal connections are made between stories from the past and the here and now, these books can teach us, intellectually and emotionally, how to navigate our ever-changing world. They encourage students to think about why it is essential to remember and critically evaluate history. Such books encourage readers to step outside themselves, to be brave and kind, and to treat others with respect. And, most importantly, historical fiction reinforces the notion that each of us, no matter how small, can use compassion and decency to make the world a better place.