We were reading Johnny Tremain. He was just a few years older than I was and his life was way worse than mine. Set in pre-revolutionary Boston, the main character, Johnny, was apprenticed to a silversmith by his mother right before she died. It was his only chance to avoid the life of a beggar. But he was prideful and didn’t get along with the other apprentices, so they played a brutal trick on him. When he asked for a mold, they gave him a cracked one hoping to mess up his perfect work. But instead, there was a gruesome accident. The mold broke and molten silver destroyed Johnny’s hand and his hope of ever being a silversmith, much less anything else as he was now crippled and homeless.
He finally found a job working for the Lorne Family who ran a local printing company. As he delivered newspapers, he met members of the Whig party and began to join them for their meetings at the print shop. Eventually, Johnny’s work involved running errands and spying for the Whigs at the cusp of the Revolutionary War. Johnny even threw tea into the harbor as a member of the Boston Tea Party. He realized there was a world bigger than himself as he grew into a young man fighting for freedom.
I was taken in by Esther Forbes’ characters and her retelling of the Revolutionary War through the life of a person a little bit like me – even his long hair didn’t seem to cooperate. When we were reading Johnny Tremain, I wasn’t in a stuffy trailer, I was in Boston. I could join that cause. I could stand up and fight for something I believed in. I was strong. Forbes created a world just for me and I stepped right in.
There is something magical about the historical novel genre. Historical novels pull together historical events and storytelling. The author combines these elements to bring the reader into a deeper understanding of the events and cultural issues surrounding those events. Woven together with the aesthetics of storytelling, readers are able to experience a world that allows them to become thoughtful responders in their own lives.
Historical novels give us as teachers a golden opportunity to bring students into new worlds while they work to make sense of their own. They have the chance to participate in something bigger than themselves. There are myriad young adult historical novels that can serve as the anchor text for this narrative writing project. As students begin to engage in dialogue with the text and with each other, they begin to write their own narrative.
Historical Novel Project:
Pre-reading activity: I select short passages from the beginning of the text and then further along. We engage in brief discussion and informal writing about this cluster of questions:
- How does this text create a world?
- What does good and evil mean inside this world?
- What elements of the text do I notice as distinct features of the way this world is being created?
Reading activity: As they become interested in these questions, we start reading the novel and write alongside our reading. It creates a cross pollination of idea generation, comparison and inspiration. Throughout the novel, students begin to explore news articles and websites related to the event. Students can journal or keep notes on specific quotes, issues, or questions they have as they conduct research. This scaffolding leads to their own research of an historical or current event that they are interested in exploring. As we read, they read, as we write, they write.
The historical novel writing project reaches deeply into narrative writing standards, offering writers support in their invention of narratives. A variety of standards offer guidance to fine tune rubrics. You will be surprised to find how much writing your students will do. I often have to remind my students that we are writing short narratives.
Writing Project: Write a three to five page narrative to develop experiences or events that revolve around an historical or current event. Set up the story to bring the reader into the world you have created. Study an event or an issue from history or that is currently happening in our world today. Find at least two resources that tell the story.
- Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events surrounding the historical or current event.
- Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters. Here I will often give specific directives: Use at least two dialogue sequences.
- Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole.
- Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.
- Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative.
Student Excerpt #1 (Event: Toilet paper shortage during the pandemic))
Have you ever needed daily household items at a particular time? Well, in the case of Doctor Romilda Harolds, a veterinarian and zoologist, she needed multiple items none of which she had. It all began on a frozen, snowbound day in a complex of neatly arranged identical houses that looked entirely, completely positively, unnoticeably normal. Except there was one house that was most certainly not. Placed in the heart of the complex was one of the most grotesque houses that ever existed. The home was in baffling ruins, the bricks for the front porch were cracked and chipped, the deep blue paint for the front door was peeling, vines and moss were creeping along the porch, and potted plants covered in frost littered the ground. What the small house contained inside though was beyond anything imaginable…
Student Excerpt #2 (Event: An NBA player’s world during the pandemic)
I woke up on March 13, 2020 after a game against the Golden State Warriors. I checked my phone as I do every morning. I had an abundance of notifications from friends, family, and social media. It says that the NBA has postponed its season until further notice. My team, the Los Angeles Lakers, have been on a roll, winning 14 out of our last 15 games up to this point, with a record of 57-5. Getting out of rhythm was a scary thought.
I knew it was necessary because of the virus. It was spreading fast. I quickly called my agent to see if the news was true. He answered within five seconds. We started talking.
Fast forward a week: I've been doing my best to workout everyday and stay on my diet. Not seeing my teammates and not playing organized basketball games has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. My schedule is basically the same everyday, I wake up, take a shower, get ready, go workout, eat some breakfast, work on basketball, and relax the rest of the day.
After two months of the same thing, I finally got a message from an NBA executive. He stated that the NBA would be restarting in an isolated location called The Bubble. This place was located in Orlando Florida. The Bubble would start in three weeks and once we got there, we would have a 14 day quarantine period. This means I have three weeks to get into the best shape of my life. I called my trainer to let him know what I was looking to do. We made workouts and a schedule for the next three weeks. …
Student Excerpt #3 (Event: The August 2020 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon)
It was much too hot to be Spring, Camille had decided on a Wednesday afternoon. Ridiculously, stupidly hot, and despite her warnings that she would surely die if she stepped even a foot outside, Camille was--unfairly, as she would later say--put to work. It was routine. Every year her parents suddenly became interested in charity, though not interested enough to do work themselves, Camille would adamantly claim, and she was dragged across town to wherever she was needed, complaining about the glorified furnace that she lived in all the while.
She stepped into the passenger's seat of her car with much dread, her mother taking her place at the steering wheel. It wasn’t fair, Camille thought. Truthfully, there wasn’t much point in doing things for people who wouldn’t--and couldn’t--repay her. It was completely and utterly pointless, but Camille said nothing, for any word she spoke would be deemed selfish. But it was clear to her that she wasn’t the selfish one, everyone else simply lacked the self awareness to see it that way…
If you are looking for a place to start, check out Ruta Sepetys and Stacey Lee’s historical novels. They are great anchor texts or supplemental texts for this project. This project is also a great way to work through classic texts.
In the book Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys gives a very compelling account of the Soviet invasion of the country of Lithuania in 1941. She takes readers with 15 year old Lina, her mother and her brother to a Siberian labor camp where they are shown no mercy and must fight for their lives while people die all around them in brutal conditions.
I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys: Seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu lives under the tyrannical dictatorship of Nicolae Causescu in Romania. It is 1989 and communist bloc country regimes fall all around while Romania remains bound. Cristian finds himself blackmailed by the secret police to become an informer.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee: Jo Kuan, a Chinese girl living in late 19th century Atlanta, Georgia, Jo Kuan was born in America, but she can’t become a citizen or even rent a decent apartment. Set in the post reconstruction south, she lives in a former abolitionist's hidden tunnels, secreted away underneath a newspaper office.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Nick Carroway, a middle class member of society, finds himself in the middle of the frenzy of the roaring twenties. Set in New York, this novel exposes the social, cultural, and political tensions of the 1920s.