Historical Novels: Encouraging Children to Love History

When a collection of new books from the Irish publisher O’Brien Press arrived recently on my desk, I began to think about a children’s literary genre that has a substantial educational value: historical novels.

There is a very famous quote by the writer and philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An innate belief in this principle led ancient societies that did not have any form of writing to venerate old people for their ability to pass on their knowledge of what had gone before. When we learn history, we are benefiting from a collective version of this, with books replacing the village or tribal elder.

Written history allows us to delve deeper and a little more accurately into the past, but it is never without errors; it is distorted by time and the subjective viewpoints of those tasked with chronicling it. Nonetheless, it is vital. Without an understanding of history, human beings would become trapped in an endless wheel of repeated disasters, all forms of progress lost amid the spokes.

In many parts of the world, great value is given to the concept of democracy. Yet educating people about history is key to achieving an effective working democratic system. If they do not learn about the past, how can citizens learn to recognize the risks inherent in certain political manoeuvres, to see through the sea of fakery that washes over them in the approach to elections, to have any hope of distinguishing the truth from the lies. Given the importance of history in this context, I am constantly shocked by the fact that so many school curriculums do not make it compulsory.

I am not without prejudice in this viewpoint; I love history. I have always loved it. Since I was 11 years old, I have been one of those people who will happily read a history book as if it was fiction. This did not come from nowhere, however. My love of history was completely inspired by fiction, and I believe that historical novels can be a springboard, launching children toward a lifelong interest in this vital subject.

Some of the books that inspired my love of history were not historical novels in that they were written during the times they portray. They included the permanently foggy and fascinatingly grim accounts of Victorian England supplied by Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters, the middle-class Edwardian escapades depicted by the wonderfully imaginative E. Nesbit, and Mark Twain’s portrayal of life growing up in the slave state that was 19th-century Missouri.

Some children may find these books inaccessible at first; nineteenth-century writers tended to be long-winded at best. They are more likely to have their historical interest peaked by novels published since the mid-20th century, which are generally written in a direct and more engaging modern style.

One of the books that played a big role in my own developing interest in history was The Silver Sword, Ian Serraillier’s classic account of a journey made across Europe by four Polish children during World War 2. After I read this book as a child, I went straight to the history shelves of my local library and read everything I could lay my hands on about that seminal war. My interest in this period in history was further inspired by Dawn of Fear, Susan Cooper’s excellent but devastating story of a group of children growing up in London during the Blitz, and I am David, Anne Holm’s highly original and absorbing tale of a boy’s experiences of freedom after he is liberated from the prison camp that is all he has ever known.

I developed an interest in the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars from reading two historical novels written several decades after those events: Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Considerably more recently, Leon Garfield depicted the 19th century in a series of wonderfully accessible and entertaining novels that include Smith and Jack Holburn.

There can never be enough historical literature for children. Part of my motivation for writing The Spear of Time has been to use time travel as a technique for introducing children to many different historical periods. This literary genre has not been neglected; I could spend pages writing about all the great historical novels that have been written for children and young adults. Recent excellent additions to this pantheon include Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Sandi Toksvig’s Hitler’s Canary, Eva Ibbotson’s Star of Kazan and Journey to the River Sea, and a whole range of books by Michael Morpurgo, including War Horse, Private Peaceful, and Kaspar the Titanic Cat. There are many historical times and events that have so far been overlooked by this genre, however, which is why the selection from O’Brien Press caught my attention to such a degree. One of these books was Nicola Pierce’s City of Fate, which portrays the Battle of Stalingrad from a child’s point of view. Another was Eithne Massey’s Blood Brother, Swan Sister – 1014 Clontarf; A Battle Begins. The latter especially drew my interest, because I have never read anything about the Battle of Clontarf, even though I used to live there. My review of City of Fate can be found here, and my review of Eithne Massey’s book will be posted soon.

This article was originally published on The Swallows Nest Children’s Books Site. It is reprinted with that site’s permission.

© Safie Maken Finlay 2014

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