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Fiction, poetry, and teaching history

I watch the wagon
until I see nothing on the open plain.
For the first time ever,
I am alone.

May B

I am a huge believer in having kids read and write as much as possible while in history class. And one of the best ways to engage kids is to have them read fiction, especially poetry and verse.

One of the best examples of historical fiction in a poetry format is Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Out of the Dust is an incredible story that sucks in middle school readers as it describes the life of 14-year -old Billie Jo in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

If you’re a bit unsure about how to incorporate this poetry book into your class, use supporting materials such as Literature Guide: Out of the Dust or A Guide for Using Out of the Dust in the Classroom. Another great way to integrate Out of the Dust is to have kids compare and contrast the historical fiction content with a non-fiction book such as Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp.

But Out of the Dust is not alone anymore.

A recent book by Caroline Starr Rose titled May B also does an excellent job of capturing the emotions of history students. While Out of the Dust spends its time in the 1930s, May B focuses on the late 1800s Kansas prairie and helps provide a rich context to the Western movement.

May is helping out on a neighbor’s homestead—just until Christmas, her pa promises. But a terrible turn of events leaves her all alone and she must try to find food and fuel—and courage—to make it through the approaching winter.

It seemed like a great book for any class studying regions, Kansas History, and US History. But I needed an expert. So I asked my wife, an experienced elementary/middle level teacher, for her opinion.

I loved May B. The writing is vivid and beautiful. It captures the severe and sometimes terrible beauty of the Kansas prairies but also beautifully portrays a girl struggling to embrace who she is. This middle level book shares what life was like during this period in Kansas history and is captivating to the end. It would be perfect for reading aloud in class, perfect for grades 4-8, and perfect for a family to enjoy together.

The author has created a handy teacher’s guide helpful for integrating the book and its content into your class.

I’m curious. What other poetry and verse historical fiction are we missing? What do you use?

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Karen Hesse has another book called Witness that deals with 20s racism and the KKK. Even better than Out of the Dust, I think.

    And don’t forget the actual poetry of the times – Whitman for the Civil War and the amazing anthologies of Holocaust poetry (one simply called Holocaust Poetry and the other Blood to Remember have been great with 8th graders…)

    February 13, 2012
    • glennw #

      I’m aware of Whitman’s stuff and the Holocaust books but hadn’t heard of Witness. How did I miss that!? Thanks for the update! It’s already on the way from Amazon.


      February 13, 2012
  2. Sue Unruh #

    I like to use a lot of children’s books in history to explain perspectives of war….Baseball Saved Us is the Japanese version of the camps during WW2, Pink and Say is a book about the Civil War, just to name a few. I A history book gives no emotion, a story does.
    I took an ESSDACK class years ago that was on using Children’s books to teach across the curriculum…Best class I have ever taken.

    February 16, 2012
    • glennw #

      I agree – a textbook is not a story and stories carry emotion. We need to use more of these sorts of books.

      Thanks for the comment!


      February 16, 2012

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