Laura's Blog

The Power of YA Historical Fiction

- by Laura Malone Elliott

February 14, 2019

Last week I had the pleasure, thanks to the Grateful American Foundation, of giving a webinar for the National Humanities Center titled:

The Power of YA Historical Fiction: Using Well-Researched Novels to Humanize History, Understand Civics, and as Companion Text to Canon Literature. My McCarthy-era novel, SUSPECT RED, was the main example, since it is particularly useful in lending historical context to works like The Crucible, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies; showing the impact of national political rhetoric on ordinary teenagers and thereby putting human faces on an era (the Red Scare); and illustrating through story how our democratic system can work to right our nation when fear-mongering had brought us to constitutional crises.

It is now posted on the NHC's youtube link:

I've learned so much from educators who've used my novels in their classrooms since publishing my first YA historical fiction almost 20 years ago. During the webinar, I focused a lot on what they've graciously taught me and what they've seen energize their students.

Dr. Lisa Matherson, of The University of Alabama, was kind enough to share her NCSS presentations championing the benefits of using historical fiction in general, a wonderful lesson plan she created for SUSPECT RED revolving around the basic question of where is the line between bullying and national security, and to write the guest blog below. You can find her lesson plans on my "for teachers and librarians" page.


Before you read this blog, I want to preface that there is a difference between reading and literacy and that the focus of this blog is reading. Literacy is the “process of using reading, writing, and oral language to extract, construct, integrate, and critique meaning through interaction and involvement with multimodal texts in the content of socially situated practices.”[i] Reading happens in the context of social practices that center on writing, speaking, listening, AND reading. Reading is a “competence learned not only through instruction but also through practice.”[ii] Reading, both required and for fun, helps students grow in word recognition, vocabulary, fluency, language, comprehension, and motivation. Reading can simultaneously serve academic purposes and be fun!

Finding Ways to Engage Students with Reading about the Social Studies

One of the myths in education that involves reading is that students don’t like to read. As a former secondary social science teacher, this bothered me because I saw students reading all the time. I have a strong feeling that students in upper elementary, middle, and secondary education settings will tell you they don’t like to read what they are made to read, but love to read what they want to read. Students will read what they can become invested in when they don’t feel the pressure to have to regurgitate information to prove they read, to meet certain benchmarks, or to reach required reading points or hours on a reading log.

The realistic aspect is that there are curriculum requirements for books that students must read. For the most part, these requirements are addressed in the English language arts classroom, particularly on the secondary level. However, in the social science curriculum the choice is often left up to the teacher rather than mandated by the curriculum. There are a plethora of books (picture, young adult literature, historical fiction, etc.) that the social studies teacher can incorporate into the curriculum for the students to read that will address the standards. When I was in the classroom, I always had a variety of books on display that pertained to our topic. The librarian also had a selection ready for students to explore in the media center. Students can read AND accomplish the curriculum requirements. There are so many ways that books can enhance the curriculum, particularly in the social studies. Reading in the social studies classroom allows students to not only enjoy reading but make world connections to what they are studying and reading.

A couple of years ago I was in Washington, D.C. for university business and happened to visit the Politics and Prose Bookstore the evening that Laura was presenting a talk on Suspect Red. I was utterly intrigued and walked away thinking of several ways the book could be used to teach several topics (Cold War/McCarthyism, friendship, prejudices/biases, security, bullying, to name just a few). At that moment in time, I didn’t realize how important our introduction would be. Since then I have had the pleasure of supporting the book on a local level and a national level.

For several years I have been part of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) Early Childhood/Elementary Education Community (ECELE). Each year the group presents two sessions at the annual convention whereby members and colleagues write lesson plans and extension activities for the books chosen to be on the Carter G. Woodson Book Award or the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People lists. The NCSS and Children’s Book Council (CBC) have cooperated annually since 1972 to create the Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People bibliography. Suspect Red was on the 2018 list. The NCSS established the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards for the most distinguished books appropriate for young readers that depict ethnicity in the United States and the bibliography has been published annually since 1974.

Laura has an outstanding lesson plan available on her website for this book, but my colleagues and I decided to take the focus of our lesson plan in a different direction. Given the current political climate and the themes parlayed in the book, plus the upper elementary application, we chose to focus on the theme of bullying and security. Our essential question was, When is it okay for a person or nation to be a bully? Our goal in asking this question was to get students to think about how McCarthy could be seen as a bully, but at the same time protecting national security, and to connect to other educational focuses on bullying the students may have received. This theme was not one of the main ones from the book, but it was a worthy theme to discuss that would also allow the students to empathize and draw conclusions to many other aspects gleaned from the book. We developed the lesson plan that would allow the students to discuss and debate the words bully and security and progress toward moving the discussion to national security and how politicians, and our nation, may be perceived to be bullies.

In the session presentation, each group had a few (5-7) minutes to provide an overview of their chosen book and the lesson plan procedures, assisted by a PowerPoint presentation. At the end of the presentation the attendees were provided with a Google Drive link to access all the presentations and lesson plans. The goal of this community is to provide teachers with resources and ideas as to how trade books can be used to meet curriculum requirements. And at the same time allow the students to read something that they find interesting and something that will help them make better connections to the history and to what may be going on in their daily lives.

Reading can be fun and educational, but too often teachers do not have the time to allow students to read beyond the mandated reading prescribed by the curriculum standards and this is sad. However, the teachers and educational members of the Early Childhood/Elementary Education Community (NCSS-ECELE) continue to champion and show ways that students can read and meet standards as evidenced by our NCSS presentations. We would love to see you at the next Early Childhood/Elementary Education Community (NCSS-ECELE) presentation and meeting in Austin, TX (November 22-24). We also welcome you to follow us on Facebook (NCSS Early Childhood/Elementary Community) and Twitter (@EcNCSS).

By Lisa H. Matherson, Clinical Assistant Professor, Social Sciences, The University of Alabama,

[i] Frakel, K. K., Becker, B. L. C., Rowe, M. W., & Pearson, P. D. (2016). From “What is reading?” to what is literacy? Journal of Education, 196(3), 7-17.
[ii] Rasinski, T. V. & Padak, N. (2011). Who wants to be a (reading) millionaire? The Reading Teacher, 64(7), 553-555.



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