How reading historical fiction can prompt research for your students

Have you read The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate?  It got me thinking about historical fiction for our students and why it's so important for them to read it.  

Reading historical fiction leads to research

In 1875, Hannie Gossert lives on the plantation where she was once enslaved, farming a little plot with some others, hoping to own it after 10 years.  When she overhears a conversation between Missy Lavinia, the spoiled heiress of the plantation, and her Creole half-sister, Juneau Jane, she masquerades as a boy driving their carriage to keep listening.  To plans that take them from Louisiana to Texas in search of their father.

In 1987, Benedetta Silver gets a job as an English teacher in a poor, rural school in Louisiana because she wants to pay off her student loans.  It doesn't take much to realize that she has to do something to keep her students' attention if she wants to engage them in any way.  She rents an old cottage on the edge of a crumbling mansion, one with some history to tell.  Her students help her uncover the stories of that mansion, which are connected through the generations, to their own.

Tieing these two stories together is the lost friend's column of the Southwestern Christian Advocate.  I assumed this column was fiction, something Wingate had made up for her book.  

But it's real.  

Former slaves used to put advertisements in the Advocate for family members who had been sold away from them, hoping someone, somewhere in the southwest, knew where they were or what had happened to them.

Today, "this searchable database provides access to more than 2,500 advertisements that appeared in the Advocate between November 1879 and December 1900."   The Historic New Orleans Collection staff continue to digitize additional advertisements as they discover them so that they can be researched. 

What a storehouse of information!  I had no idea about this column or the newspaper.  Had you heard of it?  

While this was a book written for adults, it impressed me that there are many good historical fiction books written for students, each of them lending themselves to researchable topics of interest.  

Books like:

  • Refugee (Holocaust, Cuban exodus, Syrian civil war)
  • Never Caught (George Washington, Ona Judge)
  • The Brooklyn Nine  (NY Knickerbockers, Brooklyn Superbas, Grand Rapids Chicks, and many other baseball teams)
  • Code Talker  (Navajo language used in WWII)
  • Towers Falling  (September 11th)
  • Eleven (September 11th)
  • Beyond the Bright Sea  (Lepers forced to live on islands off the coast of Massachusetts)
  • Front Desk  (Chinese immigrants in the U.S.)
  • Resistance  (Poland during WWII and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising)
  • Yankee Girl  (murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964)
This is just a smattering of engaging books with pieces of hidden history in them.  Let's keep our students reading them!

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