Parents and educators all across the nation are doing things a little differently when it comes to teaching history. Forget the dusty history textbook and the tired lectures about how it was “back then.” Picture books, novels, biographies, and more are being used as springboards to dive into history, bringing the past to life like never before.

"If a teacher knows about historical fiction then they really see that history is brought alive for kids," says Jan Kristo, professor of Literacy Education at the University of Maine, Orono. Kristo encourages parents and teachers to supplement textbooks with historical fiction, noting that textbooks are often challenging even for high-level readers. "More and more teachers who are getting to understand the power of literature are using a multi-genre approach," she says, "So if they're studying a time period, they're finding poetry that goes with that time period, they're finding historical fiction and they're finding other kinds of print sources."

Picture books remain one of those sources, even in the intermediate classroom. Reading a picture book aloud, Kristo says, will help older students visualize the time period about which they are learning. That visualization may be all it takes to pique a student's interest in a historical event. From there, it's easy to segue from picture books into historical fiction and, then, to biography and other works of non-fiction.

Finding these books, however, can sometimes be a challenge. One place to locate quality books is through the National Council for the Social Studies. In conjunction with the Children's Book Council the NCSS creates an annual list of outstanding books in social studies called Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. The list, which includes everything from non-fiction to poetry, is published every May.

Looking for some great books to get your child going? Here are some great books to start with:

Revolutionary War

  • The Fighting Ground by Avi. (Harper Collins:1987) Winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Avi's novel tells the story of a 13-year-old boy who who learns firsthand that war isn't as glamorous as it seems. (Ages 9-12)
  • The Many Rides of Paul Revere by James Cross Giblin (Scholastic Press:2007). This well-researched biography includes maps, drawings, period paintings, photos and a timeline. It also compares the legendary poem to facts of historical record. (Ages 9-12)

Westward Expansion

  • A Packet of Seeds by Deborah Hopkinson. (Harper Collins: 2004) The realistically illustrated picture book captures the language and feel of the time period as it tells the story of a prairie journey through the eyes of a child. (Ages 6-9)
  • The Josefina Story Quilt by Eleanor Coerr. (Trophy:1986) Coerr's emotive tale of a young girl chronicling her journey west in quilt form is both a Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies  and is an ALA Booklist Editors’ Choice. (Ages 6-9)

Civil War

  • Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. (Philomel:1994)  Polacco's poignant picture book tale of the friendship between two boys (one white, one black) during the Civil War is on the ALA Notable Children's Book list. (Ages 7-11)
  • Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine. (Scholastic:2007) Winner of the 2008 Caldecott Honor, Levine's portrayal of Henry “Box” Brown’s plan to mail himself to freedom is a detailed and well-illustrated book. (Ages 7-11)


  • The Bicycle Man by Allan Say (Houghton Mifflin:1982) A ALA Notable Book and a Booklist Editors' Choice, this is the tale of the amazing tricks two American soldiers perform on a borrowed bicycle in a small village in occupied Japan. (Ages 5-9)
  • The Quilt by Gary Paulsen. (Yearling:2005) A Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies in 2005, Paulsen's semi-autobiographical novel of wartime as seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old is a good classroom read aloud and discussion book. (Ages 9-12)

Civil Rights

  • Yankee Girl by Mary Ann Rodman. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux:2004) On the 2005 Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies list, this novel tells the story of how 11-year-old Alice's life changes when her school integrates in 1964. (Ages 9-12)
  • A Sweet Smell of Roses Angela Johnson. (Simon & Schuster:2004) A powerful tale of two young sisters who join the Civil Rights march, this picture book's  black and white charcoal illustrations are reminiscent of the newsreels of the time. (Ages 5-9)

Dr. Kristo  has one caution –it's important to help students make the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, especially since some historical fiction, like the Dear America series, are designed to look like non-fiction.  "It's like any of us telling a good story--there's a kernel of truth in it, but the rest of it is fiction," she says. But, it's that kernel of truth from which your child's interest in history can grow.