Social Sundays: Teaching with Fiction and NonFiction in History


Books, and I don't mean textbooks, are a great way to teach social studies.  I ask my students to select a nonfiction book or historical fiction book each semester to report on.  Additionally, we read several books as a class.  


Fiction and nonfiction books tend to be more engaging than textbooks.  Students connect with characters and "experience" a period of time rather than just read about it through dry textbook or web based entries.  Think of studying the Civil Rights Movement in terms of Hidden Figures  or World War I while reading All Quiet on the Western Front.   I reached out for recommendations from my colleagues to find out which books they use in their classes.  Grab ideas from the dozen books below and add your own in the comments section.

Civil Rights Movement: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.  While many of you will recognize this book from the hit movie, the book is worthy of its own attention.   I love this book because it tells the civil rights movement from a different point of view than most of my students are familiar with when they arrive in my classroom.  Hidden Figures details the story of 3 black female mathematicians working for NASA.  It is the story not only of what it was like to be segregated as an African-American but also as a woman in the decades following World War II.  The path each woman takes to fight for equality is spellbinding.  In addition to providing thoughtful discussion on the Civil Rights Movement, the book brings in issues related to the Cold War and Space Race. 

World War II:  There are numerous fantastic historical fiction books set in World War II, and it is difficult to choose just one.  Among student favorites is Shadow of the Mountain by Margi Preus. From Newberry honor author, Preus, Shadow of the Mountain follows 14-year old Espen who joins the resistance and becomes a spy.  Set in Norway the story is full of historic detail that bring this powerful period in history to life for students.

Stephanie of Stephanie's History Store recommends Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission by Hampton Sides.  "This book captures the some of the best and worst of what people did to each other during WW2. It details the horrors endured by Allied survivors of the Bataan Death March, the resilience of the POWs, and the uncommon courage of the American soldiers who rescued them. It is absolutely riveting and reading the account of the actual rescue will have you holding your breath."

Stephanie also includes Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning.  Says Stephanie: "This book opens students' eyes to the average German soldier's perspective during WW2. It explains, through personal accounts, why average men supported Hitler (at least on the surface), how and why they carried out atrocities against Jews, and the long road they took to learning how to live with themselves after the war. It is a must read for students to understand that not everyone agreed with the stereotypical Nazi agenda, and there was much more to being a German soldier during WW2 than what is in textbooks."

Finally, for World War II, I include All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr which follows the interwoven stories of a blind French girl and a German boy who meet in occupied France.  This is a beautifully written novel that provides great material for thoughtful discussion. Put a combination of these books together, and you have several perspectives on World War II and a foundation for teaching the war. 

The Gilded Age: I personally can't wait to read this recommendation from Michele of Michele Luck's Social Studies on the Gilded Age. As my regular readers know The Gilded Age and Progressive Era is one of my personal favorite periods to study and teach.  Says Michele of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle "Once you get through the build up of New York during the Gilded Age, you find yourself engulfed in the fire and can't put the book down until the end. My students told me they stayed up all night to finish so they could wrap up all the lose ends. It was also eye opening on the treatment of workers in 1900s America."

US Civil War (middle school):  Karalynn of History Girl likes to incorporate Soldier's Heart by Gary Paulsen in to her 7th grade US history class.   Gary Paulsen does a fantastic job using primary sources from Minnesota Soldier Charlie Goddard to bring students into the Civil War. I've used it as a read-aloud to both my 6th grade Minnesota Studies students and 7th grade U.S. History students, reading a chapter a day while we are studying the Civil War. The students are always engaged in this story based on true events.

The Ancients:   For Middle school Ancient History, Susan of ESL Nexus recommends Dar and the Spear-Thrower by Marjorie Cowley.  This is a coming-of-age novel about a Cro-Magnon boy in Ice Age France who goes on a quest. It's a great tie-in to a unit on prehistory because it touches on lots of issues covered in prehistory units in a way that really engages kids. All my ELL students loved this book!

World History:  Andrea aka History Gal recommends Lost Names by Richard Kim.  Says Andrea "this fictionalized memoir tells of the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II. The title takes its name from a mandate handed down by the Japanese that forced the Koreans to give up their Korean names and take Japanese names."

Social Inequity:  Leah Cleary recommends The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  "I use this book for a unit on social inequalities, but it deals with so many relevant sociological topics--ethics and bio-economics, race relations, health care....Journalist Rebecca Skloot follows the path of the cell cultures of an African-American woman that continue to survive long after her untimely death from cancer and have been used to enable many medical breakthroughs over the past 50 years, and yet her family has never profited from them. Skloot befriends Lacks' daughter and takes the reader down a fascinating path that mingles science, ethics, and relationships."

Psychology: An excellent supplement for Psychology courses is The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews.  Says Mister Harms "David Ponder’s life is a mess, but a divine adventure is about to unfold. Join David Ponder on an incredible journey throughout history that will help you discover the Seven Decisions for a successful life." 

Government: Finally, if you want to generate a thought provoking discussion on democracy and the US Constitution, How Democratic is the American Constitution by Robert Dahl is a must.  Asking whether there is a better way democracy, Dahl challenges students to think critically about the Constitution and the structure of our government.  

Join the discussion by adding your own favorites in the comments section.  For more ideas, TeachingHistory.org has links to several lists of books for Social Studies classrooms. 






Social Sundays is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.  



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