Many students are familiar with Dan Gutman’s books. He is the author of The Homework Machine,The Million Dollar Shot, The Talent Show and the My Weird School series. He has a series of books that begin with Honus & Me which involve a magic baseball card possessing the power to transport its owner into the life and times of famous baseball players. Somewhat less well known are his Qwerty Stevens time travel adventures with Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin and Race for the Sky: The Kittyhawk Diaries.
These stories are a fantastic blend of historical fact and fiction. As a student I was never really interested in learning history. I thought it was boring. I didn’t realize that reading the books in grade school about the baseball star Ty Cobb and Corrie Ten Boom’s autobiography from World War II–books I vividly recall to this very day–were history brought to life.
The connection between the two was not shown to me until I met Sister Mary Thomas. Sister Mary Thomas was a tiny little woman who wore glasses so thick they made her resemble a comical bug-eyed frog–and she would be the first person to tell you so with a sparkling laugh. She was born in North Dakota, hated geese (which is why you were not allowed to make the “Shh!” sound in her class), loved to read and ADORED history–especially Andrew Jackson.
The year I spent in Sr. Mary Thomas’ Advanced History class taught me that history could be exciting and interesting. In the years since that high school history class I have discovered the world of art history, French history, early 19th and 20th century American history, the history of dance and theatre and the remarkable stories of extraordinary individuals both past and present. (At one point I even considered a career as an art historian!)
Discovering Dan Gutman’s historical fiction brought back all that excitement. I discovered numerous things about Edison, Franklin, and the Wright brothers and their historic Kittyhawk adventures of which I was unaware. Gutman’s stories brought those times and those historical figures vividly to life in my imagination.
I highly recommend these books–as well as his entire body of work–as both independent and read-aloud choices! They probably work best for 3rd-7th grade, but, as always, could extend on either side of that range depending on the individual.
If you enjoy learning about history through fictional stories as I do, two other terrific choices are Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. The first deals with slavery in the United States at the time of the Revolutionary War and the second deals with the 1920’s on Alcatraz, its surrounding community and to a certain extent with autism as it relates to family dynamics and to a time in history when even less was understood about it than today. Both books do contain some mature content that lend themselves to discussion.