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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Navigating Historical Fiction: Focusing on Setting First

Readers at Wild Adventures are quickly falling in love with a new genre -- historical fiction!

Often, when students come to fourth grade, they still think books are one of two "genres": fiction or nonfiction.  This year, readers are learning that calling a book "fiction" or "nonfiction" is like saying a dog is an animal or an oak tree is a plant.  There is so much more that we could say!  We can consider "fiction" and "nonfiction" the "kingdoms" of the literary world, and now that we're older, we are getting to know the "species" within each.

Recently, we learned that we read historical fiction much the same way as we would read any other type of narrative text (mystery, realistic fiction, narrative nonfiction, etc.).  We focus deeply on the characters.  However, as we read stories that take place in times (and sometimes places) far away from the world we live in, we also need to pay careful attention to the setting.  Where in the world is this taking place?  When in history is this story set?  Once we've established the where and when in a global sense, we move towards understanding the traits of the setting, just as we would understand the traits of a character.

In our newest read aloud, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, the year (1930) and geographic location (Aguascalientes, Mexico) are clearly announced to the reader.  As we read on, we learned Esperanza's family owns and lives on a vineyard and ranch, El Rancho de las Rosas.  But in order to truly understand Esperanza's story, we have to understand what kind of place and time this really was for the people living within it.

"Everyone who lived and worked on El Rancho de las Rosas was gathered at the edge of the field:  Esperanza's family, the house servants in their long white aprons, the vaqueros already sitting on their horses ready to ride out to the cattle, and fifty or sixty campesinos, straw hats in their hands, holding their own knives ready."

This passage revealed to many readers in our room that Esperanza's home was a wealthy home.  It was the kind of place that probably left Esperanza wanting nothing she didn't already have.

Later, as we read descriptions of the fiesta that occurred each year after the harvest, and Esperanza's thoughts about her future Quinceañeras, many readers said they could tell it was a traditional home, consistent and predictable from year to year.  We know that carrying these understandings with us as we walk with the characters through their story is important because it helps us have empathy and a deeper understanding of the characters behaviors, actions, choices, and traits.

Readers, revisit this passage from the first chapter.  Think carefully about the details Pam Muñoz Ryan included.  What words would you use to describe the setting of our story after you've reread this passage closely?

"He swept his hand toward the grapevines, signaling Esperanza.  When she walked toward the arbors and glanced back at her parents, they both smiled and nodded, encouraging her forward.  When she reached the vines, she separated the leaves and carefully grasped a thick stem.  She put the knife to it, and with a quick swipe, the heavy cluster of grapes dropped into her waiting hand.  Esperanza walked back to Papa and handed him the fruit.  Papa kissed it and held it up for all to see.  
'¡La cosecha!' said Papa.  "Harvest!"
'¡Ole! ¡Ole!'  A cheer echoed around them.
The campesinos, the field-workers, spread out over the land and began the task of reaping the fields.  Esperanza stood between Mama and Papa, with her arms linked to theirs, and admired the activity of the workers.
 'Papi, this is my favorite time of year,' she said, watching the brightly colored shirts of the workers slowly moving among the arbors.  Wagons rattled back and forth from the fields to the big barns where the grapes would be stored until they went to the winery."

I can't wait to see your thinking in the comments below!


  1. I absolutely love the exposure the students are having to all the different types of genres out there. I don't think this book would've been a book AJ would have chosen freely to read, and yet, he can relate to it since he experienced his 1st Quincenera party for his cousin this last Septemeber.

  2. My L came home asking me if I had read this book. I had to admit I haven't but have always wanted to. She assured me I should because it seems really interesting.

  3. I would have described the setting as rural and rich lands filled with greenery.After we read the first chapter with our mental bulliten boards i could really see how much setting and charcter details there was.Can't wait to read another chapter with you! love, lexie

  4. It's being added to my list and soon to my bedside table for free time reading. :)


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