It may seem strange to start a post for a nonfiction blog this way, but I confess that when I read for pleasure, I usually choose fiction. One of my very favorite things in the whole world is curling up with a good novel. So as I was exploring the Common Core website in hopes of finding an idea for this post, I latched onto the ninth "anchor reading standard." It calls for students to analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics. Asking students to compare and contrast different texts or genres (fiction and nonfiction, for example) is not a new idea, of course. But it gave me the perfect excuse to assign myself a work of historical fiction I’ve been meaning to read for a while, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.
If only all assignments were this gratifying! Chains is
a gripping, fascinating story, and even if I had been totally unfamiliar with
the subject matter I still could not have put it down. But my appreciation and
understanding of the novel were deepened by my familiarity with some of the subjects Anderson explores: the day-to-day lives of enslaved African Americans
in the 18th century, the destructive relationship between slave
owner and slave, and the irony of waging a war based on the revolutionary
ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” at the same time people
were being bought and sold. They are topics I address in my nonfiction book, Master George’s People.
historical records document that a great many of George Washington’s slaves ran
away, I could confidently claim in Master
George that Washington’s “people,” as he called them, “yearned to live
their lives as free men and women.” Unfortunately, however, these people left no written accounts that we know of. Very few of them could read or write. So without evidence to back it up, I couldn't say how any of these men and women personally felt about being enslaved. Novelists, thankfully, are free to let their imaginations and their pens roam beyond the historical record. In Chains, Anderson's fictional heroine, Isabel, tells us just how it feels to suffer the indignities of slavery, to ache for freedom.
And because Anderson makes us care about Isabel, we suffer and ache—and hope
and rebel—with her.
Another wonderful historical novel I recommend pairing with Master George’s People is Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. This moving, impeccably
researched book explores what live was like for the enslaved people owned—and fathered—by the author of the Declaration of Independence. Like Chains—and, I hope, Master George—it raises fundamental questions about equality and
freedom and the contradictions inherent in our nation's founding.
In a recent column in the Huffington Post, Vicki Cobb said that the Common Core standards are not in our books, but in the way our books are used. Pairing narrative nonfiction with top-notch historical fiction is an excellent way to use both. For more suggestions on matching fiction with nonfiction in
middle grade classrooms, check out this Nerdy Book Club blog post by Susan Dee. What are your
favorite fiction/nonfiction pairings? I hope you'll leave a comment and let me know. I’d
love to include them in a future post.