An Opportunity to Get Teens Excited about Historical Fiction

Author Ruta Sepetys has a new book, her fourth, coming out on Oct. 1. Set in Spain during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, The Fountains of Silence is a heart-wrenching story of love, war, and secrets. It’s a title I cannot wait to share with my students and teachers because it provides an excellent opportunity for students who don’t usually like historical novels to enjoy a piece of historical fiction.

The Book

When American Daniel Matheson, a 19-year-old aspiring photojournalist, visits Spain during the summer of 1957, he meets Ana, an employee at the Hotel Castellana Hilton, where Daniel and his parents are staying. As Daniel spends his days trying to capture Madrid in photographs, he quickly realizes there is a dangerous and dark side to the city that no one wants to acknowledge. As Daniel’s friendship with Ana grows, he meets her siblings who, tormented by secrets and the repercussions of the Spanish Civil War, are wary of the charming American. 

Told by multiple characters, the story draws the reader in as the characters’ feelings for each other grow stronger and heartbreaking choices must be made. Each short chapter is like one of Daniel’s photographs, revealing one more piece of a puzzle that, once completed, will reveal not only the secrets the characters keep but the bigger picture of the quiet suffering of the Spanish people under Franco’s dictatorship.

As with her other books (Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy, Salt to the Sea), Ruta Sepetys compassionately explores a piece of hidden history through compelling characters who yearn for what all young people want: a chance for a brighter future. The Fountains of Silence examines the lingering effects of the Spanish Civil War nearly twenty years after it ended, showing how it cast a dark shadow over the generation who were children during the conflict. Moreover, Sepetys’s meticulous research and use of vivid detail to create the setting makes readers feel as if they’ve actually visited 1957 Spain.

The Opportunity

As a reader, I always find a new Ruta Sepetys book to be a cause for celebration because it means a fantastic novel awaits. (I read an advance reader copy of The Fountains of Silence.) As a book club sponsor, I know my students will want to read it because all of Sepetys’s other books have been popular selections in the past. As a librarian, a new Ruta Sepetys book provides an opportunity for me to share a story that will make students more receptive to historical fiction. In some cases, it will get them hooked on the genre.

Let’s face it: we all know students who shy away from historical fiction because they think it’s boring. In most cases, the real problem is that they don’t feel connected to history. However, consider the student who loves mystery and adventure stories, but refuses to read historical fiction under any circumstances. That student may miss out on a great mystery book that contains lots of action just because the story is set in the past. Ideally, students should be open to the idea of trying a book if it contains elements that appeal to them.

One Student’s Story

Abby was a student who harbored a strong dislike for historical fiction. An enthusiastic member of my extracurricular book club from 2011-2015, she was an intelligent, hard-working, and polite student. Fantasy was her favorite genre but as a book lover, she was willing to try almost any recommended title — unless it was historical fiction. During Abby’s sophomore year of high school, Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray was one of the titles on our state readers’ award list. I loved the book, so at one of our monthly meetings, I suggested the club read it. As I summarized the book, I mentioned it was historical fiction and saw Abby, who was always courteous and compliant, roll her eyes! (I had to resist the urge to laugh out loud.) The rest of the club members were willing to try it, and Between Shades of Gray became our next selection. I wasn’t sure if Abby would read the book, but she did. And, she loved it! Soon afterward, Abby read and enjoyed Sepetys’s second novel, Out of the Easy. When Salt to the Sea published in 2016, Abby was in college. She let me know via Facebook that she purchased a copy the week the book was published because Ruta Sepetys had made her a fan of historical fiction.

Abby is now in her first year of graduate school. I emailed her recently to tell her about The Fountains of Silence (she can’t wait to read it), and asked her about her journey to becoming a historical fiction reader. She said that prior to reading Between Shades of Gray, she found it difficult to connect with historical fiction novels “because the story setting and often the characters’ real-world problems were so different from my own.” 

Abby went on to explain that Sepetys’s writing style drew her as “[Sepetys’s] stories focus on the raw emotions of the characters, revealing thoughts, their feelings, and their connections to each other. All of that bridges the gap that comes from an unfamiliar setting. I think [Sepetys’s books] taught me how to approach other historical fiction books, which is why that is one of my favorite genres now!” Some of the books Abby has recently read include The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, novels she would not have considered picking up at one time. 

Which authors and titles do you promote to encourage students to try historical fiction? Which authors and titles do you share as you try to gently persuade students to read outside of their usual genres?


Author: Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan is a librarian at Rockwood Summit High School and also serves as the Lead Librarian for the Rockwood School District. A past president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, Margaret’s professional interests include advocacy, teacher collaboration, professional development, equity, and YA literature. You can connect with her on Twitter @mm_sullivan.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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1 reply

  1. Wonderful! I adore books by Ruta Sepetys! Can’t wait to read this new one!

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