the case for historical fiction

John Oliver’s recent episode about history in the United States summed up what many of us have been thinking, saying, and advocating for for a long time. (Language warning. It is HBO, after all.)

We teachers must do a much better job at making sure our ELA, History, Science, Math and electives reflect and provide more than dates and events, and especially the racism of omission. Some teachers don’t know where to start with this process, so I’ll offer a few suggestions and resources, and overall, this is a case made for adding accurate and representational historical fiction to your readings.


Jennifer Binis is an educational historian, and shared this thread on Twitter. First and foremost: shape your questions around bigger thinking:

The Case for Historical Fiction

I love fiction. And I love history. Historical fiction is my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of literature. The best historical fiction blends a perfect balance between my background knowledge, my curiosity, and willingness to research, and learning something new. Historical Fictions novels are my portable time machines, where I get to live a life set in reality, time, and setting. I learn so much from great historical fiction, and its pairing with history would truly help deepen contextual and important learning.

Readings – Historical Fiction/Fantasy

Some historical fiction novels are deeply problematic. However, they can be used as mentor texts of what not to do. Many of us don’t have time in the school day to do this, but just be aware: if you can steer away from teaching the problematic ones, please do so. There are so many other solid choices out there that don’t uphold white supremacy or colonization. Here are a few books I recommend, and am continuing my search. Please recommend historical fiction novels that involve US History.

Dread Nation by Jill Ireland: Dread Nation is NOT historical fiction, but I’m adding it here as an example of historical fiction mixed with fantasy/horror.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – this is also not exactly historical fiction, but a mixture of magical realism.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: I am hoping to teach this whole class next year if I get permission, or add it to independent study if I don’t.

A Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulson; this short novel touches on one soldier’s story and battle fatigue.

The Astonishing Tale of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson: this novel was life-changing for me. The second novel is equally important.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: a story of two sisters and their paths through enslavement.

The Seeds of America Trilogy: Chains; Forge; Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen (very apropos to our times)

Fever: 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Nonfiction Books

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People by Jean Mendoza, Debbie Reese, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An African American and Latinx History of the United States (REVISIONING HISTORY) by Paul Ortiz

Nonfiction Resources

#1619 Project

Zinn Education Project

Teaching Tolerance

Facing History