Historical Fiction Featuring Real People

The Heavy Medal discussion here and here involving Jefferson’s Sons has me wondering if one of the complicating factors is that all the book’s main characters were real people, a number of them highly familiar to us adult readers. (Given the lack of history instruction these days in elementary schools I can’t say they would be particularly familiar to child readers, I’m afraid.)  I’m always jittery when reading historical fiction or viewing films about real people. I suspect it comes from my father who was very on guard with a German academic who made his life work my family — writing books and articles about them.  These were academic works, but even then the academic had opinions about my grandparents and great-grand parents, some of which did not sit so well with my father.  One of the reasons I had a great deal of trouble with Sharon Dogar’s Annexed was that she was going into the mind of a real person and it felt to me intrusive to make-up feelings for someone who couldn’t. (See my HuffPo post, “Fiction about Real People” for more of my thoughts on this.)

This has been a longtime challenging situation for me personally as I grappled for years with how best to tell the story of Sarah Margru Kinson, one of the children on the Amistad.  I tried very, very, very hard to make it nonfiction, but there just wasn’t enough for me to work with so finally, with baby steps, I crossed the line into fiction, going so far as to write the book in first person.  We’ll see what you all think when the book comes out in a couple of years (the illustrator has just gotten to work on it and I have to say what I’ve seen so far is very wonderful).

Looking back through the Scott O’Dell winners I see mostly works set in real historical periods with imaginary main characters. A book I admire tremendously, M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing, has been mentioned in the Heavy Medal discussion, but the characters in that book are also all fictional. I’ve been trying to come up with a successful work of historical fiction for children that has real people as main characters dealing with something as difficult as the issues in Jefferson’s Sons.  The only one that comes to mind just now, is Julius Lester’s extraordinary Day of Tears.

And so, I ask:

1. Can you think of some other successful works of historical fiction for children with real historical figures as the main characters  addressing a difficult historical and moral situation like the one  in Jefferson’s Sons?

2. What are your thoughts about Jefferson’s Sons being based on real people?


Filed under Historical Fiction

22 responses to “Historical Fiction Featuring Real People

  1. You know, those criteria didn’t seem all that narrow at first, but now I’m having trouble thinking of many examples either successful or unsuccessful. I do keep thinking of how most juvenile biographies during the mid-20th century were basically fictionalized, but adding them in might complicate things too much.
    I finally came up with Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. That’s a really old book on the timeline of how we’ve come to think differently about American Indians, early settlers, and race relations in general. (When I say “we” I mean the dominant paradigm in publishing or similar.) And she isn’t a well-known historical figure.
    Part of the problem in thinking of any examples is that very few historical topics seem equally as complex/loaded as slavery. It’s too soon to have much (any?) historical fiction about real WW2 figures, or about school integration. We don’t see much work of any kind about tragic or difficult situations in Latin America. Most other historical periods seem far-removed, not as challenging to the reader as slavery.
    Also, most historical fiction that uses real people uses them–it seems to me–as passing figures in a greater canvas; The Witch of Blackbird Pond, for instance. I wouldn’t classify Jefferson as a “main character” in Jefferson’s Sons, but he definitely plays a larger role than Reverend Bulkeley or Samuel Wolcott in Blackbird Pond, and of course neither of them has Jefferson’s stature. (Rather than there being “a number” of familiar characters, Jefferson is the only one I think of as a well-known figure–I think the name of Sally Hemings is moderately well known, but little about her life is what I’d consider common knowledge. The children, of course, are written on skeletons of information.)
    EL Konigsburg’s The Second Mrs. Gioconda is a lovely work about Leonardo da Vinci and his assistant, who is sketched out based on slight information similarly to the Hemings children; it’s a good point of comparison for Jefferson’s Sons, perhaps. But it doesn’t have the “difficult issue” problem. And that brings to mind all the books written a few years ago about queens and princesses–Beware, Princess Elizabeth and so on.
    There’s Island of the Blue Dolphins/Zia, but the first doesn’t really touch on the big issues, and in the second, the “real person” is again a minor player. Heart of a Samurai doesn’t deal with particularly heavy issues (but is probably still one to consider, given its recency).
    Oh, and The Dreamer could be part of this conversation, too. But as I recall, that book sort of ends before things get dicey.

    Anyway, I know this was an overlong comment, but I hope it’s offered some useful suggestions of titles.


  2. Had overlooked Heart of a Samurai and The Dreamer, but neither really were dealing with the big issues of slavery or the Holocaust (as is the case with Annexed which, btw, is WWII). Myself, I see the children in Jefferson’s Sons as very real no matter how much or how little info there is about them.

    Thanks,Wendy, so much for the titles and thoughts.


  3. The children are real, but the characters aren’t. Perhaps that gets to the heart of what you’re asking, and if my comment hadn’t gotten so long, that’s part of what I was going to address in answer to your second question. There are so many issues here, and what seems the important question to one person isn’t going to be the important question to another. An author can put words in the mouths of famous people who left a large record of their thoughts, words and actions. An author can put words in the mouths of people about whom almost nothing is known, because they weren’t particularly important to their own society. Which is more difficult, more questionable? The famous figure, because it seems presumptuous? Or the unknown figure, because it seems exploitative? An author can justify the words they have a famous figure speaking because s/he can quote from that person, or paraphrase, or produce historical evidence that this is how that person thought or felt or acted. But an author writing about an unknown real person has no way of knowing much, if anything, about that person’s real being. To take examples that are outside the current discussion, and that aren’t fraught with issues quite as heavy: Samuel Wolcott, who was the judge in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, would have difficulty refuting his portrayal in that book (stay with me here) because it’s based on historical record. He could quibble, but his words and actions have been published. But in another Elizabeth George Speare novel, Calico Captive, the book is about Miriam Willard, a real person about whom very little is known: her name, birthdate, the names of her family members, that she was captured and sent to Montreal, that she was eventually ransomed and married a Harvard man in New England. Miriam might well be highly offended at her portrayal in the book as a flighty teenager who cared mostly about clothes and parties. She might be all, “seriously, 20th century reader, you think you know me well enough to call me ‘Miriam’, and you don’t know me at all.”

    I thought above that you were primarily talking about using Jefferson in a work of fiction, because the Hemings children are not well-known figures, even if they are real. Island of the Blue Dolphins may be one of the better comparisons after all in that case, though it is from another time. The issues there (and especially when it gets to Zia) are matters of import, as they are in Mary Jemison.

    (I thought of Annexed, but didn’t read it myself–I couldn’t bear to; the concept bothered me–so I can’t speak to that.)


  4. I wasn’t talking about Jefferson, but thinking more of Sally’s children, Margru (especially as she is sort of in the same boat as the boys in Bradley’s book), and Peter. They were real people whether or not they left a record and it does trouble me how far we can go to make up their feelings, actions, and so forth as I wrote in the post.


  5. I wonder whether it’s really more problematic to make up thoughts/feelings/actions for real people about whom little is known, than to make them up for fictional characters one has placed in a real situation.


    • I’m confused. To me it is presumptuous to put words and feelings into real people as they may have been completely different, offended, etc, etc; I have no trouble with made-up people in real situations.


  6. I’m just exploring the idea. People actually do complain about this a LOT in historical fiction. They say “no one acted that way” or “no one thought that” or “I was there and it wasn’t like that”. I’ve heard people say “there are enough real stories about [that time in history] to write about, why make one up?”. In effect, I think one could make an argument that putting words/thoughts into a real person’s mouth as a character in a book is presuming on one person; putting a fictional character into a real situation is presuming on everyone there.


    • Hmmm.I’m fine with imaginary folk in a real setting be it a contemporary one or one back in time. There is always some degree of making-it-up with setting, even today (I recall the discussion about the hills of Oakland in last year’s ONE CRAZY SUMMER for example).

      Something else is happening, in my opinion, when we are making up what was in a real person’s mind, whether a well-known person or not.


  7. Newbery Award winner I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton Trevino has both real people–Diego de Velazquez and Juan himself–and a difficult situation (Juan was Diego’s slave). I wrote about it here:
    but I haven’t considered it in the context of this discussion, and probably should.


  8. A Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (not exactly right but close enough) also by E.L. Konigsburg, on Eleanor of Aquitane, one of my favorites as a child. But really there is no one around to care if a 12th century queen is accurately portrayed or not.
    I think this is a great discussion and I’m glad you brought it up.


  9. What a great discussion question!

    Part of the problem with giving a voice to those that history has traditionally overlooked (like Jefferson’s illegitimate children) is that I think it is easier to make the characters more caricatures than real people. Historic anecdotes and quotations give at least a (sometimes flimsy) structure to hang your character upon. And with someone like Jefferson, who left letters, you have a great deal more. Though as we’re seeing in the last few decades, that’s far from the complete story.

    Here’s a good comparison for “Jefferson’s Sons” – “Amos Fortune, Free Man”. Today we are horrified by the character (and the fact that it was classified as biography instead of fiction), but it *was* a successful book, it was based on a real person, and it dealt with slavery. (Was it *really* critically acclaimed when it won the Newbery, or did they think it was an aberration even then?).

    On the one hand, I think you *need* historical fiction to make prehistoric and historic periods interesting for kids (and adults), but given a background in archaeology and history – I am often troubled by the kinds of words and emotions attributed to people from what is essentially a very different – and very foreign! – culture.


    • I don’t mean to put words in Monica’s mouth, but I didn’t get the impression she meant “successful” in that sense–I thought she meant, sort of, that everything “works” in the book, and I don’t think any of us would see Amos Fortune that way. (BTW, unfortunately, shockingly, we might be horrified by the book but people are still using it in schools and homeschooling. Most of the Goodreads reviews are glowing.)


      • Thanks, Wendy. I haven’t read AMOS FORTUNE so can’t say, but from what I’ve read about it I would say that it isn’t at all what I’m asking for.

        I think it is easier, as some here have noted, to go farther back in time. I was just thinking of Rebecca Barnhouse’s BOOK OF THE MAIDSERVANT, in which she imagines the story of the real servant of Dame Margery Kempe, a medieval holy woman (who did leave writing of her own — something often considered the first autobiography). I reviewed it very favorably for the Horn Book. But the whole book, setting, speech, thinking, etc seemed very authentic to the time, one of the reasons I liked it so much. So that is an example of a successful work, but it doesn’t really take on a difficult topic of more recent history, something like slavery or the Holocaust, that still raises hackles, pushes buttons, etc.


  10. Misti

    I haven’t read any of her books in a few years, but I seem to remember that Ann Rinaldi (the first name that jumps to mind when I get an upper elementary or middle school student looking for historical fiction) often includes real people as characters in her novels. I went out to the stacks and picked up The Fifth of March, for instance, and checked the back matter, to find that the main character in that book was indeed a real person, an indentured servant to John and Abigail Adams. And, of course, I mentioned in a comment on your last post about Jefferson’s Sons that Rinaldi wrote Wolf By the Ears some time ago, dealing with the same characters (and many of the same events) that are explored in Jefferson’s Sons.

    Perhaps the “danger” of historical fiction that includes real historical individuals as characters is that readers, particularly young readers, then feel that they “know” that character, that they know, for instance, just what Thomas Jefferson was like, based on the limited portrayal of him in the book. I always appreciate a well-written author’s note at the end of a book that explains what s/he has taken from primary sources, which characters are made-up and which are real, etc., but even so, fiction can be so much more compelling and evocative than, say, a history book, or even a well-written biography.


  11. Misti, I actually don’t agree as I think there can be wonderful works of nonfiction that bring out historical figures compellingly. Years ago I argued against the use of historical fiction to make history compelling as I felt folks were prejudiced against nonfiction in this way. I then felt I needed to put my money where my mouth was and began investigating historical fiction and so can now say there is plenty of wonderful books in that genre, but I still feel that nonfiction is the preferred way for kids to learn about history.


  12. ~mwt

    Monica, does it matter what age group you are addressing? When Catherine Called Birdy came out, I remember there were complaints that she was a very modern character inserted into a very detailed historic setting. I remember that not bothering me so much, but I mind a lot more when I see similar things happen in books for YA’s. I might feel the same way about real people being fictionalized. I do share your reservations about it, but a lot depends on execution for me. Rock my socks off, and I’ll let you break all the rules.


  13. I’m sure you are all familiar with Scholastic’s “Dear America” series, each book of which places a fictional child into a set of historic events. Recently I wrote one of these, creating a young girl orphaned by the 1918 flu epidemic and taken to be brought up by the Shakers. I used, as some of the characters, real Shakers who existed at that time and in that place, especially Sister Jennie Mather, who was responsible for the young girls in her care. I had not anticipated the enormous feeling of responsibility I felt, during the writing, to those real people and to the truth of their lives. I was fortunate to have been given access to the day-to-day journals the Shakers kept meticulously, so that I was able to perceive the personalities involved and tried to the extent it was possible to re-create their individual quirks and characteristics.
    Nothing, of course, beats “real” history, even if as Napoloeon allegedly said, it is simply a set of lies agreed upon. But as a child I would not have read a non-fiction account with the same passion and intensity with which I loved “Indian Captive.” And recently I re-visited the Shaker village which was the setting for “Like the Willow Tree”, and heard that since its publication little girls sometimes come for a tour clutching the book and asking to see where the fictional Lydia would have slept, and ate, and attended school. It is a valid way, I think, of bringing history to life.


    • Lois, thanks so much for participating. I had actually been thinking of the Dear America books because of there are indeed often real people among the secondary characters. I certainly agree it is a valid way of bringing history to life and appreciate your appreciation of “real history” even if it can be told in a dicey way! Where I differ with many (perhaps you) is that I feel that history should be taught firstly as history whereas there are some who feel that the way to approach it is through historical fiction. My concern these days is that the only history many kids get is via historical fiction and they have no opportunity to learn what it is to do real history,to appreciate it, and —yes — enjoy it as much as the fiction telling.


  14. Thanks, Monica, and everyone, for encouraging this conversation.
    “Difficult historical and moral situation” is tricky to define, but:
    The Watch That Ends the Night, by Allan Wolff (about the Titanic)
    The Lost Crown, by Sarah Miller (about the Romanov sisters)

    I haven’t read Jefferson’s Sons, so I can’t respond to your second question, but these two books, both multi-voiced narratives in the voices of real historical figures, offer some insight about how it’s possible to do it respectfully and dramatically (knowing that your readers are likely to know the ending).

    Monica, it’s important, I think, to recognize that you’re talking about teaching (and learning) history, rather than about how authors should write about it. There’s room for all these different ways of telling the stories.

    Lois, I taught Number the Stars to 5th graders about 20 years ago, and when I went to Denmark last summer, and looked across from Denmark to Sweden at a place the fishermen crossed, having the story still so clearly in my mind gave such texture to the experience. Thank you for that.


  15. I’m a late-comer to this discussion, but I know as I child, I regarded historical fiction as a boggy ground where the lines between what was “real” and was was not were not clear.

    I loved the Little House books because I knew that all the”characters” in them were real people who really lived (though later I learned that some things had been left out of the books). I loved seeing photographs of Laura and her family. I imagined myself going back in time and living with them.

    I think many children have a hunger to learn about the world as it is, not one imagined by an author. I think we need to do more to satisfy this hunger.


  16. Wow! what a wonderful post, if you don`t mind I will share it with friends and colleagues.


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