Teenage Novels that also Teach History

History and literature go hand in hand.  It is through journals, diaries, and storytelling that history is passed down from generation to generation. There are novels, both fiction and non-fiction, that can be used to make history come alive for students. 

*Night John

Gary Paulsen’s “Night John” tells the story of Sarny. Sarny is a young slave girl who lives on a plantation somewhere in the South in the 1850’s.  Sarny’s mother has been sold, and she is being raised by another slave named Dealey. One day the Master purchases a new slave named John.  John is unlike the other slaves because he can read and write which is against the law. Although he had escaped from slavery earlier, Night John has returned to the South to teach the other slaves how to read and write.

The book was first published in 1993. It can be used to teach about the slavery, the Civil War, and the importance of reading.  It can also be used to compare and contrast the lives of African slaves with those of the indentured servants that helped settle the first colonies in America. 

*To Kill a Mockingbird

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is the thought provoking book by Harper Lee.  It is set in 1936 in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. It is centered around the trial of Tom Robinson, a young black man who is accused of rape. It is told from the point-of-view of Scout, a teen year old girl, and it is based on the events surrounding “The Scottsboro Trials”.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a heartwarming novel.  It is rich with humor and innocence even though it discusses the serious social issue of rape. “To Kill a Mockingbird” can be used to discuss the effects of the Great Depression in America.  It can also be used to discuss Jim Crow laws, “The Scottsboro Trials”, racial inequality, and even the judicial system. 

*She Said Yes

“She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall” by Misty Bernall is the true story of Cassie Bernall.  Cassie Bernall is one of the victims of the Columbine High School shooting.  The book is based on witnesses’ reports that Cassie was praying when one of the shooters asked her if she believed.  Cassie reportedly said, “Yes, I believe” just before she was fatally shoot. 

Teachers can use this incredible sad novel to teach about the Columbine High School shooting and other similar acts of terrorism. 

*Out of the Dust

This novel by Karen Hesse is set in Oklahoma from 1934-1935 during the Dust Bowl.  It is about the life of Billie Jo and her family.  Although times are tough and the neighbors are all running away from the land and the endless dust, her father insists that they tough it out.  Unfortunately, they cannot win against the relentless dust, and one innocent mistake has disastrous results. 

“Out of the Dust” can be used to teach about life during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowls.  It can also be used to discuss the causes of the Dust Bowl and the things that the government and farmers did to try to stop them.

*Briar Rose

“Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen starts when Rebecca Berlin’s grandmother “Gemma” dies.  Rebecca becomes curious about her grandmother’s past and begins to ask questions about Gemma and the strange story she always told Rebecca at bedtime.  It is the German fairytale, “The Briar Rose” an alternate to “The Sleeping Beauty”.  The novel moves back and forth between the present and the past.  Rebecca eventually learns that her grandmother is actually a survivor of the Holocaust.

“Briar Rose” is an alternative to the traditional books used to teach students about on the Holocaust. It can be used to discuss World War II, the Holocaust, and Jewish culture.

*Sarah Plain and Tall

Written by Patricia MacLachlan, “Sarah, Plain, and Tall” is about life in the West during the 19th century.  A widower, Jacob Witting, decides to place an ad for a mail-order bride to help him raise his two children Caleb and Anna.  Sarah, a tall and plain woman from Maine, comes to answer Jacob’s advertisement. 

This short novel can be used with teenagers and tweens to teach about life in the Old West.  It can also be the basis for a discussion on “mail-order brides”.  The teacher can discuss the reason someone would become a mail-order bride and why western farmers would find the need to place an advertisement for a wife.

*Call of the Wild

Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” is a novel about a dog named Buck.  Buck is a family dog that is kidnapped from his home in California and taken to the Yukon to work as a sled dog.  The story takes place during the Klondike Gold Rush.  Buck learns the brutal lessons of life as a sled dog. Buck’s instincts help him to become one with the wilderness.

This novel can be used to discuss the Klondike and the California Gold Rush.  Students can also examine the effects of the discovery of gold on California’s demographics and economy. 

There are many different novels that are not just fun to read. They are also a great way to spice up any history lesson.