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?

Media Activity: Comparing Books to their On-screen Adaptations

How many of us have said, “The book was better,” after finishing its movie version. This is the perfect time to explore how stories change when they are adapted across media platforms.

  1. Have your child choose a book with a film/movie adaptation (suggestions below) to read in print or digital format. Discuss the plan: when the book is finished, you will watch the adaptation together.
  2. Watch the book’s adaptation as a film or show together.
  3. Ask questions. Here are some ideas:
    –What did you think of the show/movie? (start broad)
    –Did you like the story? Why or why not?
    –What did they keep from the book? (You can get more specific, asking about characters, themes, settings, dialogue, ending).
    –What was changed? (ask about details). Do you agree with the changes? How did they impact the story?
    –What did you enjoy more–the book or its adaptation?
    –How would you have adapted the story?
    BONUS: Have your child compare and contrast the adaptation in an essay or present their own adaptation in a book cover, movie trailer, or diorama. You can also analyze the story over multiple adaptations (i.e. looking at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Book & Adaptation Suggestions
Younger kids/new readers: Dr. Seuss (The Cat in the Hat, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who), Madeline, The Polar Express

Lower-Elementary: The Magic Treehouse series, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The American Girl books, How to Train Your Dragon, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Mid/Upper-Elementary: The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter (choose a book/movie), Little House on the Prairie (On the Banks of Plum Creek), Peter Pan, Pollyanna, Bridge to Terabithia, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Hobbit (cartoon adaptation), How to Eat Fried Worms, Roald Dahl books (Matilda, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The B.F.G., Witches), Holes, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Nancy Drew books, A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz.

Middle/High school/College: Dracula, The Counte of Monte Cristo, Silence of the Lambs, Stephen King’s books (The Shining, Pet Semetary, The Green Mile, Misery, etc.), Catch Me If You Can, Forrest Gump, The Lord of the Rings series, The Hunger Games, Tuck Everlasting, The Divergent series, The Fault in Our Stars, The Notebook and other books by Nicholas Sparks, The Diary of Anne Frank.

Here’s a more comprehensive list. You could also compare comic books or graphic novels with their on-screen adaptations. Or compare traditional books with their graphic novel interpretations.