In the honor of the final week of Christmas shopping, this week’s Book of the Week is a 2-for-1 special! Actually, a few weeks ago one of my Writing Workshop teachers shared that he was reading Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson with his 8th grade ELA/History class to help them better understand slavery and the Revolutionary War. I thought the idea of using historical fiction to reinforce content, while also developing historical empathy, was a pretty smart move and started reading the book myself. Last night I finished the sequel to Chains, Forge. The books are great and definitely worth picking up and then passing on to your favorite teenager or classroom teacher.
Chains and Forge chronicle the lives of two teenage slaves, Isabel and Curzon, as they make their way through Revolutionary War New England. In Chains we meet the two characters and observe colonial life through Isabel’s eyes as she spies on her Tory masters for the Rebels in exchange (she hopes) for her freedom. In Forge most of the story is told through Curzon’s experience as Valley Forge soldier during the winter of 1777-1778 and his capture by his previous owner. Both books provide readers a first-person account of what life was like for slaves fighting and sacrificing for America’s freedom, but unsure of whether they would be free themselves. Through very real and sometimes brutal, but historically accurate experiences, Laurie Halse Anderson has created a compelling narrative that is hard to put down until you are finished. I’m looking forward to reading the third book, Ashes, that comes out in October 2011. One of the best parts of both books is actually found at the very end, in the Appendix, where Halse Anderson explains what parts of the story are truly fictional and which components are historically accurate. This section would be a great tool for anyone trying to teach the writing craft of historical fiction and how an author would use research to construct a fictional tale. On Laurie Halse Anderson’s website she has a variety of resources for classroom teachers including information on the writing process, using historical background, and research. She will even Skype visit your class if you schedule it far enough in advance!
I started reading both of these books because I wondered how historical fiction could be used in a history classroom. Now, I can’t imagine trying to teach history without this genre. Chains and Forge are great examples of how you can use texts to help your students develop empathy and interest in historical events. Both books personalize slavery and the Revolutionary War for 21st century students and would make great classroom conversation starters when you start asking your students what they would do if they were Isabel or Curzon. Would you fight for your nation’s freedom if you still thought you would be slave once the war was over? Would you spy on your abusive masters for people who have broken their promises to you? Teachers who are interested in using historical fiction to help their students better understand the Revolutionary War and slavery should consider giving these books a read.