Historical fiction doesn’t have to be relegated to a weighty novel. Picture books can combine the elements of the genre in a compact, read-aloud package.
What is historical fiction? Let’s start with a definition. Historical fiction has some basis in fact. It could be a historical time period, an event, or person. A writer might start with an interesting bit in history and dramatize it. They may not have enough facts to write a complete nonfiction story, so they imagine what the historical record doesn’t show.
Whatever technique the author uses, they must be transparent about what is made up and what is steeped in fact. Often this is explained in back matter.
Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride by Joel Christian Gill and Emily Writes: Emily Dickinson and Her Poetic Beginnings by Jane Yolen and Christine Davenier take us to the childhoods of the subjects. The authors imagined details where the record was silent or contradictory. Both focus on a time in their childhoods that foreshadowed what was to come.
At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorell and Weshoyot Alvitre and Lumber Jills: The Unsung Heroines of World War II by Alexandra Davis and Katie Hickey are spare and could be used to introduce historical fiction to a younger audience. While Lumber Jills has a song-like cadence with repeated phrases, At the Mountain’s Base is a poetic circular text reminiscent of a quieter song. Both use spare text, but their tones are completely different.
Fictional Families in Real Situations
The Lady with the Books: A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Work of Jella Lepman
by Kathy Stinson and Marie Lafrance and Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome take a real event in history and imagine a fictional family during that time. Whether it’s post-World II Germany or The Great Migration in the United States, these authors make the time periods come to life using fictional characters in real historical situations.
A Story from the Past that Needs More Detail
Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop by Tamar Meir and Yael Albert and The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Hubbard and Oge Mora take real people and situations and add more details where the historical record is silent. In both books, their subjects are not well-known. Often authors find a snippet of information about a person and research doesn’t turn up enough details to tell a full story. In these cases, authors can create a story that springboards on the bits of historical information they have.
Night Walk to the Sea: A Story About Rachel Carson, Earth’s Protector by Deborah Wiles and Daniel Miyares and Ruby’s Hope: A Story of How the Famous “Migrant Mother” Photograph Became the Face of the Great Depression by Monica Kulling and Sarah Dvojack tell about famous people—Rachel Carson and Dorothea Lange. They show the impact they made on a particular child—combining real and imagined details from one or two anecdotes.
What are your favorite historical fiction picture books? How does the author weave fact and fiction in their story?
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