The Top 10 Historical Fiction/Non-Fiction Pairings for Middle Grade Readers by Susan Dee

While it’s certainly not a new idea to pair fiction and non-fiction texts, it’s one I’ve been spending more time thinking about over the past few years in my work with middle grade readers.  About three years ago I began to notice that as I was conferring with readers in my classroom, they very rarely self-selected historical fiction stories. Trying to be responsive and knowing that sometimes readers need a gentle nudging to try something new, I started choosing more historical fiction books as read alouds, hoping that by reading and discussing these titles with my community of readers, they would begin to seek out more titles in this genre.  What I quickly discovered was that even though my students enjoyed the stories, they seemed to miss important nuances because they didn’t have any prior knowledge of the time period in the stories I was choosing. I wanted them to think critically about the characters and events but without a lot of scaffolding from me, they just weren’t going as deep as I knew they could.  I was doing most of the talking during our discussions and I knew that wasn’t going to cultivate the type of thoughtful readers they were capable of becoming.  I began to consider how I might best weave content and fiction together in an authentic way so that my readers could continue their journey to becoming “joyfully literate”.

This reflection naturally led me to begin experimenting with “text sets” and I have been pleased with the results I’ve seen.  For readers, the thoughtful partnerships I’ve blended have helped give them necessary background knowledge they may need to understand events in the fictional story or just peak their interest in the subject in general, while at the same time exposing them to multiple genres and content. As a teacher, this approach also allows me to bring in books at various reading levels to help reach all my students.  By combining fiction and non-fiction book pairs on the same topics, I have been able to bridge the gap between fiction readers and non-fiction readers, benefiting both by exposing them to a variety of different types of text. I’ve seen students discover that they really enjoy reading historical fiction. It’s not uncommon now for a student to seek out nonfiction titles to pair with a book they’re reading.  Most important to me, and what started me on this reflective experiment, is that I’m observing richer read aloud discussions were students are delving deeper into the stories, merging facts with fiction as they construct understanding and I’m not doing all of the talking.

So here I offer, in no particular order, 10 of my favorite historical fiction/non-fiction pairings for readers in grades 5-8. (All links will take you to IndieBound for summaries of the titles.)

  1. The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine  and  Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration by Shelley Marie Tougas
  2. Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop and Kid’s on Strike! By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  3. The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan and Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin
  4. The Watson’s Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis and Birmingham 1963: How a Photograph Rallied Civil Rights Support by Shelley Marie Tougas
  5. The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages and Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steven Sheinkin
  6. King of the Mound: My Summer with Satchel Paige and We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson
  7. Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle and Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of the Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal
  8. The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  9. Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac and Navajo Code Talkers by Nathan Aaseng
  10. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick and Fields of Fury: The American Civil War by James M. McPherson


We need to take hold of our students’ natural curiosity and assist them in discovering answers. For me, that means guiding students towards well written books that will not only help them answer the questions they may have, but also facilitate their journey to becoming life-long members of this inclusive #nerdybookclub by expanding their reading repertoire. Pairing fiction and non-fiction titles is one successful way I’ve found to accomplish that.

What are your favorite fiction/nonfiction pairings?  Leave us a comment and be sure to include grade level for others who might be looking for ideas.


Susan Dee is a life-long member of the Nerdy Book Club (though she didn’t know it was nerdy for a long time) who has taught pre-k through 5th on the coast of Maine for the last 23 years.  In addition to working with middle grade readers, Susan also enjoys working with teachers through the literacy graduate courses she teaches at the University of Southern Maine.  An avid reader and recommender, devoted to inspiring life-long reading habits, Susan is Vice President of the Maine Reading Association and co-host of Maine’s new monthly literacy focused Twitter Chat, #MELit.  You can follow her on Twitter (@literacydocent).