Learning History through Nonfiction

Jan 27, 2018book review, Pat's Chat

I know very little history. If I land on a yellow triangle in Trivial Pursuit, I might as well forfeit. If the topic is history at trivia night, I eat potato chips and drink a beer. It’s fact. But that does not mean I don’t have the interest to learn and don’t realize my shortcomings in the historical department. As an adult, I have found that reading nonfiction or historical fiction children’s books not only entertains, but fills in gaps in my stupidity. I have read over 200 children’s books in the last three years and only a few adult novels. Children’s nonfiction writer’s have a gift to portray history through a lens that children can empathize with that helps a reader connect to history. I want to share some of my favorites that have opened my eyes, but there are SO MANY more I need to read.

  Susan Bartoletti writes HITLER YOUTH, a fascinating nonfiction book with vivid illustrations about Nazi Germany. It gives an inside perspective on World War II and how Hitler groomed children as his powerhouse soldiers. Kids turned on their own parents, while others resisted and were killed. Actual photos of children involved takes you inside wartime Germany from a child’s perspective. Powerful.


HENRY’S FREEDOM BOX by Ellen Levine is a nonfiction picture book. (Yes, picture books can be educational, and I turn to picture books for simple research on bugs, animals, people, and many topics.)  Henry’s Freedom Box tells a tale of survival in a time of slavery and racism as Henry mails himself to Philadelphia to survive. A true story that leaves the reader with questions about Henry’s family left behind and their fate. 

(I have an endless list and can give you many if interested, I wish I could babble forever.)

CARVER – A LIFE IN POEMS by Marilyn Nelson details the life of George Washington Carver through beautiful poetry. I was enlightened about a man I knew nothing about in a unique, poetic way.

AN AMERICAN PLAGUE – YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC by Jim Murphy detailed actual newspaper articles during the time of the plague and gave vivid descriptions of the common medical practices of the time such as bloodletting. From a medical perspective, this nonfiction text interested me in how you manage an epidemic before medications. 

 BOMB by Steve Sheinkin sucked me in as the opening scenes read like a spy novel as Russian spies are caught. The novel continues to draw you in to Oppenheimer’s creation of the atomic bomb and the global ramifications. The insider perspective of a scientific discovery that grew into a weapon. I learned a lot reading this novel and did more research afterward. A great read. 


Graphic novels also come in the nonfiction variety! PERSEPOLIS by Majane Satrapi enlightened me about the Iran-Iraq war. The story is told through the eyes of a young girl, Marji, in the middle of conflict. Forced to wear a veil and witnessing her father being beaten for wearing a neck tie, the reader feels Marji’s emotions as she becomes a revolutionary.

ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams Garcia is historical fiction told in first person from an eleven year old in 1968. Race and justice issues are witnessed first hand. The Black Panthers are introduced. When a child tells the history, it takes on a special meaning. 

 THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot is not children’s literature, but a powerful nonfiction book that taught me much about history, medicine, ethics, and racial justice. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 from cervical cancer, but her cancer cells were harvested in a petri dish by scientists. Her cells became infamous HELA cells (names for Henrietta Lacks), and the first live cultured cells to persist long after her death. Her cells were used to do research on cancer, make vaccines, and save lives. But she never knew her cells were used and her family was never aware of such research. The harsh impact of using a young, black woman’s life for scientific research is told factually from the viewpoint of family members and medical records. It is a must read. 


Last book I want to highlight is a compilation of nonfiction biographies that empower women. WOMEN WHO DARED by Linda Skeers tells the tales of 52 women in history that dared to be daredevils, adventurers, and rebels. A book to inspire young girl readers (and moms!)

There are MANY nonfiction and historical fiction books and I have much more to learn. I hope this inspires many to check out the children’s nonfiction section if you have the yearning to learn! And bring plenty of potato chips for trivia night if I am invited and history is on the agenda….


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