Can novels really help teach history?

As an advocate for the power of story, Susan Follett speaks on the role of historical fiction in civil rights education and conversations on race. Here are some of her thoughts.

Critical Thinking

I believe that critical thinking skills are fundamental to the preservation of our democracy.  My Freedom Summer-centric historical novel, The FOG MACHINE, was born of my need to answer two questions:

  • Why didn’t I know the history of my childhood, growing up in Mississippi in the sixties, in the epicenter of the civil rights movement?
  • What might be different if I had?

As I researched the first question and wrote my imaginings about the second, I was drawn to explore those same questions on behalf of others:

  • Where and how is the history of the civil rights movement being taught?
  • What might be different for us all if that answer can be extended?

My “Aha” Experience with Historical Fiction

Like many I know, I was never a lover of history classes in school. Dry textbooks with one-sided perspectives made it hard to think of the people as real. Much less to imagine being in their place and facing choices such as they faced.

Mistakenly assuming historical fiction would be like history textbooks, I resisted reading historical novels for years. Fortunately, my first foray into historical fiction was Freedom Road by Howard Fast.  I was enamored!

·       Of the novel; its author; and its main character Gideon Jackson, former slave who goes on to raise up his family and community and serve in the U.S. House of Representatives

·        Of history, made credible by the inclusion of primary source documents in the back of the book; made heartfelt by the power of story 

I imagined myself in Gideon’s place and doubted I could have approached his courage. At the same time, I believed I would have shared what drove him. Indeed, it lies at the core of our common humanity—wanting a good life for oneself and one’s family.

 I had discovered authentic historical fiction—able to open minds through the heart’s pathway.

What is this “power of story?”

“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian author on the danger of a single story

This is what stereotypes are. Not necessarily untrue, but certainly incomplete. 

As my character Flo Thomas in The FOG MACHINE says, “There’s lots of Alabamas in Alabama, you understand.”

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the danger of a single story

 Example: The Meridian Freedom Project

The Meridian Freedom Project uses historical Young Adult novels during their summer session, deliberately choosing books that address what it means to take action.

Eighth graders I met when I workshopped there in 2014 read Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper before visiting Little Rock on their end-of-summer civil rights tour.

Their tour guide showed them the AP history textbook being used at Central High.  It had a picture and one small paragraph about the desegregation.

MFP students felt that what they’d read had given them far more understanding of the Little Rock Nine and how kids their age decided whether or not to participate.

Wisdom from Freedom Summer Veterans

“Fiction was an essential resource for teachers in building both literacy and awareness.  Powerful in two important ways. 


“Fiction was an essential resource for teachers in building both literacy and awareness.  Powerful in two important ways. 

·        First, because it’s often easier to contemplate a fictional character’s situation and choices.

·        And second, because fiction allows stepping out of the here and now to view an arc in time.”

Gail Falk, 1964 Meridian Freedom School Teacher

“Because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts.”
Marshall Ganz, Freedom Summer veteran who now teaches leadership storytelling at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government


Teaching History via Story

I came to understand why I didn’t know the history of my childhood, and doing so has made me determined to help others know it.  I will never know what I might have done had I been older and more aware during Freedom Summer.  But imagining the answer has shown me a world worth working for. 

It’s important to champion the teaching of our full history in our schools.  What’s taught has always been limited.  Today, it’s further under attack by school boards and textbook publishers.  Encroachment on rights for voting and equal access gained during Freedom Summer is an injustice that’s harder to perpetrate on a society that knows its history.  

Both recognizing and battling prejudice depend on knowing our history.  Truly knowing our history depends on what gets taught and how.  I assert that:

·         What should be taught is the history not just of the civil rights movement, but of other movements—movements for human rights. 

·         And how that should be taught is in an inquiry-based fashion. 

If that teaching can be enriched by the use of story-based resources—for which there’s ample evidence of the power to open minds through the heart’s pathway—all the better. 

As Adiche says, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” It is my mission to contribute to that paradise.

Susan Follett, Author The FOG MACHINE and advocate for the power of story to dismantle stereotypes that divide us

Photo Resources

Gail Falk, teaching: Meridian Freedom School, 1964




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