Historical Fiction and Nonfiction Mentor Texts

Mosaic of book coversMentor Texts

Whenever I’m reading someone else’s work for critique or whenever I’m struggling in a particular area of my writing, I always turn to mentor texts. They are like “guiding lights.”

I’ve been involved in some discussions online that are asking for great suggestions for picture book biographies (recent ones), historical fiction examples, and even books for the youngest of readers.

I created the list for writers who need some good mentor texts to guide them in learning about the genres and writing their own books. However, this list could easily be used for the classroom and I’ve shared many of these books with students.

I have also included this list in a PDF for easy printing.

But you may wonder why I delineated between historical fiction and nonfiction in my list or HOW I delineated.

Nonfiction vs Historical Fiction

I’ve noticed a lot of people who have been asking about what makes a book historical fiction. Here are some of my rules of thumb:

  • Parts of the narrative that cannot be proven as fact
  • Invented Dialogue
  • First person POV (unless it’s an autobiography)
  • Using the historical facts to create a believable, but fictional, story (example: using the facts of the Civil War battles and times to create a fictional story about a child during the Civil War)

How Can I Tell the Difference?

  • Read it yourself.
  • Read the author’s note at the back of the book. Most of the time, the author points out parts that he/she couldn’t find and had to imagine or invent. But they usually back up those imagined parts with impeccable research.
  • Take a look at the CIP (Cataloging in Publication) information on the copyright page. While sometimes, it claims that books are biographies when they use invented dialogue, it does give you some guidance. It points you to where it should be shelved in the library (though there is some wiggle room), which also will give you a clue.

But, What if??????

There are those books that seem to fit firmly in one category, but really aren’t clear cut. Case in point: THE RIGHT WORD: ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS. The main text is absolutely nonfiction, but there are parts of the text (not the main text) that have speech bubbles. My guess is that’s invented dialogue.

This is an excellent book! One of my absolute favorites this year. Because the main text or story is nonfiction, I’m going to include it in my nonfiction list. However, you could read this book without reading the dialogue and still understand it. The dialogue is woven into the illustrations, and it creates a kid-friendly part to the text.

Would I let students use this text as a reference source? Absolutely.

Betsy Bird articulated this very issue much more clearly than I did. Here’s her post about these books. I particularly encourage you to read the comments, for the conversation that occurred there is very, very important.

I also really like Tanya Lee Stone’s article about invented dialogue.

Some links were shared in the comments that delve even deeper into this issue. Marc Tyler Nobleman’s article in The Horn Book is excellent. and another article about what can happen when you invent dialogue.

I’m not an expert on this. I think the line between historical fiction and nonfiction is important. What is amazing to me is that the quality of books out there is continue to increase. All of these books are on my list because they are excellent. I enjoy reading them and sharing them with children.

My main goal for this list is to give writers some stellar mentor texts to take a look at when writing nonfiction or historical fiction. This has been a discussion on several Facebook groups I’m a part of.

I read widely to create this list, but I know there are books that I missed. If you disagree with my delineation, feel free to say so. Or if you have books to add to the list, please comment as well. I’m really interested in having you lead me to more good books!

Click here for the printable PDF version of this list.

HISTORICAL FICTION

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S.D. Schindler

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

The Flag Maker by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

George Washington’s Birthday: A Mostly True Tale by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Barry Blitt

Georgia’s Bones by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen

Going North by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

The Noisy Paintbox by Barb Rosenstock by Mary GrandPre

Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, illustrated by Gwen Strauss

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

NONFICTION

Biography

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos written by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Dream Something Big by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Susan Roth

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

Jack’s Path of Courage: The Life of John F. Kennedy by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough, illustrated by Debby Atwell

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky

A Splash of Red by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman

The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Science

An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (and all others in this series)

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan Roth

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

Events/Slice of Life/Niche areas

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1901 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Stewart

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Brian Floca

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Miracle Mud by David A. Kelly

My Country ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolph Murphy, illustrated by Brian Collier

Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta

Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives by Gene Barretta

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

NONFICTION FOR THE YOUNG READER

All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon by Katherine Tillotson

Bring on the Birds by Susan Stockdale (she has several NF animal books for young readers)

Gravity by Jason Chin

The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan

Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Life by Lola Schaefer, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong

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Comments

  1. Great list, Marcie. You’ve put a lot of work into this. Thanks!

  2. Yes, this took quite a deal of thought and energy, Marcie. Thanks for sharing it with us to prepare for ReviMo. It’s my first time to participate!

  3. Todd Burleson says:

    What a terrific resource! Thank you as a reader, librarian and writer. All three find new eyes to view these excellent titles.

    TB

  4. WOW! What a fantastic post, Marcie! You’ve given us a wonderful resource piece…quite a lot of work and effort on your part…it is much appreciated. And I’m grateful for the links to other articles on the same topic…thank you so very much. 🙂

  5. I needed to review the differences in historical fiction and nonfiction and what is allowed and what is not, so thank you very much for this terrific post and the mentor text resources (in PDF). Hope you had a lovely Christmas!