Historical novels were among the very first published books for children, but the first ones were often seen as a way to reinforce a colonial past and establish the position of the victors. It is an oft repeated phrase that history is written by the victors, and in the early days of historical novels for children this was absolutely the case. Thankfully, with the rise of more radical authors like Geoffrey Trease in the 1930s, we began to see a more balanced approach to historical fiction for young people, and today we have an expectation that well-written fiction will allow us to see both sides of the story.
Putting the people back
Historical fiction puts the people back into history. Children often struggle to interpret historical events it is a time that is far removed from their own life experience. A young reader who has, perhaps, not long mastered reading, can often find themselves feeling excluded from the study of real historical events. Fiction places them firmly in the action, and can help them to understand how events came about in the first place.
With fiction we can see deeper into the human intricacies of the events of the past, and this gives us a more personal sense of understanding. Author Ruta Septys, in her acceptance speech for the 2017 Carnegie Medal, rightly said that “history teaches us the names of the villains, but historical fiction teaches us the names of the victims.”
When young people are able to see a period or moment in history from many different angles, it not only aids understanding, but also demonstrates that these many facets exist in the first place. Historical fiction can allow children to “meet” characters with which they share some similarity. Historical fiction can not only show them how different their lives are from those in the past, but also how similar they are.
Children are inherently curious. Tell them of an interesting time or place and they want to know more, but they often struggle to understand the perspectives laid out in non-fiction. A child is understandably going to find it almost impossible to grasp the horrors of Nazi occupation, but a picture book such as Ian McEwan and Roberto Innocenti’s, Rose Blanche puts the reader into the child’s shoes. Books like this also provide us with discussion points for the classroom, and this feeds curiosity. A curious child is a child who will seek out more information, and great fiction can be the trail of breadcrumbs that a child follows to a place of greater knowledge. They want to ask questions, and they deserve answers, and the classroom is a good place to explore this.
Not every child is a natural historian, but historical fiction allows them a way in to a subject that might not normally be their favourite thing at school. It can connect them to the curriculum and to history lessons in a way that cold facts might not. Most children live in the here and now and, for them, even ten years ago is an unimaginable past. To consider periods in history that are hundreds of years ago is almost impossible. You can teach them about Tudors, and branch out into Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre, but give them Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows and they can walk in the footsteps of the Company. In the pages they can slip back in time and experience life in the 16th Century theatre and London in all its visceral glory.
Levelling the field
For children who struggle to remember complex facts and dates, historical fiction can be a huge help. A child who feels a lack of personal connection to a subject can feel alienated and this is a barrier to understanding. When they are able to incorporate personal opinions and viewpoints picked up from fiction, it helps them to feel more engaged. A personal opinion is something that they own, and stimulating discussion embeds greater understanding.
Making sense of things
Historical fiction can help us to shine a light into some of the darker corners of human history. Fiction can help young people to make sense of the world in which they live today, by understanding the past. So often our understanding depends not on highlighting the differences between us, but the similarities. Fiction can help children to develop empathy, and historical fiction can place events from the past into the frame of our modern lives. A set of dates and facts will show us what happened, but a love letters, postcards, trench diaries, and fictionalised accounts that take in the minutiae of everyday life show us how things happened.
Reading for pleasure
All of the above reasons are, of course, important educationally, but there is one other very good reason for encouraging children to read historical fiction; they enjoy it. One of the great things about history lessons in schools is that they give children the extra information they need to fully grasp and understand historical fiction. To understand a novel, is to better enjoy it. We know that history lessons are supported by reading around the subject, and that historical fiction supports learning, but the same is also true the other way around. The child who loves the Romans can become an avid reader with the subtle classroom introduction of fictional texts such as Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries, or the extraordinary body of work left to us by Rosemary Sutcliff.
I could not write about historical fiction without reference to historical inaccuracy and historicity. Many historians have expressed concerns about historical fiction warping the truth, and also about myth and legend being passed off as history. Good authors, however, undertake a vast amount of research and they too would speak out against fiction that twists the truth to fit another agenda. Authors work hard to ensure that the core elements of their books are accurate, but of course they may well need to fill in some gaps with “poetic license”. I completely understand that this license can be abused, and this can lead historians to be concerned about misinterpretation.
However, I would argue that the risk of misinterpretation of history via historical fiction is significantly less likely to happen with children. Children are reading these books at a time when they are embedded in a system that encourages further questioning, and often at a time when they have been taught at least a basic understanding of the historical facts behind the story. Children are very critical readers. If we create a reading environment that welcomes questions and critical thinking, the risk of misinterpretation is diminished.
Tips for choosing historical fiction
In selecting historical novels as class-readers, or for the library, you might like to consider the following;
- Does the novel present a historical story that doesn't conflict too strongly with historical records?
- Are the characters portrayed realistically and in authentic settings?
- Does the book make use of well researched historical facts?
- Does it avoid stereotypes, myths and overt bias?
Historical fiction can bring long-dead characters into our lives and let us speak with them, know them, hate them or love them. When we take the hand of a great author, we can truly step back in time.
About the Author
Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian. Her most recent publication is an extended look at historical fiction for children. Published by the School Library Association, the book (Historical Fiction in the School Library) contains and examination of over 200 works of historical fiction.