How Does Historical Fiction Help Kids Learn About History?

In a world where our present is inextricably linked to our past, literature serves as a bridge connecting the two. In a recent podcast episode, Alda Dobbs, an author revered for her poignant historical fiction, discusses the profound impact these narratives can have on young readers. Historical fiction, Dobbs asserts, is not merely a retelling of events; it’s an invitation to walk in the shoes of those who came before us, to feel their struggles, and to emerge with a newfound understanding and empathy.

Show Notes

The Value of Historical Fiction
Mexican Revolution and Bilingual Writing
Navigating Language, Writing, and History
Importance of Middle School Literature
Empowering Parents With Inclusive History


Delina McPhaull: 0:00

How does historical fiction help kids learn about history? What value is there in sharing hard history with children? Welcome to Homeschool Yourself. I’m your host, delena. Join me for this conversation with author Alda Dobbs. Book Club is a component of A Whole New World History the world history curriculum for middle schoolers at Woke Homeschooling, while studying the history of North America, students read Barefoot Dreams of Petra luna by Alda Dobbs. After the author paid us a virtual visit, I got a chance to ask her some questions about her writing as a bilingual author of historical fiction for middle grade students. We talked about what children can learn through learning hard history, what kids can get from historical fiction and her road to becoming an author. I think her path will surprise you. Alda’s life story is a great example of how we can pivot, work hard at something we love and learn something new, no matter what stage in life we’re in or what we went to school to do.

Delina McPhaull: 1:10

Enjoy this conversation with Alda Dobbs. Hi, Alda, it’s so good to have you here. I just wanted to ask you some questions. We just finished doing a presentation with some middle school students, some world history students, and it was awesome. I tried to let them ask all the questions and not answer my questions, but I still have some more questions, so I’m so glad that I get to sit here just with you for a few minutes and ask those questions. Why do you think that it’s important to tell the stories from those people who have been oppressed or displaced, or in just the stories of real people that lived through a historical event?

Alda Dobbs: 1:51

Yeah, I think it’s important because a lot of stuff we don’t know and a lot of times so much is happening, especially nowadays, so much is happening in the world, that a lot of stuff gets kind of pushed to the side, and maybe it’s always been like that.

Alda Dobbs: 2:06

So it’s time that we, you know, dig into these histories and pull out what’s happened in the past before.

Alda Dobbs: 2:12

So again, so we could learn from our past and, you know, so that the the future, the kids, could be better, be better prepared for the future.

Alda Dobbs: 2:19

Uh, for instance, when I read, uh, there’s a book, a middle grade book, uh, by Avi, a middle grade author called Crispin, and it’s about a boy growing up in medieval England, a really, really poor boy, and just the struggles he faces in, you know, 13th century England, and to me that was so foreign, I never knew about that era and I’m like, oh my goodness, a boy in England going through all that during the plague. And then I compare that to when my great-grandmother lived you know how poor and the haciendas and all that, compare that to the feudal system that they had in England, and I’m like, oh, my goodness, you see the similarities. So it’s our histories like this that connects us all, that we say, yeah, my ancestors went through that as well. Us all. That we say, yeah, my ancestors went through that as well, or your ancestors went through this. And that’s how we connect each other, by our histories and we.

Delina McPhaull: 3:09

that makes it easier to empathize with one another yeah, so you said that the story that you um relate. Of course it’s fiction, but it’s based on on history and your own family history. But that story or that account has was not in the history books when you were doing research.

Alda Dobbs: 3:28

Yeah, it was. To me. It’s so interesting that something so big and you know so many people, and not only that, but it changed, you know, texas and Mexico and it changed the whole Southwest in the United States because he had so many immigrants come during that period of time. He had 2 million, which created an anchor of more Mexican families and more immigration waves to come after that. So something that’s what I told myself how could something this significant not be in books? And you know it’s frustrating not to find it in books, especially Texas history books, and I grew up in Texas and you know had what is it? Two, three years of Texas history and never mentioned the Texas and the Mexican revolution. So it was frustrating. I said, okay, this is something we got to do and hopefully this will encourage other kids to seek their own histories and bring them out into the light so that more courses hopefully could pick up books like this and teach kids what’s happened before.

Delina McPhaull: 4:28

Yes, yes. So important In the book, is it the federales were the people from Spain Is that right. Or the Mexican government.

Alda Dobbs: 4:42

Yeah, yeah, it’s a mexican government. Yeah, it was. It’s very complicated because, yes, mexico was colonized by the, by the spanish, and then mexico got their independence from spain, so the spanish crown was done away with and mexico became independent, but it was still people with Spanish blood who ran Mexico.

Delina McPhaull: 5:07

And those are the people that that had the haciendas.

Alda Dobbs: 5:10

Yeah, so it was it. Then it became how, how much Spanish are you? You know? How much blood Spanish were you born in the motherland? Were you born in Mexico? That was you know. So it became this cast, you know, a system of how Spanish you were.

Alda Dobbs: 5:26

And, for instance, if you had enough questions, yeah, and if you had enough power, a lot of times, like the dictator in Mexico who was having vision, is he denied that part, you know, kind of like kind of hit it, and I mean he would even powder his face to make himself appear lighter, I mean, just so he could be accepted more to society. So it became, you know, it was Mexicans, you know, fighting Mexicans at that point. But you know it became to, okay, are you more Spanish? Are you lighter skin, are you? But then, you know, and then became about power. You know, if you had enough money, then you were considered, you know, and then became about power. You know, if you had enough money, then you were considered, you know, to be Spanish or or whatnot. If you were poor, it didn’t matter if you had fair skin, you were indigenous because you’re poor. So it became, you know, split, but it was Mexicans versus Mexicans at that point, okay okay, we like to say in welcome schooling um, I have it right here.

Delina McPhaull: 6:26

Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. So can you give us an example of something that happened in the Mexican Revolution, the way that it’s traditionally told, and maybe the way that you described it in your book or the perspective that you came from?

Alda Dobbs: 6:45

Yeah, I would say it varies because my perspective was the stories I grew up with. You know, I grew up hearing about rebels being the heroes, you know, because they they were the Robin Hoods. You know they would steal from the rich and give to the poor. So that’s the perspective I got. But there are other people who grew up with a different perspective. You know that were attacked, you know, by rebels. That their ranch was attacked by rebels because they were stealing the cattle. So they saw the rebels, as you know, the invaders. So it’s just a different. You know it’s a different pathway, different journey for everyone during that war. And that’s what I tend to tell young readers that it’s complicated, it’s very complicated. Any war will be very complicated. You can’t just paint it one way or the other and say it’s all evil, all good, because you know it’s a mesh, you know it’s hard to detangle that. So you got to keep that in mind, that perspective, that it’s going to be different for different people.

Delina McPhaull: 7:43

Right, that’s, that’s a good point. That’s a good point. Well, just tell us how has being bilingual helped you in your writing?

Alda Dobbs: 7:53

Oh, my goodness, that’s. That’s really really good Cause English wasn’t my first language, it was Spanish. So I learned English when I went into kindergarten. That’s when I started, because I didn’t speak anything and even though I had been living in the States, everything in my neighborhood was in Spanish. You know, we spoke Spanish at home, TV was in Spanish, Everything in the stores was in Spanish. It took about three, four years to learn it and I didn’t.

Alda Dobbs: 8:24

The teacher I had, you know, for three years, wasn’t the most patient teacher. I guess he got frustrated a lot that I couldn’t speak it. So that only aggravated the situation. I became more frustrated, more scared. I was scared of him, scared of not learning it correctly, and it just, yeah, I created this, created this environment, love, hate, relationship with English. So, but I like storytelling, you know I like storytelling and even though I was a reluctant reader, the idea of telling stories was always in me and and as I grew up I figured, OK, maybe it’s something, I could become a storyteller.

Alda Dobbs: 9:03

But when I got into college again, you know, English was always a problem. So I did a placement test and ended up with remedial English scoring. Remedial, I mean, I bombed that test and my math did well. So I thought that was a sign. I said, okay, that’s a sign that I shouldn’t be a writer. You know cause? I, I will never speak perfect English. I, my English, is always going to be not the best, so I should probably focus on the career of the sciences.

Alda Dobbs: 9:29

But what I try to tell young readers now is doesn’t matter, you know what your first language is. You know the confidence will follow up if it’s in your heart, if it’s your passion. Follow that passion and that confidence will will come. You know, with the hard work. Don’t expect the confidence to be there from day one, because that’s what I was expecting and it didn’t. And even now, as a grown up, you know I’m working at it every day, writing better and better. And that confidence, you know, slowly comes with it, but it’s not something that comes from day one. So just be aware of that.

Delina McPhaull: 10:02

So you went into the sciences.

Alda Dobbs: 10:05

I did my background in science and physics and engineering, so I did work at an engineering firm for a few years before I went into writing.

Alda Dobbs: 10:15

Wow, that’s a big difference in career Big jump, yeah, but like I tell people what’s, what’s interesting is that despite the fact that physics is very hard science, it’s considered hard science. You use a lot of imagination and physics just because so much you cannot see. You know, like in cosmology you can’t see dark energy or or other celestial objects. You know in the universe so you got to imagine them and you have the math to communicate the results. But you got to use your imagination to be able to explain what’s happening. You know in the subatomic world. So a lot of it it is very creative, you know. So I think I had that advantage, you know, to be able to do that switch, just a little jump, you know, not that big big of a jump.

Delina McPhaull: 11:02

Right, and you now you use the words to explain it to other people, the images that you see in your imagination. That’s awesome. That’s true. Yeah, that’s awesome. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

Alda Dobbs: 11:18

I’d say I had stories in me all the time, and especially in college. You know, I’d see little things and I would think of stories, and I never had the courage. I always was too afraid oh, my English, my English, my English, and you never write in Spanish. That’s the thing, because I grew up in the United States and my Spanish wasn’t that strong, you know. I mean, I spoke it at home, you know, but it wasn’t formal, you know, through the education system in Mexico. So I always felt that lack of confidence too. It’s always felt like I was stuck in between, you know, these two worlds, that I didn’t know how to speak either language. Good enough, well enough.

Alda Dobbs: 11:58

So it came to a point that my husband and I were stationed in Italy and I was struggling to find a job in engineering there. And that’s when he said you know what? Just write, just start writing. You’ve always wanted to write. And I said are you kidding? Really? He said, yeah, you have all these stories. Just sit down and start writing. So that was about 12 years ago. So I said, okay, I’ll give it a shot. You know, see what happens. So yeah, and it was hard work, just a lot of rejections, a lot of sweat, blood and tears. But but you know it was a passion and that’s something that I realized later in life, that that passion was always in me and I wish I would have followed that a lot sooner, you know. So I’m hoping you know I beg children’s like just follow that dream, don’t you know? Don’t cut yourself short saying, well, I’m never good at this or I’m not, I like this or like that. No, just go at it, go for it.

Delina McPhaull: 12:51

I love that because some people think that you just can write a book just naturally and quickly, not really realizing what a discipline it is and how you, even though you have the story in your head, just putting it on paper is is a discipline and it’s a. It’s a craft that you have to story in your head. Just putting it on paper is a discipline and it’s a craft that you have to work on.

Alda Dobbs: 13:11

It is. It is. There’s a lot of words that I I’m glad there’s a big novel that I wrote first that I’m glad it didn’t get published because it’s awful. So it’s sitting in my drawer. Maybe one day, if I take it out and restructure the whole thing, it’ll be something different. But yeah, we all you have to put in the hours, the time.

Delina McPhaull: 13:32

Everything that you write is not going to make it out of the drawer.

Alda Dobbs: 13:36

Exactly, and not only that. Something I learned through live is that, because I always told myself I’m an engineer, I’m a scientist, but not realizing that I’ve always been a writer I’m an engineer, I’m a scientist, but not realizing that I’ve always been a writer. I wrote college essays, I wrote grant proposals, essays for scholarship applications, reports, and you’re always trying to sell something, you know. You’re always pitching something, either a project, or you know a thesis or something. There’s always something, a story behind it. So we’re all writers, you know, and it’s just. There’s always something a story behind it. So we, we’re all writers, you know, and it’s just trying to turn into more creative writing. So that’s something that I tell myself now that, my goodness, you know why was I so afraid, you know, of writing? Because I’ve been writing all my life.

Delina McPhaull: 14:21

What would you? Well, let me ask you this way there are parents who see the importance of teaching all of history, not just one side of it, but they don’t really want their kids to know hard history, or they’re not sure how their kids will understand it and take it in. And your book is very intense. It is yes. And so what do you? What value do you see in sharing hard history with children, with middle schoolers?

Alda Dobbs: 14:59

Yeah, I understand that the perspective of parents. You know there’s so many ways of of thinking, you know what’s what’s’s best, but personally I think it’s just trying to get that history Because it’s dark. Some of our history is dark. It hurts, but I see the importance of learning, looking back and learning from that to avoid it repeating itself again in the future. And because if we don’t know about it and we walk blindly into the future, we might get surprised by it and say, wait, I didn’t know that could happen. Well, yeah, it happened, you know, not long ago, so we’re better prepared. We say, ok, that’s what happened, kind of like when I read all these books on World War II and you see what’s happened now in Europe and you’re like, oh my goodness, you see that you feel it now because you know what happened there. So it’s not. I think it’s always from personally. I think that experience of knowing what happened in her past to avoid that happening again, that’s important for us to be able to share with with the future generations.

Delina McPhaull: 16:07

I love that you said that, because some of us know, you know what we know. World War II happened but to know, and we know the Mexican Revolution happened, but to know what happened to actual, real people that we can identify with. We know, you know to know it on a personal level on, on a human to human level, somebody who was not in the room making the decisions, who was not a general or a you know a diplomat or whatever you know a decision maker, and just to know how those things affect real people.

Alda Dobbs: 16:39

Yes, yes, that’s true, Because you do have a lot of books on, like you said, diplomats and governors and how it affected them, and also you do have a few stories about the general middle class. You know person, but when you get the poorest of the poor and children, especially girls, you know that’s you don’t hear much about that. So it’s interesting to pull out those stories and say, look, this is what this kid went through here, kind of like I was talking about the medieval child living in that system, the feudal system, to pull out his story and shine light and you start seeing all these resemblances, you know of all these struggles that children are going through and unfortunately they’re going through right now.

Delina McPhaull: 17:22

Yeah, yeah, really important. What one book? I know this is a hard question for an author to pick one book, because authors read a lot, right? What one book would you say every middle school student should read?

Alda Dobbs: 17:40

It’s tough. It’s tough I mean, oh my, oh my goodness, because I it depends on your mood and what’s going on, and all that. So there are so many wonderful books out there, like I’ve. I’ve mentioned Avi’s, uh Crispin a lot, because I learned so much from that book, the fact that I said, oh my goodness, this is a boy in Britain went through that in the 1300s or the 13th century and my great-grandmother went through that over here.

Alda Dobbs: 18:04

Then I read the book uh Chains by uh Anderson and I see that child, what they went through, you know, and puts that into perspective. Then I see Lois Laurie, you know, uh number the stars and and I just connect with the kids. You know that when they had to go through those harsh environments, so there are so many books and I want to feel better too, so I pick, connect with the kids. You know that when they had to go through those harsh environments, so there are so many books and I want to feel better, so I pick up Kate and Camila’s books to feel better. You know, bring some sunlight, some sunshine into my world to get me away. So so, yeah, it depends on my mood. I couldn’t. I’m sorry, I hate that.

Delina McPhaull: 18:40

No, no, no it’s. It’s hard to choose, it’s hard to choose it is yeah, it is so I love them all.

Alda Dobbs: 18:46

It’s like my kids I love them all. Don’t pick a favorite.

Delina McPhaull: 18:53

Well, tell us about your upcoming book.

Alda Dobbs: 18:56

Yes, my upcoming book is the Other Side of the River, and this one follows Petra Luna too. It follows Petra Luna to San Antonio because she makes it, you know not to spoil the first one, but she makes it across the river and and I just, it was different for my family because when they were in the at the refugee camp, the immigration administration came over and spoke to them and said okay, you’ve been here three weeks, we’re about to shut down the camp and the federalists have left, the rebels took back control of the city, so it’s already calm over there. So you’re free to go back or you can stay here and we’ll give you a job. So you choose what you decide. So my great grandmother you know she’s nine and she’s spoken over with her father they said Okay, should we stay in America or should we go back? And they said you know what amongst themselves they spoke and they said we think it’s best we go back, you know, because Mexico is our land and we should fight to, you know, restore her. So they went back and everything was burned to the ground. Villages were destroyed, so it was really really hard to start again. You know, destroyed, so it was really really hard to start again, you know, and.

Alda Dobbs: 20:08

But I’ve read in my research that a lot of immigrants stayed. You know they ended up getting jobs in San Antonio and North Texas, even Kansas or Illinois. So I said, oh, my goodness, that’s a different struggle. Because, yeah, a lot of people struggle to find housing, to find work, and even though there were words, you know, the conditions were bad sometimes. So it was always a struggle. So I figured, you know what? Let me put petra in that position. You know see how she would fight for her, how she would fend for herself and her family and try to make her dreams come true of learning to read and write in a new environment. Because now she’s not in that old village, now she’s in a city, and one of the biggest cities in san. It was san antonio back in in, uh in that year in texas. It was one of the richest and largest cities too. So I wanted to put her in that world does she meet her little friend again?

Delina McPhaull: 20:56

uh, don’t tell me, don’t tell me maybe yes, maybe no, no.

Alda Dobbs: 21:02

Okay, what I do do like is that Pablo comes back her cousin and he brings in the perspective of what happened as a rebel boy, you know, in the war. So he brings that part of the, that piece of history so that kids get a sense. Okay, this is what it was like to be in that, and it wasn’t easy. Kids get a sense. Okay, this is what it was like to be in that, and it wasn’t easy.

Delina McPhaull: 21:24

My final question is what would you say is the message of Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna? And like what? What message would?

Alda Dobbs: 21:38

you want? Do you want kids and the parents who read it with them to get out of it? Yeah, I would say it’s two of them. One of them would be that kids. You know Petra Luna is 12. And she’s capable of so much. So you know for you kids out there, you could conquer the world. I mean, even though people say you’re a kid, you’re limited. No, you’re not. You know, you’re more powerful than you think, you’re stronger than you think and, given the circumstances and conditions, you would do extraordinary things. You know and you’re capable of that. And so don’t ever let anybody you know underestimate what you’re capable of, because even though you’re a kid, you’re stronger than what you believe in and you could achieve anything you want to.

Alda Dobbs: 22:18

I want the messages, just like I told people before in the presentation, that this is the story is not unique to Petra or my family or or Mexicans, that this is a universal story, that of the struggles of people migrating to this country. You know you have the Irish escaping the famine, the Germans who came to Texas. They struggled a lot too. So so many people have struggled in so many ways to get here and to other safe places in Europe, across the world. You know, we’re always struggling to find a better place for ourselves and for our kids or our future generation. So I want people to connect, you know, with that, with that story, to empathize with one another, to say, yeah, that’s what happened in my history and and also dig into your history too. So that’s, that’s the third one. I guess it would be to start digging into those stories. So that’s three messages, I guess.

Delina McPhaull: 23:11

That’s awesome. No, that’s awesome. I’m pretty sure you inspired lots of them today to dig into their their own history and just find stories of real people.

Alda Dobbs: 23:22

Oh, thank you.

Delina McPhaull: 23:25

Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your contribution to you know the literature for middle school students.

Alda Dobbs: 23:32

No, I appreciate it. I appreciate the time and the opportunity with these wonderful kids. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Delina McPhaull: 23:38

All right. Since Alda Dobbs and I spoke for this interview interview, she released the sequel to barefoot dreams of petra luna. I will link to both books in the show notes at wokehomeschoolingcom slash podcast. My kids and I both enjoyed this intense historical novel and I definitely recommend it for your middle school student. It’s one of those books that really make you feel what it might have been like to live through a consequential moment in history, and we’ve had a few of those in the last few years. In this case she was talking about the Mexican Revolution, but it’s a really, really great book.

Delina McPhaull: 24:15

I think that’s what the best books do they get you to relate to the characters and see history in a way that you can empathize with those who lived with the consequences of the decisions of the powerful. When history is no longer abstract for your kids, that’s when you know you’re winning. That’s when you know you’re making homeschool magic, and that’s what we do in our US history curriculum and our world history curriculum. If you’re new to Woke Homeschooling, I invite you to download samples of our curriculum. We’d love to partner with you to make history come alive for your kids. Visit our website at wokehomeschoolingcom. Until next time, go unlearn something.

Announcer: 24:53

Homeschool Yourself is a production of Woke Homeschooling Inc. For show notes and links to things mentioned in the episode, visit wokehomeschoolingcom slash podcast. Woke Homeschooling empowers parents to teach their kids an inclusive, truthful history. We invite you to visit our website and download a sample of the history curriculum we offer for kids. Visit us at wokehomeschoolingcom.

Read Less Read More


Delina McPhaull

Podcast Host

Delina Pryce McPhaull is a seasoned editorial consultant and owner of Woke Homeschooling. She lives in Texas with her family. Her happiest days are spent with her loved ones, enjoying good food, stimulating conversations, and basking in the beauty of the sunset and sea. She loves sharing her love of learning with her kids, through homeschooling, and with others through the Woke Homeschooling community.