Giving History a Narrative

Patricia Sutton brings history to life for young readers

By Samantha Georgson

Patricia Sutton took an early retirement from teaching but found another way to continue influencing and inspiring young kids—through her writing. “I write nonfiction because I’m a teacher and I love the research, but I don’t miss the grading or the conferences,” Sutton jokes.

In her first book, “Capsized! The Forgotten Story of the SS Eastland Disaster,” Sutton brings to life an untold story from decades past. “Very few people know about the Eastland Disaster,” says Sutton of the catastrophic 1915 shipwreck which inspired her book.

From her experience in the classroom, Sutton has found that kids take more of an interest in narrative nonfiction, which joins good research with compelling, character-driven storytelling. “They connect with the story and can imagine themselves going through this specific event in history,” she explains. Sutton has even begun writing curriculum to go along with the book so that teachers have additional materials to reference when using “Capsized!” in the classroom.

Readers young and old looking for summer reads can try out Sutton’s recommendations:

Salt to the Sea.
By Ruta Sepetys

This young adult book details the lives of three fictional WWII refugees aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff and their fight for survival as things take a turn for the worse during their journey toward salvation. “It was a book that I couldn’t put down,” says Sutton. “It was so interesting that I would recommend this book to anybody.”

The Johnstown Flood.
By David McCullough

Historian David McCullough uncovers the truth behind one of America’s great disasters, the preventable tragedy of the Johnstown flood. “I sort of have a thing for disasters,” Sutton says of the genre. However, this novel also hits home for Sutton; “I lived through a Johnstown flood, not like this one,” she explains, “but I’ve always been curious about it.”

Raymie Nightingale.
By Kate DiCamillo

In this children’s novel DiCamillo follows a trio of girls on their summer vacation who form an unlikely friendship in the midst of a high-stakes competition. “Even though I like nonfiction in terms of my writing, I have such admiration for writers of fiction,” Sutton explains. “I love her writing because she creates these quirky characters and she’s a wonderful storyteller,” Sutton says of DiCamillo. “The way she tells the story is almost like she’s sitting across from you.”

Patricia Sutton will be discussing “Capsized!” at Mystery to Me in Madison on July 24 at 7 p.m.