I’ve never really understood why literature and history are taught in isolation. As a student years ago, I feel that I would have been able to grasp more than dates and names in history class if I could have read about how the events affected the people and the culture of the given time period. At the time, I didn’t connect to them; they were just objects in a textbook. The timelines didn’t matter to me, and I couldn’t really see how it all brought me to where I was sitting, listening to a teacher drone on about this war and that law. I didn’t get how or why it was necessary for me to even learn these things. Maybe that’s why I became a literature nerd and not a history buff.

Encourage Cross-Curricular Reading With These Paired Fiction and Nonfiction Texts 

When I was a first-year teacher of eighth grade language arts, I attempted to rally the support of the reading and history teachers to combine our units so the students could read, write and learn about these events across the many classes they were required to take so they might appreciate history more than I did when I was in their shoes. But, much to my chagrin, I was met with hesitation and confusion. Fast forward several years (we won’t say how many) and new state standards are written calling for a more robust cross-curricular reading program. Yay! Now there is action and movement in the classroom to go along with the research that paired fiction and non-fiction texts will enhance learning experience, exactly what I wanted long ago!

The Invention of WingsNovels like Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (Grades 11-A, Lexile 920) are perfect to use across subjects to understand the slave experience as well as the oppression of women pre-Civil War and pre-Woman’s Suffrage. Kidd’s novel spans 35 years in American history from 1803-1838 and follows closely the thoughts and feelings of two women who tell their story in alternating first-person narrative chapters: Hettie “Handful” Grimke’ and Sarah Grimke.’ The story begins when Sarah, born into southern aristocracy, is gifted ownership of 10-year-old Handful for her 11th birthday. Sarah, who after witnessing the violent treatment of a slave when she was 4 develops a terrible speech impediment, wants nothing to do with owning a slave and rebels against the gift, thus beginning her journey speaking out against slavery and for the rights of women.

On Slavery and Abolitionism Essays and LettersThe story, while fiction, is rooted in historical facts and heavily researched. Sarah Grimke’ and her sister, Angelina, who also appears in the text, were very much real women who became the first women abolitionists and first women to speak in front of a legislative committee about equal rights for slaves and women. The pamphlets they wrote and speeches they gave can be read in the companion text to the book On Slavery and Abolitionism Essays and Letters (Grades 10-12). In these, the sisters provide first-hand accounts of the cruelty of slavery they witnessed by their own family. These accounts and other research become the basis of the events in Kidd’s novel.

While many of the scenes involving the treatment of slaves can be difficult even for mature readers, they are based in reality and the reality of slavery should be hard to take. Reading about these events through The Invention of Wings made me cringe at times, but the injustice that came to life through the stories of Handful will stick because the facts have been humanized. This story taught me more about the slave experience than any textbook ever could.

But this book is about more than slavery as both Handful and Sarah are trapped in their respective places. This book is about finding your voice in a world that doesn’t want to hear you; it’s about that voice giving you wings and letting you fly when you find the life of your own. I learned about the culture of the South and the treatment of women and of those who bought into the culture as well as those who were complacent in living amongst it. It made me want to learn more about the radical Quaker religion that allowed women to be ministers and spoke out against slavery. I also want to learn more about these women pioneers who defied their family and their community by exposing the harsh truths, breaking ground for women along the way.

The Questions We Want Our Students to Ask

Who were these women and why hadn’t I heard of them before? When the story ended, I wanted to learn more about them and the history behind why their names aren’t presented in typical history classes. These are the kinds of questions we want our students to get behind. These questions lead to research and better understanding of the history. Invention of Wings offers so many topics that will spark questions that can be fleshed out in a group presentation or writing project.

If you find the book a little too mature for your audience, you can still pull out a few less explicit back-to-back chapters to capture voice and point of view and showcase historical context for comparison to primary source material. If nothing else, read this book for yourself to learn more about our history and to keep giving these women a voice.