What’s your favorite genre to read? For me, especially as an adult, it’s historical fiction. However, while I also love a good historical fiction read-aloud, I recognize that my kids relate to this genre better when I take a few steps to help them bridge the distance between their own experience and the time and place of the book.
Some of these are techniques we’ve incorporated on our Read-Aloud Posters and can easily be adapted for non-poster books, while others are off-poster activities that I find to be particularly helpful with historical fiction books.
Introduce the book as historical fiction.
Reading Number the Stars is different in important ways from reading The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street or The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. But unless we introduce the genre as such to our read-aloud listeners, it could be easy for them to think of a book like Number the Stars as “just another story.” If this is the first historical fiction read-aloud you have encountered, you’ll want to explicitly define the genre, highlighting the significance of each part of the name, historical fiction. Even if you’re a veteran of the genre, take a moment as you preview the book to discuss its genre and relate it to other historical fiction books you may have read together.
When possible, make the historical and fictional elements explicit.
So, what is special about historical fiction? It’s history, and it’s fiction. We need to make this explicit up-front, to establish the expectation that there are both historical and fictional elements to the book we’re about to read.
As we read, then, I like to make a t-chart similar to the one shown to track the historical and fictional elements of the story.
I like to use my whiteboard to make the chart and then combine it with sticky notes that are easily moved around as we read. No whiteboard? You could easily use the back of an old poster, sheet paper, or a chalkboard for your chart.
The kids write their examples of each type of element as I read, and classify them, pending further investigation. One of the reasons I like sticky notes rather than writing directly on the chart, is that it’s easy to make a parking spot for “I don’t know” elements that will require additional research after the day’s read-aloud time is over. This presents an opportunity to discuss what resources we have available to us, and is important training in using external resources to validate what is fact and what is fiction in anything we read.
Tip: It’s often the bizarre-sounding details in historical fiction that are actually true! The rat hunt in A Place to Hang the Moon? The fish-skin shoes that Kirsti hated so much in Number the Stars? Both are based on historical details! As you add to your t-chart, if you find that your kids are skipping the “strange but true” details in favor of “the big facts,” try contributing a few of these details yourself, and challenge your kids to categorize them.
Look for an Author’s Note
When the author does write a note, make sure to read it together! This isn’t always available, but when it is, be sure to take advantage of it. This is a great opportunity for you to check your t-chart or add factual elements you might have missed as you were reading.
Even in the absence of an author’s note, take some time to do some research on the historical events of the novel. You’ll often find that there are great resources available on the internet with photos and primary source documents that may allow you to “retrace” the author’s steps, in a sense, and help deepen your understanding of the history incorporated into the fiction.
Locate the story in time and place
Use a world map to find the location of the story’s events. Where do you live? Is it near or far from the story location? Some of our Read-Aloud Posters for historical fiction books incorporate maps, while others do not. Even when the poster does have a map of the story location, you’ll still want to find the specific location within the context of a world map. If you like to read lots of historical fiction and have a physical map, consider placing small icons of each book you read in the appropriate location on the map.
Do you have a timeline of world events in your home? If not, consider making a simple timeline out of rope, clothespins, and index cards or paper. Or, a long roll of paper (we have one from IKEA and one from Michaels…they’re widely available!) is a great option as well.
If you’re starting your timeline for a reading of Number the Stars or A Place to Hang the Moon, you might start with a “hundred year” timeline. You can always expand your timeline “backwards”, but getting started with a shorter timeline (relative to the history of the world) will be less intimidating. At our house, we added year markers for family birthdays (great-grandma, grandma, parents, and kids) in addition to story events. It’s helpful to see just when story events occurred relative to personal events; it really wasn’t that long ago!
Seeing this timeline may be just the impetus you need for a family interview: what was life like for their great-grandparents during World War 2? Do they remember rationing? Black-out curtains?
Take cultural elements off the page
Speaking of time and place, when the book mentions food, dress, vocabulary, or customs that are specific to the historical time and place of the book, reserve some time to celebrate those, perhaps as part of a book party, a cooking project, or other off-the-page activity. Food is always a big hit at our house, but you know what is most motivating for your family!
What are your favorite ways to enhance your historical fiction read-alouds? Let us know in the comments!
Check out how we’ve incorporated some of these techniques into our Read-Aloud Posters for these great historical fiction reads: