Teaching History with Literature

If you asked me what historical periods I am most acquainted with it would be a toss-up between Victorian England and the Dark Ages.  I know things about these time periods that on a daily basis are just worthless trivia but they enrich my life and my Self in ways that make me happy.  Why?  Well, I’ve mentioned before that Charles Dickens is my all-time favorite author.  So, yeah, I’m even up on the French Revolution. 🙂  And my dirty little secret is that I seriously own more than 100 books about the Arthurian legends.  Seriously.  Yes, I have read them all.

So when I talk about teaching with literature, it comes from a place that is so integral in me I can’t remember where it started.  I just knew as a young child I was learning more than my peers simply by immersing myself in stories they wouldn’t dream of tackling.  I have always especially loved books that were written by authors who were contemporary at the time–Dickens, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters, Alexandre Dumas.  Because you know the history in those stories is going to be pretty accurate.  I’m also a big fan of well-researched stories that were written more recently.

Well.  You know.  I’m just a big fan of books.

Teaching history to Littles can be overwhelming, especially if resources are slim.  One thing I rely on in those times is historical fiction.  It has to be well-written and -researched to be added to my list.  It has to be relevant to what we’re learning, which is why I’m being so careful about  choosing books about China for next year.

Why should we use lit to teach history?  Lots of reasons.  It adds context to the facts we’re learning.  It takes characters we may read about in nonfiction and brings them to life.  It provides a window into everyday details.  Because historical fiction is full of the various characters of the period, it can often help children see both sides of the story.  It shows kids that human issues continue to be human issues.  Problems and joys and triumphs are very similar throughout history, so it gives your kids a chance to see that their own issues aren’t as big and overwhelming as they may seem.  It gives a little spice to the lesson, makes it a little more fun.  Some things to keep in mind, though:

  •  Make sure your littles understand that the book is a story and, no matter how historically accurate, it is still fiction.
  •  Make sure the books you choose are historically accurate and the historical facts are integrated into the story in fluid manner.
  •  Make sure the book is relevant to the topics you are teaching.
  • Make sure the story is interesting.

I’ve used many books of historical fiction to help teach my boys history over the years.  Here’s a list of some of them:

The Odyssey retold by Robin Lister

We used the Odyssey when we were studying Ancient Greece.  It was incredible for introducing the Littles to the Greek Gods and the Trojan War.  Middle developed a life-long love of all things Greek from reading this book and went on to read all the Percy Jackson novels because he couldn’t get enough of it.  Lister tells the story in prose which makes it easier for littles to follow.  Of course, both Middle and Littlest are aware that reading this children’s version is a preface to when we read Homer’s epic poem version in a few years.  I loved using this book, not only for its historical worth, but for the foundation it gave them for future readings of Homer.

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

We read this one when we were studying Ancient Rome.  I felt it gave insight into how other kingdoms felt about Roman imperialism.  It also taught some valuable lessons about forgiveness and the futility of revenge.

King Arthur and His Knights by Sir James Knowles

Historically accurate?  Probably not.  But I couldn’t resist introducing the Littles to my favorite hero when we studied Medieval Europe.  I just happened to have this one in my collection, but trust me when I say there are Tons of books about this legend to choose from.  My personal fave is the Mary Stewart series–The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day.  Middle also read Guinevere by Sharan Newman, the very first book I ever read about King Arthur in the 6th grade.  Do I recommend it?  Well, it did start my obsession. 🙂

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

No revolutionary study is complete without Johnny Tremain.  What’s great about this book is that it is told from a boy’s perspective, but it gives true insight into what was happening in the minds of the leaders of the revolution.  Whenever I am reminding my boys to be brave and stand up for what is right, I have them recall Sam Adams proclaiming that the revolutionaries were acting so that, “a man can stand up.”  Nothing more important than that.  We also read Attack of the Turtle by Drew Carlson, the amazing story of the first U.S. submarine, and Mr. Revere and I by Robert Lawson

The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

If you want your littles to really see just how terrible the slave trade was, this is the book.  It is about a ship that transports slaves, and though written for young people, it really drives home just how horrific this time period was for Africans.  I seriously cannot recommend it enough.  We also read Shades of Gray (just two, not fifty) by Carolyn Reeder, about a bitter young boy dealing with the fallout of the Civil War, the death of his parents at the hands of the Yankees, and an uncle he considers to be either a coward or a traitor.

Product DetailsThe Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

We didn’t read the whole series when we studied westward expansion, but we did read a couple of the Little House Books.  Really, they are so full of details about that time period it would be ridiculous  not to use them.  We also read the American Girls short story Kirsten on the Trail by Janet Beeler Shaw.

This list is just a suggestion box for you, a jumping-off point to give you ideas of the types of books that can be used for a few different historical periods.  Stay tuned for more suggestions as time goes on.

Are there any books you’ve read with your littles while studying these time periods that I left off the list?  If so, please share them with me.

Love wins,



11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. storyad
    May 23, 2015 @ 03:41:44

    Benjamin West and his Cat Grimalkin is one of our very favorite books. http://bfbooks.com/Benjamin-West-and-his-Cat-Grimalkin



  2. storyad
    May 23, 2015 @ 03:35:14

    The Bronze Bow…wonderful book!



  3. storiesofourboys
    May 22, 2015 @ 00:05:21

    Fantastic list! I am pinning this! And I love that you mentioned Little House! I want the boys to read them all this summer b/c I can see how much they are learning!



  4. Ashley Wornell
    May 21, 2015 @ 02:42:06

    Thank you! I’m looking for good books I can read out loud to the kids that relate to the parts of history we’ll be studying. Since S is just a beginning reader, I’m guessing our chapter book time will happen as a family.
    That said, do you have any suggestions for ancient history? We have Aesop’s Fables, but I haven’t heard of any Egyptian tales… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person


    • KT Brison
      May 21, 2015 @ 10:45:18

      Ashley, there are a couple I can recommend. The Cat of the Bubastes by G.A. Henty. I like Henty, he wrote in late 1800s so he’s cool. 🙂 Also, the Royal Diaries series has a Cleopatra book-Cleopatra VII-Daughter of the Nile. If all else fails for littler ones, fall back on the Magic Treehouse Series with Mummies in the Morning.

      Liked by 1 person


      • Ashley Wornell
        May 21, 2015 @ 11:03:23

        Thank you! I’m getting really excited for the next level, but we aren’t even done with this one! Haha


  5. annamarieasha
    May 20, 2015 @ 13:29:23

    Awesome list!! We are adding literature to our history studies. Although next year we are biting off more current history (WWI up to modern) I bookmarked this list for use in years to come!!! Thank you

    Liked by 1 person


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