Historical Fiction Picture Books

For a lot of children, picture books are an introduction to history — a way to start thinking about the world not only outside their home, but outside their time period.  Here are some good ones to consider:

Train to Somewhere, by Eve Bunting, follows a late 1800s New York city orphan — one of a group of orphans — as she travels by train to various stops along the midwest, where potential adoptive guardians await.  Ronald Himler’s evocative, detailed paintings make for fine illustrations, but really the story is the strongest part of this book.  The hope and helplessness of the orphans is heartbreaking; who would find a good home and who would be chosen because they looked strong enough for farming?  Who would get birthday presents and who would work everyday in the family business without pay?  A gentle story that suggest what we want is not always what we need, and that salvation can come from the most unlikely people and places.

I’m always taken aback by just how stunning Greg Shed’s paintings are in Dandelions, a story about an 1800s Nebraska pioneer family.  This is another book by Even Bunting, structured with important elements of pioneer life:  the covered wagon, the soddie, the process of digging a well, travelling a whole day to get to town, and the importance of making connections with neighbours.  But what really holds the story together is a daughter’s awareness that while her father is excited about their new life, her mother aches for their old life in Illinois.  How will they help their transplanted mother bloom again?  Bunting provides an excellent way to introduce your reader to metaphor.


Again, such fantastic paintings!  In Pepe The Lamplighter, Ted Lewin deftly uses Elisa Bartone’s story to inform his style.  On almost every page, he uses high contrast to illustrate Pepe’s importance as the lamplighter in 1800s New York’s Little Italy.  There is blackness and shadow everywhere, but lanterns, street lamps, and candles metaphorically help the new immigrant community find its way, as Pepe tries to support his family despite his father’s anger that their departure from Naples hasn’t afforded them greater opportunities in America.


While this isn’t a true story per se, there were in fact baseball teams in the WWII Japanese internment camps, and Baseball Saved Us is the story of how the game helped people — demoralized, shattered, and angry — come together and find something to give shape to their lives during that awful time.  Author Ken Mochizuki deals with the racism of the time and place with sensitivity and honesty, and the ending is hopeful.






The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman is a well-crafted immigrant story about a boy who sails from Italy to America.  Unable to read or write, he keeps a diary by tucking small objects into empty matchboxes.  A dried olive pit, a wrinkled picture of his father, a bottle cap, a hairpin, fish bones, a ticket to a IMG_4218baseball game…each reveals part of the boy’s journey from Napoli to his life in present day, as an antiques dealer explaining the matchboxes to his granddaughter.   Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations are photographic in their detail, easily evoking turn-of-the-century America as well as the warmth and tenderness of a grandfather’s first meeting with his granddaughter.  An excellent way to introduce kids to why and how people immigrated to the States, and what kinds of challenges they met as they tried to build new lives.