Using Historical Fiction Effectively – Ideas Please

I have just finished reading the Once, Then & Now trilogy of books by Morris Gleitzman ( as recommended by one of my Year 11 students (well he recommended the first and I recommended the other two to him!). The books follow Felix, an orphaned Jewish boy in WW2 Poland and in essence show the grim reality of the Holocaust through the eyes of a nine-year-old. In less than 150 pages Gleitzman manages to make the Holocaust real in a way that I don’t think many other films or history books do. Certainly this is partly due to the innocence of the main character (the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas does something very similar) and is also due to the fact that this shows the Holocaust as an individual’s story as opposed to the statistics we are normally presented. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, its brilliantly effective and shows the value of historical fiction.

How can this medium be used effectively in the classroom though? Once would certainly enlighten our Year 9 scheme of work on the Holocaust but every time I think about how to use it I just keep coming up with activities that sound like an English lesson not a History lesson and this is deeply infuriating. So far my ideas stretch to the following, deeply uninspiring ideas:

  • A whole class Home Learning – read the book
  • An online discussion to discuss the issues in the book (e.g. is Felix actually naive or just avoiding the obvious)
  • Reading time at the end of each lesson for a term (probably enough to read the book as its only short)

So, this is where I hope you can help! If you have any better ideas or you have in fact successfully used historical fiction in your lessons, please add a comment below.

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6 Responses to Using Historical Fiction Effectively – Ideas Please

  1. Not historical fiction as such but have used sections of Grapes of Wrath with year 10 students doing USA 1919-41 module. We read the sections then compared them with photos by Dorothea Lange to try and build up the story of the dust bowl and migration.

  2. mark blannin says:

    We use a fictional description of a nineteenth century operation to introduce the history of surgery, can’t remember the book off the top of my head but will find title if helps anyone. Not Historical fiction but Dr Seuss ‘The Butter Battle Book’ is the best intro to the principles of the cold war with year 9.

  3. Stevewn says:

    If History is still about the story… how great to have well-written ones to engage students! How about finding primary or secondary sources that fit – or clash – with the fiction? (you could supply the sources, some which fit, others which don’t) Re-enact scenes in ‘alternative history’ mode, assuming different outcomes to those in the book, find images that fit scenes in the book (a bit like gossipwelltold’s idea).

    I Like the blog – History teaching was my first love and can’t seem to escape it! Am planning a day-by-day blog from the Somme based on diaries and letters of a relative who was a Brigadier-General c/o of 87th Brigade this summer and a companion twitter feed … just for the fun of it!

  4. Martin Dorp says:

    The value of historical fiction for understanding history is more than doubled for all those – pupils and others – who can make connections. Thus, the version of Queen Elizabeth in “Cue for Treason” becomes more valuable when compared with “Shakespeare in Love”, “Elizabeth”, “Kenilworth” and so on. And all historical fiction (printed page, big screen, small screen) can be seen as a springboard for the question “Was it really like that?” With my “Junior History Club” I used to interweave Second World War films (eg “Dambusters”) with TV documentaries covering the same episode. One historical novel is of limited value. As part of a corpus of study it becomes ever more valuable.

  5. Azraelle says:

    I did a project on historical fiction with my students, though it was part of a special course (not the general History lessons). The task was to read a historical novel and to compare/contrast it with the actual happenings, mainly focusing on facts vs. fiction. Is the setting crucial to the story or just a “romantic” background to a story that could take place anytime? In the end, the students held a presentation and collected their findings on posters.

    The books the students read:
    The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (J. Boyne)
    Pillars of the Earth (K. Follett)
    and some that haven’t been published in English.

    The project turned out good, the students immensely enjoyed it. Though next time I won’t let them choose randomly, I’d rather prepare a (huge) list of novels.

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