Monday 7 January 2019

The past is the future - a look at historical novels - by Dawn Finch

Image copyright SLA

Historical fiction is, at its most simple, a novel set in a period that is earlier than its creation. The purpose of a historical novel is considered primarily to entertain, but there are undeniably informative elements about the genre. Fiction of this nature gives us a narrative that takes place during a significant period of history, and is often centered around specific historical events. 

As with all genres there is an ebb and flow of trends, and none more so than historical fiction. Some academics have postulated that trends in fiction follow the pulls of societal inclination, and we can indeed see some evidence of this. In times of wealth and optimism we do see a rise in interest in books that are based in the here and now. In times of societal depression and austerity we do see an increase in interest in historical fiction, and also in books of nostalgia and escapism. While these trends are interesting, they are not sufficient reason to use historical books in the classroom, or to encourage children to read them. Not all young readers are drawn towards historical fiction, so why should we bother encouraging them to read them?
Why should children be encouraged to read historical fiction?
     From the very first books published specifically for children, we have seen the inclusion of novels with a historical content. It is an oft repeated phrase that history is written by the victors, and in the early days of historical novels for children this definitely applied to fiction. Historical novels were seen as the perfect way to reinforce a colonial past and to establish the right of the victors. Historical fiction leant heavily on a narrative guided by the country of origin and often veered more towards propaganda than truth. 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 to the naissance of books that allowed us to see both sides of the story.
This is an important change, as it is here that we begin to see historical novels tell a story that allows the reader to apply both deduction and inference to see through a prescribed version of history. This is where we start to see the first books that ask us to empathise with the individual, and not just the ruling power. Here we start to see fiction that allows us to walk in the footsteps of people long past, and to gain a better understanding of who they were. This, in turn, creates in us a better understanding of our own lives and the time in which we live.
Putting the people back
     Historical fiction puts the people back into history. Non-fiction dedicated to historical matters all too often has to remove the human element and concentrate on the act or solely the historical moment. A social and historical study of a time period must focus on the key moments that lead to and from specific dates or actions. Children often struggle to interpret these books as they find it difficult to place themselves in events that are so 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.
     History is a tangled web of many threads, but history books by their very nature present the past to children as if it is a direct path from A to B. Very young readers lack the refined skills to understand the complexities of a path that actually leads from A to B via X,Y and Z, and yet are more than able to follow a story. Even from a very young age, children can follow fairytales, and these are incredibly complex, but primarily tales of right and wrong. History is long journey down a path of dappled shade and right and wrong a more winding path. If a reader lacks comparable life experience, it can be hard to find their way through. 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.”
     In better grasping these intricacies, we are also able to see a point in history from multiple perspectives. 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. It demonstrates to children that while the point in history may be fixed, the greater understanding of it changes with each new interpretation, and with each new detail of the telling. Historical fiction can allow children to “meet” characters with which they share some similarity, and this helps them to gain a greater depth of bonding with the past. In fiction we are not only showing them how different their lives are from those in the past, but also how similar they are.
Feeding curiosity, build empathy
     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 and empathy. They want to ask questions, and they deserve answers, and the classroom is a good place to explore this. 
Connecting learning
     Every history teacher knows that their job would be much easier if children voluntarily read more around the wider subject areas of the curriculum. 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. For young people the past is, quite literally, another world. Most children live in the here and now and, for them, even five 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 of a novel they can slip back in time and experience life in a 16th Century theatre, and see London in all its visceral glory.
Making sense of things
     Historical fiction can help us to shine a light into some of the darker corners of human history. Non-fiction is there to help us understand the facts behind events and the people involved in them. Fiction can help young people to make sense of these issues. It can also help them to make sense of the world in which they live today. 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 shows us how things happened. For children who are confused by a jumble of dates and places, the linear form of storytelling with an encapsulated timeframe, and a clear beginning, middle and end is most rewarding.
     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. I do share these concerns and I think that this is particularly damaging in movies and television when history is actually altered to fit a specific agenda or narrative. 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. With adults they are reading historical fiction in isolation and have to want to seek out clarification. With children they 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 both curious and questioning, and they are very critical readers. They know what they are reading is fiction. If we create for them a reading environment that welcomes questions and critical thinking, then the risk of misinterpretation is diminished.
It is also worth remembering that novelists are, in most cases, not historians or teachers, and nor should we expect them to be. It is not their primary function to educate, it is their primary function to entertain. Children know that. If we do not pass off fiction as fact, then nor will children.

     Historical fiction allows the reader the freedom to imagine possibilities that they might not otherwise see. It can bring long-dead characters into our lives and let us speak with them, know them, hate them or love them. Archaeology and historical research can only show us so much, and though it provides us with the core and bulk of our understanding, we are human beings and we still need the human element. Academic research can show us exactly what an ancient place looked like, and where the people sat within it, and what they did, ate and drank - but it can’t show us what it felt like, or smelled like. It can’t tell us what the air felt like in summer as the heat moved slowly between the great pillars of a temple. It can’t tell us what it was like to run barefoot through a crowded Roman villa on cool marble floors. It can't bring the senses to life so we can know what it was like when the wind softly stirred the deserts sands at night at the foot of the pyramids. This is what an author can tell us, and when we take the hand of a great author we can slip with them into the past and marvel as history comes to life.

This article is an edited extract from a publication for the School Library Association - Historical Fiction in the School Library, by Dawn Finch
The full publication (with an introduction by award winning author, Kevin Crossley Holland) contains an examination of over 250 different works of historical fiction for younger readers. SLA members can purchase this for £11, non-members for £15
To purchase, visit the SLA website here -


Rowena House said...

Marvellous stuff. Thank you so much.

Sue Bursztynski said...

After many years in a school library, I have to say that while historical fiction for children is great, I do think you’ve made some excellent points here, it can be hard to persuade children to read it. In my own library, I can think of about two historical novelists most of the kids enjoy, although they do like historical fantasy/time slip stories. My students generally prefer non fiction-for-entertainment. As long as the author is chatty and quirky, they love it! I wrote a children’s history of crime in Australia full of over-the-top anecdotes and the library’s five copies became battered and falling apart as kids borrowed them and passed on by word of mouth that there was this great book in the library. They were always borrowing the Horrible Histories series. I suppose it’s because this kind of non fiction is as close as you get to fiction.

Apart from Morris Gleitzman’s Once series and Jackie French, the historical fiction in my school library gathered dust - not for want of effort on my part! 🙁

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you for this, Dawn - a really interesting illustration of why historical books for children are so important.