Thursday, May 21, 2015

Chris Eboch on Connecting Kids to History

Easter festival in Uruapan, Mexico
Historical fiction is a great way to bring history to life. It’s especially valuable for young people, who may not find textbook history interesting and who haven’t lived long enough to understand how quickly and dramatically the world can change.

I’ve received letters from students who have read my Mayan novel The Well of Sacrifice with their classes. One pleasant surprise is that some students say they really like the descriptions of the historical time period. I always find that kind of thing interesting, but sometimes I worry that readers will only be interested in the action. I’m glad I’m wrong about that. It’s nice to know we have some young history fans!.

I’ve been impressed with the many wonderful ways teachers come up with to use historical fiction in the classroom. Consider this teacher’s review for my novel The Well of Sacrifice:

“My class (fourth/fifth graders) read this book for our theme: The Maya. The book gave authentic facts about the Mayan culture and a plausible explanation for the demise of their culture. We used the book as the backbone of several language arts exercises such as: written and oral reports about the Maya, literary criticism of characters, plot, and sequence, persuasive essays on human sacrifice vs. murder and Mayan culture vs. our own culture; and art projects from wood burning to mapping. We studied geography and the rainforest. The students’ enthusiasm for this book pushed our curriculum into other disciplines including math.”

Some teachers like to have students write their own versions of what happened after my book ends. Their answers can range from marriage and happily ever after, to massive death and destruction. Their stories probably say more about the students’ personal tastes than about my book, but this type of exercise another way to get young people engaged with history.

The author with a young friend in Mexico
Lessons That Resonate

Using historical fiction in the classroom or at home can help kids understand history better. It can also help them understand and identify with people of the past. If they can do that, they should be better able to understand and identify with different people today.

In an interview, a blogger asked me, “Although Eveningstar Macaw’s culture seems very strange for modern readers, she herself is easy to relate to. What do you think people today have most in common with the Maya?”

Although specifics of religion, social structure, and politics often differ across cultures and over time, I assume all people are motivated by the same basic emotions: love, fear, greed, insecurity, pride, piety, etc. In The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar is jealous of her older sister and adores her older brother. She’s nervous about going to a party and wishes she had nicer clothes. She’s growing up and discovering that she can’t always trust the system and can’t rely on others to take care of her. All that could happen today. It’s mainly the setting that’s different.

Looking at those basic human instincts helps keep historical fiction relatable. It also allows writers to address current issues. The story of the Mayan collapse touches upon environmental concerns and the dangers of believing that others – the government, religion, the rich – should be responsible for our happiness and safety. These are lessons for today.

My Egyptian mystery The Eyes of Pharaoh also works as supplemental fiction. There are loads of projects classes can do, from art to discussion groups to persuasive letters. In addition, my book explores themes of national pride and attitudes about foreigners and immigration. These are subtle elements, but the book could be used as a discussion starter.

Making friends in Egypt
But often it’s the simple things that help kids connect. For example, the ancient Egyptians may seem wildly exotic in their religion and architecture. Yet their food sounds tasty, and you don’t find too many things that sound yucky-weird – instead it’s “platters piled with joints of meat, bread baked into animal shapes, cheese, nuts, and fresh fruit.” I did a school visit and one of the students brought in “honey cakes” her mother had made from a recipe she found online. They were similar to cornbread served with honey, simple and tasty.

Historical fiction shows our differences, but also our similarities.

Get lesson plans for The Well of Sacrifice and The Eyes of Pharaoh at the “For Teachers” page on my website.

Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with several novels for ages nine and up. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. The Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs, follows a brother and sister who travel with their parents’ ghost hunter TV show and try to help the ghosts while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups.


  1. As a former teacher, I love the projects some of these teachers have come up with. Historical fiction really is one way to make history come alive. I was pleased during a school visit to learn that middle grade students love historical fiction. We really need more of it in classrooms. For my own part, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Eyes of Pharaoh. I haven't read The Well of Sacrifice yet, but it's on my TBR list.

  2. Inspiring! Mystery or miracle plays acted out scenes of the early church even in the fifth century to dramatize stories. You start with pageants such as this in Mexico, and take us all the way to interactive modern storytelling, according to the teacher you quote. You can catch an App, very new, called Zoozil, which focuses on historical story telling that asks students to change or "finish" historical stories.