DEMENTIA: Historical Fiction Opens Portals to Memory

Bear with me while I share a touching and entirely unexpected experience. A few details have been blurred, to assure privacy, but the underlying events in this account are true.

Earlier this spring, a writing friend reached out to say how grateful she is for my book. She was referring to ODIN’S PROMISE. She and her partner are caregivers for an older relative, someone whose entire life exemplified intellect, creativity, socializing, and service. Until recent years.

Dementia (or something like it) has reduced this gifted individual  to one who spent each day in a state of agitation, distraction, and confusion. Providing for her physical needs was manageable, but they had found nothing to entertain or occupy this woman’s time and thoughts,  even for brief periods of time. Nothing to relieve endless hours of emptiness in her life. Nearly constant unsettled anxiety resulted. Attempts to share music, screen options, crafts or other hands-on work, or even simple conversations or games were met with resistance or disengagement.

My friend’s note let me know that she had tried offering a middle grade historical novel of medium length, with depictions of the era when that elder would have been a young girl. She read it eagerly, more than once.  The search was on to find another novel that might be equally appealing. When ODIN’S PROMISE came to mind, my friend provided a copy. The newly-enthused reader dove in, filling hour after hour with attentive reading, offering comments throughout. Even later in that day or beyond, she was able and eager to recall names and events from the book and talk about details.

When I learned this, and that she was re-reading my book time after time, I sent the next two titles in the trilogy with a personal note of thanks. Since then I’ve heard that she devoured the entire trilogy and returned to reading it several times. My friend, an avid reader herself, continues to provide other historical novels from time periods that will resonate with her loved one’s early years.

The change in quality of their days sounds extraordinary. This is an entirely anecdotal account, so we can’t draw scientific conclusions about the practice. Much could depend on the prior reading life and interests of the person affected by diminishing memory and  cognitive function. It is such a simple idea, though, that I urge others to give this a try.

My recommendation is to begin by listing  factors from the affected person’s background, whether a loved one or someone in a care setting. Perhaps a particular sport, or hobby,  location, or family setting could be the key to an initial search for appealing titles. The middle grade focus allows for shorter but sustained text, language that is broad but manageable, without unrealistic  vocabulary challenges, and characters whose lives reflect a memorable time, early adolescence.  The plots are complex enough to feel authentic (not insultingly simple) but with limited undercurrents and subplot threads to confuse or overwhelm. For anyone who might have struggled with reading when younger, think about providing audio books, or large-print versions, or pair both so the reader can follow along with the audio recording more successfully.

I’ll provide a few title suggestions below, but take full advantage of your area’s public  librarians. I’m certain that their suggestions will be abundant, especially if you describe the target reader and purpose for your search. Also click my reviews on this blog for other recommended titles. And don’t overlook the appeal of books that would have been contemporary during the person’s youth but now are clearly describing a bygone era. They may recall the beloved characters as if childhood friends!

Historical Fiction

Some World War II titles:

Almost Autumn. Kaurin, Marianne. Arthur A. Levine Books (translation), 2016.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Frank, Anne, and Mooyaart, B.M.  Bantam Books. (Reissue in 1993)

(The) Book Thief. Zusak, Markus. Alfred A. Knopf. (Reissued in 2007)

(The) Boy Who Dared: A novel based on the true story of a Hitler youth. Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Scholastic Press, 2008.

(The) Devil’s Arithmetic. Yolen, Jane. Puffin Books. (Reprint 1990)

(A) Faraway island. Thor, Annika. Delacorte Press, 2009.

Hidden. Dauvillier, Loie. Lizano, Marc. Salsedo, Greg. (Graphic Novel). First:Second, 2012.

 (The) Klipfish Code. Cassanova, Mary. HMH Books for Young Readers. 2012.

Number the Stars. Lowry, Lois. HMH Books for Young Readers. 1990.

Shadow on the Mountain. Preuss, Margi. Harry N. Abrams. 2014..

Twenty and Ten. Bishop, Claire Huchet. Puffin Books (Reissued in 1978)


Stories Based in America:

Cold War on Maplewood Street. Gayle Rosengren. 2015 (Cuban Missile Crisis)

DASH. Kirby Larson. (Dogs of World War II) 2014

The Star That Always Stays. Anna Rose Johnson. 2022

The Miner’s Lament: A Story of Latina Activists in the Empire Zinc Mine Strike.

Judy Dodge Cummings. 2021

On the Horizon. Lois Lowry. 2019

One Came Home. Amy Timberlake. 2013

Wolf Hollow. Lauren Wolk. 2016


Possible Childhood Favorites (many with humor, many still read by kids today)

Boxcar Children. Gertrude Chandler Warner

Henry Huggins. Beverly Cleary. (also, HENRY and RIBSY, RAMONA AND BEEZUS, RALPH S. MOUSE, and so many more)

Homer Price. Robert McCloskey

Charlotte’s Web. E. B. White.

Magic Treehouse Books. Mary Pope Osbourne

Stuart Little. E. B. White

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C. S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia)

(Series titles are always a good idea, because the setting and charactersmove along from book to book, supporting understanding and memory.)

If you try this out, and find success, please comment below, and  share your experiences with others who might be caregivers, too. From the descriptions by my friend, the quality of life and peace of mind improved not only for that affected family member, but for the caregivers, too.


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