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.)
- 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
- Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop and Kid’s on Strike! By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
- The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan and Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin
- 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
- The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages and Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steven Sheinkin
- King of the Mound: My Summer with Satchel Paige and We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson
- Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle and Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of the Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal
- The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
- Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac and Navajo Code Talkers by Nathan Aaseng
- 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).
Love the concept of this post Susan! What a simple, yet powerful way to help students fully understand historical nonfiction. Thank you!
Thank you Gigi! This was a fun post to write.
Ooh! Flesh and Blood So Cheap with any novel about the Triangle shirtwaist fire (Ashes of Roses, Threads and Flames) or Invincible Microbe with Brooks’ Queen of Hearts. There are so many good nes, it’s hard to choose!
I agree! Getting my list down to 10 wasn’t easy. Love your suggestions…adding them to my list.
Thank you thank you thank you
I really love the pairings here, and am checking out a few of the non-fiction books that I can consider (We read Watsons and Homer Figg.)
Thank you Kevin! Be sure to read all the comments too, as several of our #nerdybookclub members have offered additional suggestions.
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This is a brilliant idea! I had thought of things the other way around. I remember when I was in 5th grade, our teacher read aloud The Endless Steppe and Charlie Tremaine. I loved them, and I remember thinking at the time that *that* was how history should be taught, in connection with fiction, because experiencing these stories brought history so vividly alive to me. May I shamefacedly make a self-interested suggestion? My middle-grade historical novel, Black Radishes, about a Jewish boy’s experiences in Nazi-occupied France (which was inspired by my father’s childhood) could be read together with Louise Borden’s The Journey that Saved Curious George or Isaac Millman’s The Hidden Child. Both have compelling nonfiction narratives and lots of great illustrations.
Oops–Johnny Tremaine! (It has been a long time since fifth grade. . . .)
OK, now I’m really getting into this idea! Here’s another pairing, also for middle grade. Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter with Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret.
“experiencing these stories brought history so vividly alive to me”…love that! I have found that by blending the two, students definitely become more engaged in both the reading and the discussions.
Thank you for your title suggestions also. I’ve added them to my list.
Love this topic! Thanks for all the new ideas to chew on. I teach 5th grade and my team does a historical fiction book club each year. The students always go into it thinking HF will be boring, but it’s great to see them change their minds by the end. Here are some pairings we’ve tried: Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson with An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy; Homer P. Figg with The Boys War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About The Civil War, also by Jim Murphy. (I’m now going to look for the book you suggested as well.) This year I paired another book by LHA, Chains, with Everybody’s Revolution by Thomas Fleming. I’d love addional ideas for pairings with Chains. Thanks again for the post!
I have found the same response with my 5th graders once they try historical fiction. For many, it ends up becoming a favorite genre. Thank you for sharing some of your historical fiction/non-fiction pairing too! I’m adding them to my ever-growing list!
How do you run the book club? Does the whole 5th grade read the same book at the same time? Sounds like a cool way to tie literature and history together.
So funny you posted this today. I just signed up for my Adolescent Lit project and this is what I am doing. How to use nonfiction and fiction to teach about the Civil Rights kovement. And guess what two of my books were…
Sounds like a fantastic project Megan! 😉 There are some great picture books you can incorporate with Lions of Little Rock & Little Rock Girl, 1957 also. Three I would recommend are Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds, and I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr (illustrated by Kadir Nelson).
Thank you so much Susan! I will be hitting the library up for those.
Susan, I love this idea. For me, and I think for a lot of teachers/readers, it’s almost a natural instinct to think of a book when we realize we need to teach something. It’s that way also when we read any book- we think of other books that would “go” with it. I did that after reading The One and Only Ivan: by chance saw a NF picture book called Gorilla Walk by Ted Lewin at library. Kids were so interested in Ivan that it was so easy to then read the NF text to them
Now you have me excited to start compiling a list for 3rd grade! I’m in luck because each 3rd grade class at my school just got 30 nonfiction books for their classroom. I offered to choose the titles, and I deliberately chose ones we could tie into our curriculum (Science, Social Studies, Reading); of course the main criteria was that it be high-quality nonfiction.
Thanks for a great post, great titles, and great pairings!
I am falling in love with this list. I need more inspiration like this!
Alison Jackson- I’d love to hear about your third grade list as well.
Thank you Jennifer! The responses to this post have inspired me too! I also hope Allison will share her recommendations for 3rd grade! Thanks for reading and commenting!
Thank you Allison! In the past I would often look for a NF title to help build my own background knowledge of a topic but it really wasn’t until a few years ago I started tying the two together WITH my readers. Now, I see pairings everywhere!
I remember seeing the pictures of your NF purchases…so many great titles to work with! I’m adding your suggestion to my list too.
I would love to know the 3rd grade books you would use. I teach 3rd grade and this idea if wonderful
My favorite pairing: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and Darkness Over Denmark by Ellen Levine.
Oh, I don’t know Darkness Over Denmark Barbara! Clicking over to Goodreads to add it to my TBR list. Love Number the Stars so I’m excited to have the suggested pairing!
I LOVE this topic and am glad to see pairings like these. We did a civil rights unit this year, and I experimented with this idea. I used Lions of Little Rock and Little Rock Girl 1957 too! I paired Watsons with We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. Glory Be and Through My Eyes paired well, too. I’ll definitely keep this post in mind for your other pairings. Thanks!
I really love Capstone’s “Capture History” series, of which both Little Rock Girl, 1957 and Birmingham 1963, are both a part of. Love the idea of pairing Glory Be with Through My Eyes…adding it to my list! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for this great list! Those non-fiction titles will be wonderful additions to our classroom library! (And the fiction ones we don’t have already!)
You’re welcome Suzanne! I’m so happy the post has been so well received by so many. And I’ve gained some new pairing suggestions too which is always great. Glad you also found some new titles.
Other than Green Glass Sea/Bomb, I’d love suggestions of science or engineering related historical fiction/non-fiction pairings to suggest
Ari…great question! What about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly with Creep & Flutter by Jim Arnosky? Or A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole with The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies? Both are nature related. I’ll keep thinking and searching those topics to see what I can come up with.
This year my fifth grade read Gary Paulson’s Woods Runner. He inserts shrt factual information as a lead in to each chapter. This small piece led to great conversations and research on the web to learn more. I Iove this idea of pairing. Will be on the hunt now to see what I can pair up for next year. Thanks for sharing.
The History of US: Book 3: From Colonies to Country (1710-1791) by Joy Hakim would be a good non-fiction pairing with Woods Runner.
We have created table displays of fiction/nonfiction pairings several times. My staff and I certainly enjoy the challenge. Here are a few we’ve done.
Manjiro (McCully) 9-12; Heart of a Samurai (Preus) 11-15 Around the World in 80 Days (Verne) 12 and up; Around the World (Phelan) 11-15 Nurse, Soldier, Spy (Moss) 9-12; A Soldier’s Secret (Moss) 11-15
Heidi Powell Manager, Children and Teens Department Politics and Prose Bookstore Washington, D.C.
Those are great suggestions that I’m adding to my list! Thank you so much for sharing them with us!
I just ordered the two baseball books for my son who is a big fan. Thank you for the recommendations.
You’re welcome Jeremy! Glad you found something from this list for him. If he loves baseball I would also recommend Diamond in the Desert, another HF title set in a Japanese Internment Camp.
Thanks, Susan! We live in Japan and my son is half-Japanese, so I’m all over that book too!
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Here’s great post form the Nerdy Book Club
Thank you for sharing the post with your readers!
Quite by (happy) accident, I read the Green Glass Sea, then Bomb later in the year. What amazing conversations this led to! These were read-alouds. Is that how you approach he pairings? One after the other? I love this idea and can’ wait to dig through the shelves to see what other pairs I have that I don’t even know about. Thanks for this!
Where the Ground Meets the Sky by Jacqueline Davies is another good novel about Los Alamos. I vaguely remember that Judy Blume has one too. Is that Tiger Eyes, which is currently being made into a movie? I don’t remember it very well, but I think it doesn’t engage with the history quite as much as The Green Glass Sea or Where the Ground Meets the Sky.
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Susan, thank you for this post! I linked to it in my post today in INK (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids). I’d like to suggest pairing Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Chains” and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s “Jefferson’s Sons” with my own nonfiction book, “Master George’s People.” (middle grade)
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This was truly worthwhile to read. will definitely read this.