Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sara K Joiner: History Is a Story

Sara at Hadrian's Wall in England—
the sight of quite a few stories
throughout history!
Welcome to my first blog post for Mad About MG History. I've never been a contributor on a blog other than my own (and I'm pretty terrible about updating that one), so this is a new experience for me.

To help you understand why I enjoy history and historical fiction, I'll tell you a bit more about myself than on the author page. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone. The town was rather insular and almost from a different time (most people still had black-and-white televisions in the late 1970s). One of my current co-workers is almost twenty years older than I, but our childhoods were remarkably similar thanks to my small town.

But to the blog post!

I have another co-worker who is a non-traditional student working on her college degree. Recently she mentioned having some difficulties with her American history class. "I think I need a tutor," she said.

Without a moment's hesitation, I suggested my mother, who taught history in high school for almost thirty years. "She would be a great tutor," I told my co-worker. "She taught me."

Then I said something that I didn't think was that profound, but my co-worker did. "It depends on what your professor wants though. If she wants you to memorize dates, then Mom's not the best tutor. When she taught, she wanted us to know ideas rather than dates. When the Civil War started was less important than knowing why it was fought."

My co-worker said her professor didn't seem to care about dates. "You're right," she said. "If I think of it like a story, it's more interesting and easier to remember."

That's what is so valuable about historical fiction. I know so much more about the world and my place in it because of the books I read.

It is often said that history is written by the victors, and that is generally true. It's also written by the powerful. So those people who are considered unimportant and insignificant are often ignored. Fortunately, much is being done in historical research to correct this. Children's historical fiction has been doing this for years.

Every year students learn about Christopher Columbus, but what about the other side of that story? Use Morning Girl by Michael Dorris (Hyperion, 1992) in your classrooms for a look at the Native experience before Columbus arrived on that fateful day in 1492. Morning Girl is a beautiful way to show students that history is more than dry dates in a textbook and can serve as a way to get students thinking about the stories that aren't in those textbooks.

Madeleine L'Engle wrote, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children." Historical fiction for children, especially middle-grade readers, doesn't shy away from difficult subject matter. 

Joseph Bruchac's book Hidden Roots tells the story of the Vermont Eugenics Program in the 1930s which attempted to sterilize the state's Native population. It's horrifying to think about a state trying to eradicate an entire group of people. But it happened. Bruchac's novel deals with the repercussions of that, helping readers see how history can ripple out even decades later and impact people who weren't even born at the time of the major event.

If more students regard history as a story—and not boring dates—then people like my co-worker wouldn't be as frustrated with their classes.

These are only two examples of historical fiction for middle grade readers. Visit your school or public library to find even more.

Sara K Joiner is the author of the upcoming novel After the Ashes published by Holiday House. She is also the children's coordinator for Brazoria County Library System.

1 comment:

  1. I like this, Sarah. I especially liked reading about your mother. Unfortunately, we HAD to memorize dates, but I was fortunate in having a teacher who made the people come alive, and who taught me history was - all about politics and power. It is a fascinating subject.