Historical fiction is not a cut-and-dry genre. Is it more historical or is it more fictional? Can it be used in the classroom, and what purpose does it serve? Each teacher must decide these answers truthfully for themselves.
What makes historical fiction different from any other type of fiction for most people is that it contains elements of history. This can involve real people or a real background. Often times, as is the case with young adult historical fiction, the historical background of the story is factual while the main character is made up. These stories are usually the author’s interpretation of what that protagonist would have lived through, experienced, and had to deal with in their time in history. But what place do these novels have in the classroom? They don’t always teach a great deal of historical facts, so they cannot be used as a textbook. What then can they be used for?
For many teachers, historical fiction has multiple uses. Author Stephanie Tripp believes it “captivates” the reader, pulling them intimately together with the historical context they are reading about. For others it is a supplementary text meant to give a more personal, understandable basis for relation to the facts of the matter being studied in the classroom. Still, historical fiction novels can serve to analyze what society and the author in particular say about what is happening during their own place and time. For example, the historical fiction novel, My Brother Sam Is Dead is a novel about the American Revolution. The young protagonist in the novel experiences the horrors of war, and in the end he wishes the violence could have been avoided. Looking at the time the book was written, during the 1970s, the reader can learn that the novel was written around the time of the Vietnam War with America. The anti-aggression sentiments felt throughout the novel express the author’s negative thoughts on the Vietnam War. Learning how society’s views of the past change throughout history can shed great light on the permeable nature of history.
So what place does historical fiction have in the classroom? There are many uses, but each teacher must decide for themselves what they believe this genre is useful for. It can be used as different tools in the hands of different teachers, but all in all historical fiction serves to bring its reader into close relation with the historical studies at hand.