“Like A River: A Civil War Novel,” by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

“Like a River: A Civil War Novel”
By Kathy Cannon Wiechman
336 pp., Calkins Creek

$14.23

Teachers are using historical fiction and nonfiction to enhance their classroom lessons. “It illuminates time periods, helps me integrate the curriculum, and enriches social studies,” according to one teacher who has embraced the use of appropriate non-textbook reading materials to engage young learners.

The teacher’s comments were posted on the website of the Scholastic publishing company. “I have students balance fiction with fact, validate historical hypotheses with research. Historical fiction is the spice.”

David Bruce Smith, co-founder of the Grateful American Book Prize, says the teacher’s remarks underscore the purpose of the Prize, the first of which will be awarded to author Kathy Cannon Wiechman for her book, “Like a River: A Civil War Novel,” at a ceremony on Oct. 22 at President Lincoln’s Cottage in DC.

Smith, an author and publisher, is also an education advocate with a special focus on the teaching of American history. “The award was the brainchild of the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. Bruce Cole. When he described his idea to me, I immediately surrounded myself with people who could help make it a reality.”

Cole, who has described the United States as “a country of historical amnesiacs,” and Smith have long shared a concern that history has taken a back seat to math and science in education, especially in early education. “Over the past several decades, schools have gradually de-emphasized history. The result is: now, many kids do not even know the basic facts such as who George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were,” Smith says.

The Prize was designed to stimulate authors and publishers to produce well-researched works of fiction and nonfiction that engage students in the events and personalities that have shaped American history, he says. “Teachers such as the one quoted on the Scholastic website are able to use such books to make history class less boring.”

Wiechman’s “Like a River,” which tells the story of a pair of teenage Union soldiers, was chosen as the winner because it is a compelling tale based on fact that leaves readers — especially young ones — with a sense of understanding about a major part of the past.

Two additional books will also be cited at the ceremony with Honorable Mention Certificates: Darlene Beck Jacobson’s novel, “Wheels of Change,” which confronts Washington, DC’s racial turbulence during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency; and Michaela MacColl’s “The Revelation of Louisa May,” a deftly appealing combination of actual events and history culled from the life of author Louisa May Alcott.

Lisa Cucciniello, a teacher and an author, is also a strong proponent of using historical novels and biographies as a supplemental tool of learning. “Students often have a difficult time connecting the past to the present. If a teacher cannot even get the events of the past across to the students, the connection with the present is impossible. One way to engage young adults is to have them read works of historical fiction.”