May 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Exploring America’s Past: Historical Fiction for Middle Grade Readers

Set in different eras, these three novels integrate historical fact with descriptive writing to present strongly delineated settings, re-create the ambience of specific periods, and recount past events. The superbly written books also feature unique protagonists with compelling points of view, relate riveting personal tales that provide insight into the experiences of others, and underscore the extraordinary courage of otherwise ordinary kids. Expand upon these offerings with studies that delve into related subjects across the curriculum, or use them to introduce and explore the genre of historical fiction.

Walking Through History
in the footsteps of crazy horseBullied by classmates about his light coloring and Scottish surname, Jimmy McClean, an 11-year-old Lakota boy, feels like he just doesn’t fit in at his school on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s almost summer vacation, and his maternal grandfather, Nyles High Eagle, history buff and traditional oral storyteller, decides it’s time to take a walk In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse (Amulet, Nov. 2015; Gr 4-8). As they embark on a road trip across the Great Plains to visit sites noteworthy in the life of this renowned 19th-century Lakota warrior and leader (c.1840-1877), a striking portrait begins to emerge. Jimmy feels an instant kinship with Crazy Horse, who was also teased about his skin color and brown hair as a boy (he was known then as Light Hair). Grandpa’s tales, presented in italicized text and recounted with vibrant details and true flair, depict turning-point moments from his subject’s childhood and adolescence (e.g., Light Hair rescuing a young Cheyenne woman after her village was burned and her husband and baby killed by white soldiers), instances of selfless generosity (leaving elk or deer at the lodge door of the elderly or helpless), and examples of the intelligence, integrity, courage, and wisdom that made him a great leader.

The immediacy and intimacy of Grandpa’s stories invite readers to walk the battlefields along with Jimmy, and “see what [Crazy Horse] saw. Smell the sagebrush and feel the same sand under your feet.” Clashes with U.S. Army soldiers (known as Long Knives) are recounted with calm and candor, and the reasons for warfare—to protect freedom and the right to live “the old way”—are lucidly presented. Jimmy’s “visionary journey” ends in Wyoming, where Crazy Horse performed perhaps his bravest act of all, surrendering at Fort Robinson in 1877 for the welfare of his people—“the helpless ones, the old people, the women, and children.” Jimmy, now armed with an understanding of courage and a connection to his Lakota heritage, is ready to persevere.

Joseph Marshall III offers a well-written story of personal discovery, a non-flinching account of the trials of war, and wise revelations about what it truly means to be a hero. An enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe, the author also provides an eye-opening look at American history from a Lakota perspective. Lakota place names and battles are included throughout, as are Lakota perspectives and insights about events. In one illuminating example, a plaque memorializing the Battle of the Hundred Hands (called the Fetterman Battle for the defeated commanding U.S. Army officer) ends with the phrase, “There were no survivors.” Grandpa Nyles states, “They got it wrong…There were survivors of this battle: hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne.” This important point can initiate discussion about point of view and how history is recorded. Students can trace Jimmy and Grandpa Nyles’s journey on a map, research their various stopping points, and examine how the information is presented. They can also compare Grandpa’s stories with other accounts of the same incidents and battles, as well as biographies of Crazy Horse, to identify similarities and differences in the factual content and how it is conveyed.

Courage and Community

stella by starlightSharon M. Draper’s Stella by Starlight (Atheneum, 2015; Gr 4-8) opens with a harrowing scene as the fifth-grade protagonist and her younger brother Jojo witness white-robed members of the Ku Klux Klan burning a wooden cross on the other side a pond bordering their backyard. It’s 1932 in Bumblebee, North Carolina, and the members of the tight-knit black community know that this can only mean trouble. The tough realities of life in a small, segregated, Depression-Era town are unflinchingly conveyed as Stella, her family, and their friends daily confront oppression, degrading treatment, and violence, while struggling to improve their lives. Things grow even more dangerous when her father, despite great risk to loved ones, resolves to register for the vote, explaining, “If I don’t stand up, I feel like I’m crouching low. And I ain’t gonna feel low no more.”

Meanwhile, Stella, who wrestles with putting her thoughts into words, secretly works on her writing at night, and her slowly blossoming dream of becoming a newspaper reporter gives powerful voice to the opinions and truths she longs to express. Though times are tough and the crimes perpetrated against the town’s African-American inhabitants appalling, strength and comfort are found in her loving family, a caring community, and the hope-filled stories and traditions passed from one generation to the next. Draper’s powerfully portrayed setting, richly tuned dialogue and descriptive passages, and unassumingly courageous heroine make for an inspiring, elucidating, and heartfelt tale.

Expand upon this affecting novel with studies of American History, social issues, and life in the Jim Crow south. Have students pinpoint textual examples of the many ways that segregation and prejudice affected the day-to-day lives of the characters and make correlations to historical accounts. Students can take a path similar to Stella’s by researching informational texts and writing newspaper-style pieces about the historical situations faced by the protagonist and her family. With its vivid narrative voice, gloriously resonate language, and snippets of oral stories shared throughout, the book also makes a great launching point for further examination of African American folklore.

The Art of Redemption

the seventh most important thingIn The Seventh Most Important Thing (Knopf, 2015; Gr 4-8), Shelley Pearsall tells a sumptuously layered tale of transformation. It’s November, 1963, in Washington, D.C., and while the rest of the nation mourns the tragic loss of President Kennedy, Arthur T. Owens, 13, awaits sentencing for picking up a crumbling brick and hurling it at the head of an old trash picker. Under the questioning of a stern judge, Arthur admits the crime was not motivated by rancor, robbery, or racism but because of a hat—the motorcycle cap beloved by his recently deceased father, tossed into the garbage by his mother without Arthur’s knowledge, and perched crookedly on the head of the Junk Man on the day in question.

Though the judge is ready to throw the book at Arthur, the victim is more interested in redemption than retribution, and an “unconventional sentence” is agreed upon: Arthur will work for the Junk Man (whose real name is James Hampton) every Saturday until his 120-hour sentence is completed. Almost fittingly, the Junk Man sends Arthur out into the neighborhood with his rickety cart and a list of “The Seven Most Important Things” to collect—everything from light bulbs and foil to coffee cans and cardboard. It takes many bitter cold weeks, several new and positive relationships, and time spent working through his grief before Arthur actually comes to truly know Mr. Hampton and understand the purpose of his actions. Inspired by a vision of “building heaven out of broken things,” he has worked for years transforming discarded pieces of junk into an awe-inspiring and soul-lifting work of art. Ultimately, it falls to Arthur, transformed in many ways himself, to find the courage to speak up and ensure that Mr. Hampton’s creation and soaring sense of hope will be preserved for all time.

Pearsall expands her straightforward and accessible storytelling with multifaceted characterizations, perfect pacing, and thoughtful themes of friendship and family love, forgiveness, personal responsibility, and finding hope. Carefully structured events are powered by a delightfully fateful “train wreck of coincidences” that seem to bring order to a sometimes heart-wrenching universe. Each item on the list is eloquently and insightfully interwoven with significant moments in Arthur’s life that lead the boy to revelations and self-discoveries, and an appreciation for finding the wonder hidden within the seemingly commonplace.

In an afterword, the author explains that the book was inspired by the work of true-life American folk artist, James Hampton (1909-1964), and his masterpiece, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which is on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (photos and a link are included). Students can visit the museum’s website to view the artwork and learn about its creator, and draw parallels between fact and fiction. Expand the discussion to include other African American artists by pairing this novel with books such as Elizabeth Spires’s I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings (FSG, 2008), a collection of free-verse poems about another divinely inspired sculptor; Don Tate’s It Jes’ Happened : When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low, 2012); Jennifer Bryant’s A Splash of Red : The Life and Art of Horace Pippin (Knopf, 2013); and Kathleen Benson’s Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews (Clarion, 2015).

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:

RL 7.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RL 8.5 Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.
RI 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
RI 7.6. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.
RI 8.1 Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
W 5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.
W 8.3-11/12.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
SL 6.1-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions….

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. These books are such great examples of going beyond the textbook when learning about events in history! I have been visiting local middle schools presenting my mother’s experience as a 12 year old in Hiroshima during the last year of WWII. My MG historical fiction(based on my mother’s life), THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM(Sky Pony Press) will be published in August 2016. I would be honored if you would add it to your suggested reading list.