Writing Your Own History
“History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt.”
Guy Vanderhaeghe, as quoted in “A Good Guy,” Quill & Quire, Sept. 2011
Giovanni, Nikki. A Library. New York: Versify, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2022.
A young girl helps her grandmother with washing the dishes and doing the laundry before setting off for the public library. Later, back home again, she helps fold the laundry and prepare a meal, before settling down on the back porch with her new books. The beautifully bold yet gentle illustrations by Erin K. Robinson combined with the brief text in a large font have created a wonderful story – by an award-winning poet – to read aloud to a group of primary-school-age children. Perfect as an introduction to talking about the joy of libraries. Perfect as an introduction to talking about the value of reflecting on life. Includes an afterword describing the author’s own childhood staying with her grandmother during the summers and visiting the local library during the time of segregation in Tennessee. Highly recommended for teachers, teacher-librarians, and readers 5 to 8 years old.
Muhammad, Ibtihaj. The Proudest Blue. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.
What symbolizes your identity? What shows people your most important beliefs? In this vibrantly illustrated picture book, a little girl celebrates the day that her older sister wears hijab for the very first time. Written by the first Muslim American woman in hijab to compete for the U.S. in the Olympic Games and illustrated by a Canadian who grew up in Egypt playing with his mother’s colourful scarves, this thoughtful story is highly recommended for readers of all ages and of all beliefs.
Scott, Jordan. I Talk Like a River. New York: Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, 2020.
A little boy wakes up every morning with the sounds of words stuck in his throat. He can’t make them come out properly and so goes through his days without saying a word. Afraid. Sad. But then his father takes him down to the river – to walk along the bank and watch the water bubbling and churning, whirling and crashing – and explains that he is like that river. He stutters. Beyond the rapids, however, there is smooth water. He feels less lonely. Based on the author’s own experiences growing up, this beautiful picture book – illustrated by the award-winning Sydney Smith – is highly recommended for readers of all ages.
Figueredo, D.H. The Road to Santiago. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2003.
Alfredito and his parents want to join relatives for Christmas. But how will they get from Havana to Santiago? The trains are not running because of the fighting between government forces and the rebels. Set during the late 1950s and based on the author’s own childhood, this informative picture book with colourful evocative illustrations by Pablo Torrecilla is recommended for readers 7 to 11 years old.
Winter, Jonah. Born and Bred in the Great Depression. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.
The author’s father grew up in east Texas during the 1930s, a time of fear and hardship for so many all across North America. This gently lyrical picture book, softly illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root and accompanied by black and white family photographs, shows a country family struggling to earn money but also appreciating the joys of life: playing the banjo, enjoying a game of chess, reading books from the library, “…learning to love those things that didn’t cost a single penny.” Highly recommended for readers of all ages. [Country life; Depressions; Family life; Fathers; Historical fiction; Texas]
Chapman, Fern Schumer. Is It Night or Day? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
“In 1938, Edith Westerfeld, a young German Jew, is sent by her parents to Chicago, Illinois, where she lives with an aunt and uncle and tries to assimilate into American culture, while worrying about her parents and mourning the loss of everything she has ever known. Based on the author’s mother’s experience, includes an afterword about a little-known program that brought twelve hundred Jewish children to safety during World War II.” – CIP. A memorable story of courage and resilience highly recommended for readers 11 to 15 years old. [Chicago; Grief; Holocaust; Immigrants; Loneliness; Jews; WW 2]
De la Cruz, Melissa. Something in Between. Don Mills, Ont.: Seventeen Fiction from Harlequin Teen, 2016.
This story of a teenager who wins a National Scholarship Award is inspired by events in the author’s own life. Jasmine is full of confidence, a popular cheerleader has always worked hard to do everything perfectly. But her Filipino parents have been working without proper documentation and the whole family is now about to be deported. All her plans are in jeopardy because her parents have failed to become legal residents of the U.S.A.
The portrayal of life for undocumented residents is informative. The depiction of emotional pain encourages empathy. But the story is altogether too much of a fairy tale: Jasmine is a self-pitying heroine who must prevail over the forces of injustice. This 432-page novel, inspired by the author’s experiences, is nevertheless recommended for teenagers looking for a romance story.
Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.
Twelve-year-old Jack spends the summer of 1962 helping an elderly neighbour write obituaries after his mother grounds him for mowing down the garden his father wants to use for a bomb shelter. Much like in Rex Zero and the End of the World by Tim Wynne-Jones, there is concern about a possible nuclear war with Russia. This humorous novel, based on the author’s own childhood in Pennsylvania, is the Newbery Medal winner for 2012. [Family life; Pennsylvania; Summer; Old age; Historical fiction; Newbery Medal; Humorous stories]
Morgan, Bernice. Seasons Before the War. Tors Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador: Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides Inc., 2018.
A wonderful memoir – partly fictionalized – about life in Newfoundland when it was still an independent country. Set in St. John’s just before the outbreak of World War II, the author recalls a childhood filled with everyday adventures. Accompanied by full-page illustrations that wonderfully match the nostalgic style of the story, this picture book is most highly recommended for both children and adults.
Cynthia Rylant’s picture book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, is based on memories of growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia.
Many of Robert Newton Peck’s books, including his Soup stories, are loosely based on his childhood in rural Vermont.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books are based on her childhood in the American Midwest during the late 10th century.
John Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books are also based on his childhood experiences, although they are set several years before he was born in Utah in the early 20th century.
Many of Laurence Yep’s novels, including The Dragon’s Child which tells of how his father came to San Francisco when he was a young child, focus on his family’s Chinese ancestry.
Most of Mildred D. Taylor’s novels, including Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are based on the family stories she heard while growing up in Ohio.
Ryan, Pam Munoz. Esperanza Rising. Scholastic, 2000.
Twelve-year-old Esperanza’s life goes from wealth to poverty when her father dies, her uncles take over the family’s ranch in Mexico, and she and her mother are forced to become farm labourers in California during the 1930s. This novel is based on the life of the author’s grandmother. [California; Child labor; Depressions – 1929; Farm life; Historical fiction; Immigrants; Mexico; Poverty]
Anne Ylvisaker’s novel The Luck of the Buttons was inspired by a photograph of her grandmother taken in 1927.
Kerry Madden’s novel Gentle’s Hollow was based on stories of her husband’s childhood in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Kristin Levine’s novel The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had was based on her own family’s history in Alabama.
Levine, Kristin. The Lions of Little Rock. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.
Twelve-year-old Marlee is shy. She likes thinking and she likes math, but she doesn’t like talking so much. And she is not courageous. But when high schools are closed in her home town because local officials oppose integration, Marlee learns to speak up. Based on the childhood of the author’s mother, this novel will appeal to readers twelve years old and up. [Arkansas; African Americans; Racism; Schools; Family life; Mothers and daughters; Historical fiction; Friendship; Courage; Mathematics; Faith]
Levine, Kristin. The Paper Cowboy. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014.
“In a small town near Chicago in 1953, twelve-year-old Tommy faces escalating problems at home, among his Catholic school friends, and with the threat of a communist living nearby, but taking over his hospitalized sister’s paper route introduces him to neighbors who he comes to rely on for help.” – CIP. Based on the childhood of the author’s father, this quickly-paced but thought-provoking novel is highly recommended for readers 12-years-old and up. [Bullying; Child abuse; Communism; Conduct of life; Family problems; Friendship; Historical fiction; Illinois; Newspaper carriers]
Some of Tomie dePaola’s books, including 26 Fairmount Avenue, describe his own childhood.
Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book Visiting Day is based on events in her childhood: visiting her uncle who was incarcerated in prison. The illustrator, James E. Ransome, used his own memory of visiting his brother to create the dramatic full-page pictures of the prison.
Click HERE to find more novels based on historical facts.
Nicola Campbell’s picture books, Shi-Shi-etko and Shin-Chi’s Canoe, were inspired by hearing her family’s stories about growing up in the interior of B.C. and being sent to residential schools.
Click HERE to find more stories about the aboriginal people of North America.
Esther Hautzig wrote The Endless Steppe , a novel about her family’s exile to Siberia during World War 2.
Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Speak, 2012, c2011.
Fifteen-year-old Michiel has lived through four years of war. He spends his days running secret errands on his bicycle and avoiding the Allied bombers flying overhead and the Nazi soldiers occupying his town. When he learns that a wounded British pilot is hiding in the woods, he starts secretly bringing him food and supplies. When the villagers are blamed for the death of a German and his father is shot in revenge, he starts to distrust everyone. Who murdered that German soldier? Who is watching him? When will soldiers come for him?
This 220-page novel based on the author’s own childhood has been in print in the Netherlands for almost fifty years. Translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson, it is highly recommended for mature readers 11 to 17 years old who enjoy action-oriented, fast-paced stories.
Audrey Couloumbis wrote War Games , a novel based on her husband’s childhood in Greece during World War 2.
Jane Yolen wrote and illustrated a picture book, All those Secrets of the World, about her childhood memories of her father going to war.
Lois Lowry’s Crow Call, about a little girl getting to know her father again after his return from World War II, was based on a memory from her childhood.
Click HERE to find more novels about World War II.
Eugene Yelchin’s Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose was based on an incident in his childhood in Russia.
Thanhha Lai’s novel in verse Inside Out and Back Again was based on her memories of coming to America from war-torn Vietnam when she was ten years old.
Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has also written a picture book, Year of the Jungle: Memories from the Home Front, about receiving postcards from her father, who was stationed in Vietnam when she was six years old.
Click HERE to find more novels about conflicts from 1945 to the present day.
Yep, Laurence. The Dragon’s Child. New York : HarperCollins, 2008.
Ten-year-old Gim unhappily moves to America with his father in this novel based on the life of the author’s father. Set in 1922, the novel shows how Chinese immigrants had to pass detailed tests before being admitted to California. Includes an afterward with additional historical details. [California; China; Chinese Americans; Emigration and immigration; Fathers and sons; Historical fiction; Stuttering]
Winter, Jonah. Born and Bred in the Great Depression. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.
The author tells the story of his father’s childhood in Texas during the 1930s. Told from the second person point of view, this beautifully designed picture book with pencil, ink, and watercolour illustrations by Kimberly Bulcken Root is accompanied by black and white photographs. Recommended for readers 8 years old and up.
Click HERE for tips on writing your own true story.