Learning Through Historical Fiction: Books for Kids and Teens About Epidemics

Reading historical fiction can teach you a lot about experiences people may have had during outbreaks of the past. In this genre, authors weave facts into their fictional stories and characters. I recommend reading these works of historical fiction and then conducting your own research on the epidemic and disease featured.

A notable example is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, aimed at readers ages 10-14.

She uses documents from the real yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia to tell the story of 14 year-old Mattie Cook. This book is an exciting read and so well-done that it is often used as a teaching tool. Here are study guides that go along with the book.

Joyce Rockwood’s young adult novel To Spoil the Sun explores the devastating impact of smallpox on a Cherokee tribe in the 16th century. More of the story is fictionalized in that it isn’t set in a specific outbreak, but provides a perspective that has rarely appeared elsewhere.

Smallpox Strikes! by Norma Jean Lutz (ages 8-12) and describes the real-life inoculation controversy in the 1721 Boston epidemic. A boy must choose between following his family’s wishes and protecting the town against smallpox through the practice of inoculation (intentionally infecting yourself with disease in hopes that you’ll get a milder case).

For younger readers, book #26 Balto of the Blue Dawn of the Magic Treehouse series (very) loosely tells the story of the sled dogs that saved the children of Nome, Alaska from diphtheria in 1925. Compare Jack and Annie’s tale to the real story as told here.

Here are other historical fiction works about disease:

What makes for a good work of historical fiction? How do authors use facts to create interesting fictional narratives?

Think about the current pandemic. How could these experiences be told in what will someday be historical fiction? Where would you set your story? What factual details would be important to include?

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