Using Historical Fiction to Teach Social Studies

       Usually, historical fiction is loads of fun, but not very accurate, or, at least, it mixes the fiction and the facts so thoroughly that it becomes difficult to weed out the fiction. And this, of course, is part of the art of the true historical novel. The Journals of Kevin Murphy , however, are written with pedagogical intentions. In these historical novels, it is impossible to confuse the fictional story with the historical facts. The fiction takes place in the twenty-first century; the characters are all fictional, and the story line is fictional. The historical facts emerge from discussions among the characters about the past and how it bears upon the present. These discussions occur at moments in the narrative when the characters need “back story” about what they are experiencing in the present. And it is this “back story” that carries the historical import of the novels.

If a child reads the books on his own, he will have no trouble knowing what is historically true. Of course, there will be children, who will skim over the historical parts. This is why the books are particularly valuable in a classroom setting, be it in a school or at home. The teacher can easily highlight the historical content of the book for the child. There is a list of “questions to be put to the text” on this site, which is designed to help the teacher to formulate these questions. Not only are there historical facts to be gleaned from each of the texts, but each story carries several important life lessons: what it means to become and adult (Bear), the value of teamwork and the vital importance of each member of the team (Bear), how to let go when it’s time to move on (Eagle), the meaning of real love (possessiveness and control), and anger management (Fireheart).

A good teacher can even use these books to discuss language because some of the characters speak French (Bear), some Spanish (Fireheart), and some speak dialects that must be differentiated from general English (Fireheart).  For example, pointing out the difference between who and which is made easy for the teacher by virtue of the fact that linguistic mistakes are italicized in the text.

In fact, the very best way to present these books in an academic setting, I think, would be to team-teach them, using and English teacher, a Social Studies teacher, and even a psychologist.

Let me know what you think about this or any other subject relating to these books.