African American boy looks at a steamboat in the river.Kids deserve to know about amazing, courageous people from the past. But sometimes the historical record is too sketchy to tell a strictly nonfiction story about a real event. That’s where historical fiction comes in–writers can tell a story that conveys a historical truth without having the life sucked out of the story by the lack of documentary evidence required by nonfiction. Deborah Hopkinson tells just such a story inĀ Steamboat School.

An 1847 made it illegal in Missouri to teach reading or writing to any African Americans, even free citizens. In this book Hopkinson tells the true story of how one committed, creative African American preacher found a way to keep teaching without breaking the law.

This is a great story for kids. It highlights the importance of education, and the lengths people are willing to go in order to learn to read and write. It showcases a man of courage and conviction. It’s a story about kids learning. It would be a great shame for the story to go untold simply because the historical account is so sketchy. So Hopkinson creates a fictional frame to tell the story, but she also makes it clear right from the cover of the book that this is a fictional account, “inspired by a true story.”

The back matter is extensive and fascinating. She talks a little about research material she looked for but failed to find, and she gives the reader much greater detail about the historical characters.

The text of the book isn’t quite nonfiction, but combined with the excellent back matter, this book can fill many of the functions of excellent nonfiction for kids.

Steamboat School, Inspired by a True Story by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband. Disney-Hyperion: 2016.

Children around a globe.




I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book every Wednesday at KidLit Frenzy.