Hello, dear readers! As we head into the fall, I thought it might be fun to talk about the crossover between historical fiction and teaching history to students. Many of our authors homeschool, but I chose two with recent releases, Kimberly Duffy and Jody Hedlund, to share a bit more about how their writing and teaching worlds intersect. And if you are (or know) a homeschooler, there are a few reading guide resources linked at the bottom of the post if you’re interested in teaching your teens through Christian fiction!
Tell us about your homeschooling background, including when in your homeschool journey you started writing fiction.
Jody: I have five children and have been homeschooling for close to twenty years. My oldest three are now college age and beyond. And I have two left in high school. I’ve been writing for most of my adult life, but I got really serious about pursuing publication when I was in the thick of homeschooling. My youngest was only six months old when I started writing The Preacher’s Bride (my debut book).
Kimberly: I began writing fiction long before I had children. I finished my first book right before getting pregnant with my oldest daughter. But I didn’t begin seriously pursuing publication until my third was born, and by that time I was homeschooling two. I grew up in New York where homeschooling laws are fairly strict, so I didn’t know anyone who homeschooled. I didn’t even know it was a thing. But when I married and moved to Ohio, I became good friends with a young mom who encouraged me from the moment my daughter was born. She insisted I’d be a fantastic homeschooler (which I’ve since learned isn’t at all the truth). When my oldest was ready for kindergarten, I wasn’t ready to release her, so I decided to homeschool her for kindergarten, except by the end of the year, she was reading at a third grade level. So I just continued since it seemed like a great way to instill in my kids a love for reading and learning that wouldn’t be hampered by tests, social pressure, and a tearing down of their natural giftings and inclinations.
What’s the hardest thing about balancing your career as a novelist with teaching and parenting? What about the most surprising?
Jody: The hardest thing is carving out time for writing. When my kids were younger, I spent the majority of my day teaching them and had to relegate writing to when they were napping, resting, or in bed at night. As my kids got older and more independent, I wrote in the afternoons while they did chores or played.
Once my writing career began to take off, I solicited help from other people. My husband’s work schedule allowed him the flexibility to homeschool the kids a couple of mornings a week, which provided me with more writing time. My mom also helped by teaching the kids music, cooking, history, and other fun subjects on Fridays, freeing up more time.
Most surprising was how much I could accomplish in the midst of my busy life. I realized I couldn’t wait for perfect conditions before I began writing and that I needed to grab what I could. I learned to work amidst noise, chaos, and a zillion interruptions. I had to develop strong self-control to keep writing even with so many other things demanding my attention.
Kim: The hardest thing about balancing my career and teaching is that I’m not any good at it. I’m very disciplined, but I also have tunnel vision on whatever it is I’m working on. That means each April, right before homeschool conference season, I spend hours and hours a day organizing and planning and purchasing and developing (I really like creating my own curriculum because I have a lack of awareness when it comes to how much time I actually have). Nothing else gets done—even the laundry. And when I’m writing a first draft, I’m ONLY writing a first draft. Kids? What kids? Thankfully, my older two are fairly independent with their work and rarely need me, and my third grader only requires an hour or so of direct instruction a day.
I used to try so hard to be more balanced, but I’m just not made that way and I’ve since learned there are benefits to being 100% in.
Either now or in the past, what role has fiction played in your homeschooling curriculum?
Jody: I’m a huge proponent of kids learning through “living books” (and not just textbooks). As a result, I read a TON of fiction to my kids when they were younger. I also took advantage of audio books during our lunch time. Also, for many years we were a part of a book group (with other homeschooling families), one that challenged us to read outside our normal interests. All of that helped facilitate a love of reading among my kids.
Kimberly: Fiction has always played a HUGE role in our homeschooling choices. From the kindergarten days of read alouds with Little House on the Prairie to helping one of my children overcome her serious aversion to math by using Life of Fred (a story based math program) to creating and teaching a creative writing program to middle schoolers, fiction is the cornerstone of our day. Reading widely is the very best way to teach grammar and history and the beauty of language. It’s the best way to expose children to other cultures and places and people. It’s the best way to instill in them compassion and empathy. Jesus used story to teach great lessons. I don’t think I need to reinvent the wheel.
What do you think are some effective ways to get kids excited about history?
Jody: I always enjoyed finding books that corresponded to whatever we were learning in history. For example, when we studied Ancient Egypt we read The Golden Goblet, and when we studied the Roman era, we read The Bronze Bow. Reading about real people having real experiences brought history to life and made it more interesting and easier to learn.
Kimberly: I have a secret weapon—a high school experience that taught me the best way to learn history. I dropped out of my AP history class because of bullying (sometimes the meanest kids are the smart ones) but I still wanted to take the exam. I couldn’t open that textbook without some serious anxiety, so I just decided to sign up. And I got a perfect score. Because I read extensively—historical novels, classic literature, autobiographies. Multiple books a week. Over a broad range of topics (but usually historical in nature because, even then, it was my passion). Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator, believed the best way to teach history was through what she called “living books,” and I agree. Kids will remember what sparked the Reformation if they read about it in a wonderfully-written novel. They will remember the day the Revolutionary War was won if they read a biography on Washington. They will remember how the Salem witch hunts happened if they read The Witch of Blackbird Pond.
Another thing we love doing is visiting historical sites and living history museums. Study artists and then go see their paintings at a museum. Listen to classical music and learn about the people who created it. Read Farmer Boy and have popcorn and milk like Almanzo. It’s easy to bring history to life, and it’s life that kids remember and enjoy.
If you’re looking for a fantastic, already created history curriculum that is based on these ideals, check out Beautiful Feet Books—a Charlotte Mason inspired history curriculum. They have many grade levels and topics. My favorite is the Around the World with Picture Books (preschoolers), History of the Horse (middle elementary), and Medieval History (middle and high school).
Have you ever used your children’s curriculum to research for your next novel? If so, tell us about it!
Jody: Oh yeah! In fact, it was while reading biographies to my children during history lessons that I began to learn about some of the great heroes of the faith and the women who stood by their sides. I was so fascinated by those “forgotten” women, that I had the urge to bring them to life and tell their stories. That’s what inspired me to write The Preacher’s Bride (which is about the wife of John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress).
Kimberly: I don’t think I’ve ever used a complete curriculum, but I have used children’s books. I read a few children’s books in preparation for writing A Mosaic of Wings. My favorite was Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. I find that children’s books are great resources because they distill the essence of a story, person, or place into something easily accessible, to the point, and, because there is often a limit on words, beautifully poetic. There are also pictures!
Historical Fiction Curriculum Guides for Teens
If you homeschool, here’s a fun bonus resource: several Bethany House fiction authors have created curriculum guides, often including study questions related to history, science, and literature to use as a companion with a particular book. Enjoy learning while reading!
What was a favorite historical fiction book of yours when you were a child or teenager?