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Child-Sized History

Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms

Sara L. Schwebel

Publication Year: 2011

For more than three decades, the same children’s historical novels have been taught across the United States. Honored for their literary quality and appreciated for their alignment with social studies curricula, the books have flourished as schools moved from whole-language to phonics and from student-centered learning to standardized testing. Books like Johnny Tremain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry stimulate children’s imagination, transporting them into the American past and projecting them into an American future. As works of historical interpretation, however, many are startlingly out of step with current historiography and social sensibilities, especially with regard to race. Unlike textbooks, which are replaced on regular cycles and subjected to public tugs-of-war between the left and right, historical novels have simply—and quietly—endured. Taken individually, many present troubling interpretations of the American past. But embraced collectively, this classroom canon provides a rare pedagogical opportunity: it captures a range of interpretive voices across time and place, a kind of “people’s history” far removed from today’s state-sanctioned textbooks. Teachers who employ historical novels in the classroom can help students recognize and interpret historical narrative as the product of research, analytical perspective, and the politics of the time. In doing so, they sensitize students to the ways in which the past is put to moral and ideological uses in the present. Featuring separate chapters on American Indians, war, and slavery, Child-Sized History tracks the changes in how young readers are taught to conceptualize history and the American nation.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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Title Page

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pp. ix-xi

It is a great pleasure to thank the many people who traveled with me during the journey of this book’s creation. Julie Reuben and John Stauffer have been superb mentors; their approach to scholarship, advising, teaching, and community building continue to inspire me. During my years at Harvard, I received considerable nurture from outstanding scholars ...

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pp. 1-10

I started first grade in 1982, a moment when the “whole language” and “authentic literature” movements began sweeping across U.S. schools, transforming the way teachers and librarians conceived of how children read. The new scholarship around literacy placed books, not reading instruction, at its center. Educators argued that if children could be hooked ...

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1. Classroom Entry

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pp. 11-34

In a middle school classroom in Iowa, students who have just finished reading William H. Armstrong’s Newbery Medal–winning novel, Sounder, turn to a teacher-created assignment to extend their learning. The story of an African American boy and his sharecropping family, Sounder is a poignant tale of oppression, hardship, and individual triumph ...

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2. Indians Mythic and Human

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pp. 35-70

Cherokee editor Mary Gloyne Byler wrote in the early 1970s that in contrast to other minority groups in the United States, who “have been, and are still, largely ignored by the nation’s major publishing houses—particularly in the field of children’s books,” Native Americans" contend with a mass of material about themselves. If anything, there are too many ...

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3. War Novels

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pp. 71-98

Ask Americans of any age to give a broad outline of U.S. history, and they will invariably start with Columbus, proceed to the Pilgrims, then mark the passage of time by a steady march of military engagements—the Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II—before adding the civil rights movement and returning to battles overseas.1 This ...

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4. Black and White

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pp. 99-130

In 1950, four years before the landmark Brown case outlawed school segregation, the American Library Association (ALA) awarded its coveted Newbery Medal to Elizabeth Yates’s fictional biography of Amos Fortune, an African who rose from chattel slavery to freedom and self-sufficiency in colonial New England. Yates’s novel, Amos Fortune, Free ...

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5. Historical Fiction in the Classroom

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pp. 131-158

The novels whose analysis composes this book appear regularly in today’s elementary and middle schools, and generally speaking, their presence in the lives of generations of American children is a good thing. As teachers attest and research supports, the books appeal to young adolescents, generating interest and excitement about a school subject, history, ...

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Afterword: Pedagogical Possibilities

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pp. 159-178

In the summer between my seventh- and eighth-grade years, all students in my midwestern school were required to read and write an essay about Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier. I don’t remember much about the summer of 1989, but I do remember reading that book. I hated it. Perhaps because I knew that the essay I wrote would be the first ...

Appendix A: Nationwide Trends in Middle-Grade Historical Fiction

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pp. 179-184

Appendix B: Historical Sources Discussed in Pedagogy Charts

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pp. 185-186


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pp. 187-218


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pp. 219-244


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pp. 245-255

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826517944
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826517920

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 762324993
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Child-Sized History

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literature and history -- Study and teaching -- United States.
  • Historical fiction, American -- Study and teaching.
  • Children -- Books and reading -- United States.
  • United States -- History -- Study and teaching.
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