Sarah Albee writes nonfiction for middle grade readers. She is the author of Poop Happened and Bugged. You can find her online at: http://www.sarahalbeebooks.com/
I write nonfiction for middle graders, and my mission is to get kids who’ve been traumatized by deadly-dull social studies textbooks to unthink that they hate history. One tactic I use is to select a subject kids will be interested in—be it sanitation, insects, clothing, disease, poison—and trace it chronologically through history. I feel an obligation to entertain them, to astonish them, to make them laugh. After all, they could be reading fiction. I want them to see that history is full of conflict, tension, controversy, emotion, drama.
Humorous writing does not equal unserious writing. Some of my favorite adult writers – Mary Roach, May Berenbaum, Stephen Jay Gould--are serious scholars and hilarious writers. Most of my favorite middle school history writers are that, too. They understand that to snag the interest of a middle school kid, to expect her to pick up a nonfiction book that hasn’t been assigned to her, it’s our job to make it irresistible. How? Through the use of humor, offbeat topics, engrossing stories, and lots of fascinating—or disgusting, or lurid--details.
Here are some of my favorites, new and backlist, that may help change kids’ minds about history.
How They Choked by Georgia Bragg (Walker, May, 2014)
A delightful follow-up to her wickedly-wonderful How They Croaked (Walker, 2011), both of which are enhanced by Kevin O’Malley’s evilly-funny illustrations. Bragg combines humor with impressive research, as she recounts stories of famous flawed figures and their fabulous fiascoes. As she points out in her intro, “sometimes historians lose sight of the fact that their subjects were human beings. Real people make mistakes (even historians).”
The Raucous Royals Test your Royal Wits: Crack Codes, Solve Mysteries, and Deduce Which Royal Rumors are True written and illustrated by Carlyn Beccia (HMH 2008)
Beccia’s biographies of twelve European rulers are funny, fascinating, and thoroughly-researched. She’s a hilarious writer (check out her blog here). http://www.raucousroyals.com/ Her breezy, conversational style engages readers and invites them to be active participants, to recognize that contemporary sources can be unreliable, to learn to interpret biases and sort out facts from rumors. It’s an excellent mentor text for helping kids “identify author’s point of view and purpose.”
Tales of the Cryptids: Mysterious Creatures that May or May Not Exist by Kelly Milner Halls, Rick Spears, and Roxyanne Young (Millbrook Press, 2006)
For kids fascinated by cryptozoology (and I know many), this book gives evidence for and against mythical monsters like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Champ, as well as examining confirmed real-life monsters like giant squids and the coelacanth. The authors present eyewitness accounts, blurry photos, and speculative reconstructed models. They include interviews with experts on both sides of the argument, and discuss famous hoaxes. “For Further Investigation” provides websites and sources for curious kids interested in following up.
Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers by Brandon Marie Miller (Chicago Review Press, 2013)
Miller profiles 16 women of the western US, and every story sucks you in with electrifying details and masterful storytelling. Kids will love the gritty, gripping accounts of life on the frontier, liberally interspersed with fascinating excerpts from letters and diaries and other primary sources. Miller’s unflinching accounts of the horrors of privation, insects, disease, and, yes, laundry—make every story a page-turner.
And on my to-read list:
Lives of the Explorers by Kathleen Krull (HMH, August 2014)
I am a big fan of all of Krull’s Lives of… books and can’t wait for this one!
Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, and Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple (Charlesbridge, 2013)
I love the sound of this book for its approach to the lives of some of the baddest (or possibly just misunderstood or misguided) women in history. As Booklist’s reviewer put it, “ . . . both an introduction and afterword focus on how history changes its opinion on people’s actions, the way history’s winners get the glory, and whether circumstances shape events more than personalities do.” Plus it’s got an awesome cover.