Thursday, March 30, 2017

Chris Eboch: Putting the Story in History

Too many students think history is dry and boring. Historical fiction can bring history to life with action, adventure, and relatable characters.

What is historical fiction?

A real setting, with characters either real or imagined. The plot may be based on real events and partially fictionalized or dramatized, or it may be entirely fictional.

What can historical fiction do?

Bring history to life. Create a vivid background and greater drama. Author Jane Yolen says, “[F]or young students, history comes alive when we concentrate on the end of the word  hiSTORY.

Historical fiction can also connect history to other fields – science (inventions, discoveries, medicine, archeology, anthropology); geography (landscape, climate, flora and fauna); environmental issues; politics; culture (foods, clothing, religious beliefs and values); language (vocabulary, foreign language); art, music and drama.

What makes good historical fiction?

  • The story comes first. It's about interesting people doing challenging things in an exciting time and place.
  • Details should be relevant and fit naturally into the story. The action shouldn't stop for facts.
  • Historical fiction should not be an excuse to lecture within a fictional framework.
  • The characters should feel real. Although specifics of religion, social structure and politics differ by time and place, people are motivated by the same basic emotions: love, fear, greed, insecurity, pride, piety, etc. After all, the seven deadly sins are thousands of years old.

Making history live

The best lessons appeal to all five senses. People learn in different ways –through reading, through hearing material allowed, and through doing activities. To get children involved in history and historical fiction, bring the lessons beyond the book(s). Field trips to actual historical sites or museums are great, but there are other options.

Find a parent who has traveled to, or is from, another country and ask them to give a talk. Or ask an expert to visit. Authors may be able to do a classroom visit, in person or via Skype. Actors can help as well – imagine someone talking about ancient Egypt while dressed as a Pharaoh!

Bring in photos or drawings, clothing, toys, and other objects. (Museums and libraries sometimes have educational packs that can be lent out.)

Have the children make posters, act out skits, and write their own stories. For my Mayan novel, The Well of Sacrifice, teachers have developed many classroom projects. (Find these in my Lesson Plans.)

  • A group debate project where the students take on the roles of various characters from the book.
  • Discussion questions about social roles, coming-of-age rituals, attitude towards death, and more.
  • Various art projects, including comic strips, designing a monument, and drawing scenes from the book.
  • Team research projects where the students find out more about the Maya.
  • A persuasive letter project where the student writes as a character and tries to convince another character to do something.
  • Journal questions covering topics such as “Is human sacrifice different from murder? Why or why not?”

At the end of an educational segment centered around The Well of Sacrifice, the teacher may have a party for the kids. Some parents make food appropriate for the historical time and place. The kids share their posters and present their research. They dress in costumes and act out scenes from the book. It's a great time for everyone.

Mayan Pectoral Project

The Maya wore simple clothing—loincloths and cloaks for men, and a sleeveless dress for women. Peasants may have used bark cloth, while the nobility had clothes woven from colorful dyed cotton. Both men and women wore their hair long, often braided in two or four plaits. They also wore necklaces, bracelets, and jewelry in their ears, noses and lips. The jewelry was made of bone, shell, wood or stone for poor people, and of gold or jade for the rich.

Sometimes people wore pectorals—large pendants hanging over the chest. Some were simple circles or rectangles, but others were complex. Here are some designs, taken from ancient paintings and statues. The real ones would have been even bigger—up to six inches across.

You can make your own pectoral. Use the designs here to get ideas. Cut shapes out of colored construction paper and glue or tape them together. You can also paint or draw the designs. Have fun!

 Chris Eboch, The Well of Sacrifice

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Read Wide, Read Deep

By Suzanne Morgan Williams

    I was just giving school visits in rural Kansas with fellow author Terri Farley. It was great fun and we saw students from grades K-12 Together we did a family night that included folks from ages 3 to maybe 90. It was all about reading and writing. I kept thinking how differently one would experience the world from the open quiet prairies of Western Kansas than from, say, San Francisco Chinatown’s frantic pace. How can people, having such different perceptions understand each other. Time after time, I told the students to read. Read widely, read everything, read what you’re interested in and what makes you uncomfortable. This blog is about historical fiction, but today, I just want to talk about the power of books.

    Before my novel, Bull Rider, was published I wrote a dozen nonfiction books and that research covered a lot of history. I can tell you, that when a totalitarian government comes to power, or when one nation conquers another, one of the first things they do is burn the books. After this had happened a few times in ancient China, the people took to carving Buddhist texts in rock – harder to destroy. Books transfer cultural values, they provide information, and they give their readers the power of thinking beyond themselves and their own experience. Books level our experiences, allowing a sixth grader in a town of 350 in Kansas to share the same stories and information, as a sixth grader in Los Angeles or Chicago. It lets a grandmother who hasn’t taken a science class in fifty years understand what her grandchildren are learning in astronomy at school. And it let’s all of us see the world from multiple points of view, some comforting and familiar, some difficult or surprising. Reading stretches our minds and hearts.

    So bring on the books. Hand them to the kids you know. Let’s read about girls whose lives have been upended by war in Afghanistan, about boys who survived the U.S. Civil War only to get drawn in by the Ku Klux Klan, about the Russian Czars, and kids living on Alcatraz with Al Capone. Mostly, let's go for a variety of books, a mental feast, a healthy mix of the known and unknown. And let’s use what we read to better understand each other and our world.

    Read widely, read deeply, and read with your heart and mind wide open.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

75th Anniversaries in WWII History: by Mary Louise Sanchez

In January I received a Fit Bit bracelet which I mostly use to track my steps. The goal is to achieve 10,000 steps a day.  Imagine my surprise when I was alerted about a week later that I completed my first twenty-six miles for a marathon badge. I was proud to receive the badge but then reflected on endurance tests that people complete when they participate in Olympic marathons or marathons that last a longer period of time.

One difficult 60-70 mile marathon anniversary in history started 75 years old on January 7, 1942.  This was the beginning of the Bataan Battle in the Philippines during WWII .
 In April 1942, Maj. Gen. Edward King, Jr. surrendered to Col. Mootoo Nakayama of the 14th Japanese Army.  Because the Japanese wanted to make another assault near the location of the surrender, they decided the large numbers of prisoners needed to be moved north. Since transportation was lacking, American and Filipino POWs were forced to march to a new camp between 60 and up to almost 70 miles north. This became known as the Bataan March.

There are many memorials to the memory of the these men in the Philippines. Because so many New Mexican soldiers were forced to participate in that infamous march, the state of New Mexico honors these men every spring with a marathon march/run at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico called the Bataan Memorial Death March. New Mexicans renamed the old state capitol building, the Bataan Memorial Building.  There is also a memorial, "Heroes of Bataan" in Las Cruces, New Mexico depicting three soldiers helping each other on the deadly march. 

I have yet to find a middle grade historical fiction novel with the Bataan March setting, but I believe these men's stories will be written and need to be shared.  Since my father-in-law was  a POW in Korea for two years, I would love to see an historical fiction story about the Korean experience too.

Another WWII 75th anniversary was observed this past December 7, 2016—Pearl Harbor. Thankfully, there are many books about the Pearl Harbor experience for students in the middle grades to read. I was fortunate to hear Graham Salisbury speak about his experiences growing up in Hawaii and his interviews with Japanese Americans who lived there during the Pearl Harbor bombing which lead to his books about Pearl Harbor.

Do you know anyone who endured or died in the Bataan March or Pearl Harbor? Do you know anyone who was a POW? What children's books do you recommend that speak to these experiences?   

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Historical Sleuthing with 'The Detective's Assistant' by Kate Hannigan

I attended Kate Hannigan's session at the summer 2016 SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles. After listening to her interesting presentation, I asked if she would be interested in being our guest blogger. She was gracious and agreed to share the story behind her award winning middle grade history novel, The Detective's Assistant. We both agreed this post was apropos for Women's History Month.

She writes fiction and non-fiction from her home in Chicago. Her historical novel The Detective’s Assistant was the winner of the 2016 Golden Kite Award for best middle-grade novel, received starred reviews from Booklist and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, was a Booklist Editors' Choice selection, a Nerdy Book Club Award winner, a Bank Street College Best Children's Book selection, named to state reading lists, as well as an Amelia Bloomer Project List for Feminist Books selection and a Mighty Girl Top Books for Tweens and Teens pick. It also has been optioned for film. Kate’s non-fiction picture book A Lady Has the Floor (Calkins Creek), spotlighting the life and accomplishments of Belva Lockwood, publishes in 2018. Visit her online at

Historical Sleuthing with ‘The Detective’s Assistant’

I was researching a story about camels in the American West of 1856, just after the Gold Rush, when I stumbled upon my own golden nugget. It was just a few sentences about Allan Pinkerton’s detective agency and the day a woman named Kate Warne walked in to his office. But it would grow to become my obsession and later the middle-grade history-mystery novel The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers).

Pinkerton recounts in his writings that he’d assumed Kate Warne was there to apply for a secretary position, but she talked her way into having him hire her as a detective. She said she could “worm out” the secrets of the wives and girlfriends of Chicago’s crooks and criminals, and Pinkerton thought it was a marvelous idea. “We live in progressive times,” he told her, and he fancied himself a progressive man.

America’s first woman detective? I was so delighted by the possibilities of telling Kate Warne’s story that I immediately dropped my camel research and dove deep into the Pinkertons—doing my own detective work. And I’ve found it all so fascinating, I’m still reading everything I can about this period of American history.

Because Chicago’s fire in 1871 wiped out so much of the city’s history and records, there is not a lot of material about Kate Warne’s life before becoming a Pinkerton agent. What we know comes from Pinkerton’s accounts in his detective stories, written long after the cases. But there are a few records that survived of Kate Warne’s own words regarding the Pinkerton Detective Agency’s most important case—the thwarting of the Baltimore Plot to assassinate President-Elect Abraham Lincoln on his way from Illinois to Washington and his inauguration. So I relied on them to help shape Kate’s character in my story.

Because these examples of historical record thrill the history nerd in me, I made sure to weave them into the story. For example, the actual messages Pinkerton telegraphed back to the home office in Chicago during the perilous journey through deadly Baltimore in the days leading up to the 1861 inauguration—where Pinkerton referred to President Lincoln as “Nuts,” himself as “Plums,” and Kate Warne as “Barley”—make an appearance in the novel. As do a few newspaper reports that I found both funny and informative.

By wrapping such a crucial moment in the history of our nation in a rollicking story, I thought I could reach more young readers. I hoped that by creating an underdog like Kate Warne’s niece, the irrepressible Nell Warne, we could journey with Kate Warne and the Pinkerton detectives and witness history—and see that it was exciting and heart-stopping and very much worth knowing about.

There are no known photographs of Kate Warne. Here is a painting dated 1866, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
And by throwing the spotlight on a lesser-known, essentially forgotten player from our past, Kate Warne, I’ve tried to show that history is filled with people who contributed to the building of our country but didn’t necessarily represent the mainstream. Because she was a woman, Kate Warne was dismissed as Pinkerton’s lover and her contribution forgotten. Historians pointed to the fact that she was buried near Pinkerton in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.

So I went there and checked it out, and she is. But so are many other Pinkerton detectives, so are we to assume they were all Allan Pinkerton’s lovers too? I believe what he wrote about Kate Warne—that she was one of his finest, most capable operatives.

While I hope The Detective’s Assistant makes young readers intrigued by our past and inspired to learn more about American history, I find that it’s also inspired me. I’ve been bitten by the history bug, and now all I want to do is dig up more fascinating people—women and people of color especially, who have long been overlooked by traditional historians.

There is a saying that history is written by the winners. For me, I think history can be a whole lot more interesting when we discover the stories of those just outside that winner’s circle.

"In celebration of Women's History Month, Kate will be giving away THREE COPIES of The Detective's Assistant! Comment below for a chance to win!"