History is a recording of the facts as they were witnessed or conjectured based on evidence. It tells us what happened. Historical fiction is bound by the facts of a time period and setting, but it tells us what it was like. Historians rely on "just the facts, ma'am", researching and unearthing the closest thing to truth they can find. But the writer of historical fiction is interested in having you feel like you are actually there, you are experiencing the times and tribulations of the past when you time travel through his words.
In perusing several dozen historical fiction picture books from the past few years, I discovered that all had an author's note at the back to explain what parts were accurate, how the story was inspired, or to add further detail. The books seemed to fall into four groups:
1. Imagined people in imagined situations. This seems to be the most common. The writer researched the times and setting, and then set her characters and plot into a historical setting that is an accurate portrayal of a time at least 30 years in the past.
That Book Woman by Heather Henson is told by a boy who begrudgingly admires the female rider who brings books to their mountain home, refusing any kind of trade. "..it would not bother me at all if she forgot the way back to our door. But here she'll come right through the rain and fog and cold. / That horse of hers sure must be brave, I reckon." Time and the woman's tenacity stirs the boy's mind. "And all at once I yearn to know what makes that Book Woman risk catching cold, or worse." Over the long winter, he submits to reading lessons from his gentle younger sister. Back matter tells of the Pack Horse Librarians who brought books that were "free as air" to Appalachian dwellers throughout the 1930's.
Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat? by Nancy Patz. The author saw a hat in Amsterdam's Jewish Historical Museum and poignantly imagined the woman might have worn it and what she might have done in her life.
Finding Lincoln by Ann Malaspina relates the story of a white librarian in 1951 Alabama who lets an African American boy into the whites only public library after hours, risking her job for what both believe is right.
Whatever Happened to The Pony Express by Verla Kay relates the journey of a series of letters from Prudence in Plymouth Township, PA, to her brother in Sacramento, as communication improves from 1851 - 1870.
2. Imagined people in historical situations. Research is essential to all historical fiction. Often, a historical event comes to life when the writer inserts a fictitious character into history, who then becomes the eyes and ears of the reader.
Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson is unusual in its use of second person, which gives immediacy and experience to this miracle of metal and sweat.
A young boy is separated from his father when Baba is sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution in China in Red Kite, Blue Kite by Ji-li Jiang. They manage to communicate hope across the distance when each flies a kite visible to the other.
You might have trouble reading Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 aloud to your students without a tear or two. Author John Hendrix begins with an author's note, then tells the story through the letters and voice of an imagined British soldier.
3. Historical people in an imagined situation. Authors get playful with this category, but their research is still necessary. Though this may be an imaginary situation for the Wright Brothers, for example, they must remain true to their personalities and beliefs. These are fun to share, and all include an author's note to sort out the facts from the imagined. Get a new slant on the lives of men and women you or your students may think you know.
Dear Mr. Washington by Lynn Cullen is about the mayhem wreaked by the artist's children as George tries to sit for his portrait with Gilbert Stuart.
In Abe Lincoln's Dream by Lane Smith, a young girl separated from her tour group of the White House answers questions from the ghost of Abe Lincoln, and comforts him with information about the progress of his nation.
The Wondrous Whirligig: The Wright Brothers' First Flying Machine by Andrew Glass explains how a toy brought home by their father inspires the brothers Wright to create a flying contraption in their backyard.
Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea: A Fairly Fabricated Story of a Pair of Pants includes humor, dialogue, and tall tale details added to the true story of the creation of blue jeans.
In Chasing Freedom: The Life Journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony Inspired by Historical Facts, Nikki Grimes brings together the two historical figures, who had actually met, for a series of interesting conversations about their ideals, their lives, and their hopes for their country.
A Boy Called Dickens by Deborah Hopkinson brings to life the childhood that inspired so much of his writings. The fiction comes in when Hopkinson makes researched guesses and fills in the blanks in the historical record.
4. Historical people in an historical situation. Sometimes authors discover big gaps in their subject's lives for which there is no documentation. Or they include dialogue based on what they were likely to have said. When details are supplied based on researched conjecture, or words not actually recorded in diary, interview, or written record are used as conversation, the book becomes historical fiction, no matter how meticulous the rest of the research is. This often gives the writer the opportunity to increase the emotion or the immediacy of the story. Author's notes, like those in Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, explain which details were imagined.
Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt were two bold and principled women who took a brief flight over the capitol. Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan slightly embellishes the solid research to paint a powerful picture of these amazing women.
George Washington Carver spent many weekends traveling the Alabama countryside to bring his agricultural knowledge to farmers and children. Susan Grigsby imagines such a visit in In the Garden with Dr. Carver.
Shoeless Joe and Black Betsy were the winning combination of White Sox hitter and his beloved bat. Author Phil Bildner brings Joe Jackson's story to life in historically accurate detail, but he supplies much of the dialogue in context.
During the German extermination of Jews in WWII, there were many courageous heroes. One of them was King Christian X of Denmark. Carmen Agra Deedy based The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark on oral histories and historical research.
Candace Fleming based Papa's Mechanical Fish on true stories of the eccentric inventor, Lodner Phillips. Her note shows his submarine being raised from the Chicago River in 1915, and her research and imagination filled in the blanks.
The sorrow of slavery is readily felt in Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine. Henry Brown was sold away from his mother, and later, from his wife and three children. With help from abolitionists, Henry escaped slavery by mailing himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia.
Especially for children, historical fiction can bring the emotion and the universal experiences of the past to life. It adds heart to times before their birth, and makes the accomplishments and trials of historic figures to life. For history--read facts. For living history--read historical fiction.