Writing Engaging History for Young Adults
A Guest Blog Post Written by Dr. Leigh A. Arrathoon
Leigh is an award-winning author. One her websites is www.booksforhomeschooling.com which offers both e-books and hard-copy books for homeschooling History and Language Arts, along with accompanying FREEstudy guides.
Social Studies were deadly boring! My teacher used to sit on top of his desk and argue current events with three students, while the rest of us squirmed in our seats. In college, I learned that history could be fun when you read diaries and private letters, but the textbooks were still unpalatable. The academic authorities for my own historical fictions would have been inaccessible to most teens. This is why I opted for adventure books when I was asked to write histories for the Michigan public schools in 1999.
My first attempt was a series for ages 8-10, called Jody’s Michigan Adventures. It was about a little boy named Kevin Murphy, whose mother talks him into writing down his sister’s imaginative accounts of their family trips. Kevin, who wants to become an historian, takes his mother’s advice to combine his analytical view of these excursions with his sister’s undisciplined tales of adventure. Kevin’s mother, of course, is teaching him what every fiction writer needs to do: to temper his unbridled imagination with logic and facts. The books were a big success for a tiny press. We sold over 100,000 copies.
I decided to make Kevin grow up and write about his teenage adventures from the point of view of an older man. And this was the birth of The Journals of Kevin Murphy. In these books (for ages 11-16), Katie, the little sister, is relegated to the background, although imagination still plays a major role. A good deal of Euro- and Native American History runs throughout the books, along with important life lessons, and language arts (French in Vol. I, Summer of the Bear; Spanish in Vol. II, Son of Fireheart, Native American languages in all three books, and, of course, English). The surface of each tale offers an adventure in which the young reader can become involved.
In the award-winning Summer of the Bear, it’s the mystery of the Bearwalker; in Son of Fireheart, it’s the challenge of helping an Indian boy, whose only reading experience has been the Fireheart sections of the Spider Man Comics, to discover his true identity and to become a valuable member of the tribe from which he has been separated. And, in Vol. III, Eagle from the Dawn, it’s a spectacular trip across the Rockies, during which Kevin must learn to let go of his idolized horse, Tipyahlanah Kaupu (Eagle from the Dawn), so that he can pursue meaningful human relationships.
Of course, I would have loved for my young readers to be able to extract all of the history and language from these texts by themselves, but, as a teacher, I realize that it takes a facilitator to guide the child through the multi-levels of my texts. What I guess is that, at least the reader’s imagination is caught by the adventure, and his interest in the history is engaged. At the end of the day, we grown-ups don’t teach every fact we wish we could. What we are really doing is showing our children the best way to learn what they will eventually need to know and how to ask the right questions. That is probably the best result any teacher can expect.
Dr. Leigh Arrathoon is a Spanish instructor at Rochester College, which is a Christian school in Rochester, Michigan. She teaches French, Spanish, and English privately and on the internet. If you would like to know more about her, her complete biography is available on Amazon, where she has a number of electronic books and stories for sale, and on her websites: www.booksforhomeschooling.com and ebooksandbooksinprintforkids3-25.com. Summer of the Bear won the Michigan State History Award for books for Children and Young Adults in 2007.