Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Renee Heiss on Historical Fiction as it Relates to Modern Children and their Teachers

The Great Depression may have happened over 85 years ago, but the lessons learned and problems encountered are universal. During that turbulent time period in American history, children’s parents became unemployed at an epidemic level. Today, teachers will find an occasional child whose parents have lost their jobs.

During that early 20th century period, many families had little to eat. Fathers waited in bread lines while mothers wondered how to feed their children. Today’s teachers probably won’t see parents of their students in bread lines, but they will find them applying for food stamps.

And also during that time, children needed to quit school so they could earn a meager income for their families so they could have enough money for essentials. Today’s teachers may find that their students don’t complete homework because they had to take care of younger siblings while their parents went out to a second job. Not much has changed in 85 years, has it? Some children still must deal with financial hardships.

The clothing may have changed from knickers to jeans. The movies may have changed from silent to Disney productions. The toys may have changed from tin trucks to plastic blocks. And the books may have changed from simple tales to complex fantasies. However, children today have the same needs as their Depression-era counterparts – to have clean cloths, warm food, a roof over their heads… and simple fun with their friends.

The purpose of historical fiction is to help today’s children see that although they may be experiencing hardship because they aren’t allowed to watch TV on a school night, they do have that means of entertainment available to them at other times. Today’s children may spurn the dinner offering of beef stew, but they at least have food on the table. And they may not appreciate sharing a room with their sibling, but at least they have a home with their family.

How can teachers help children to see that the purpose of historical fiction is to help them appreciate what they have rather than yearn for what they have not? By analyzing middle grade fiction with a well-organized lesson plan that includes a Venn diagram, list of possible anachronisms, and journal prompts to personalize the lessons.

In Woody’s World, the main character’s life is carefree and effortless because the 1929 Stock Market Crash has not yet occurred. Young readers will identify with Woody as he narrowly escapes hitting a trolley with his sled. We may not have too many trolleys today but we have plenty of trains, trucks, and other potentially dangerous vehicles.

As the readers work their way through Woody’s World, they begin to see Woody’s life change. He loses a good friend because he can’t afford the same types of fun activities. He needs to find creative ways to earn money – like collecting and getting a rebate on empty bottles. And he needs to console his mother and sister when his father travels a long distance to earn money so they can keep their home. Woody’s life has gone from easy to difficult in the space of two months.

Readers will also find that Woody’s World includes many literary devices that enliven the story for them. History may be filled with facts, but historical fiction is filled with facts embellished with dialogue, description, and narration that make the time and tale come alive in the young reader’s eyes.

Teachers should help their students imagine traveling in Woody’s shoes as he captures a pig from an overturned stock car so his family can have meat for a change. Perhaps they can imagine having an internal discussion about saving money for his family vs. spending money for Boy Scouts dues. When students need to choose between two very different decisions, they will be able to see how Woody felt when he split his earnings in two between home and Scouts.

Woody’s World is based on actual incidents – some funny, others desperate - that occurred to my father as he grew up in Princeton, NJ during the Depression Era. The joys he felt and the problems he encountered were real. Only the ending was changed because the true story was too tragic to include in a children’s novel.

Woody’s World is a perfect novel to read during a unit on The Great Depression, but it also provides insight into Jim Crow Laws when Woody and his black friend couldn’t sit on the white side of the movie theater. It also provides insight into the clothing, customs, and culture of life in the 1920s and 1930s. Newspaper references show current events, sports nuances, and the relative cost of basic supplies. Researched heavily by the author, Woody’s World is an accurate depiction of life as it occurred 85 years ago so 21st century children can appreciate what they have today.

Renee Heiss is the author of Woody’s World available at www.amazon.com. She also developed an 8-Week Study Guide for Woody’s World available at www.teacherspayteachers.com. She is a retired teacher of middle school language arts and high school children development. Her website provides additional information about the time and setting of Woody’s World: http://reneeheiss.com/woody_s_world

Woody’s World earned the 2013 Silver Medal for Teen/Tween historical fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, many children today are living in Depression era type circumstances; and those who don't, can learn compassion and empathy by reading stories set in that time period.