Past Imperfect: A Look at Children’s Historical Fiction

by | Sep 13, 2017 | IBBYLink Summer 2017

Dawn Finch

In March 2017 the Society of Authors hosted an event from the Histeria Group; a group of children’s writers who are primarily writing historical fiction. The event was organised by Sue Reid, chair of Histeria, and the Society of Authors. The panel of professionals for the evening was chaired by Kevin Crossley-Holland, and consisted of Sarah Odedina (formerly Children’s Publisher at Bloomsbury and Hot Key, and now with Pushkin Children’s Books); Ruth Logan (ex-Bloomsbury and now Rights Director at Hot Key) and myself, Dawn Finch (children’s writer and librarian, Past President Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

The purpose of the evening was to discuss children’s historical fiction and its place in today’s book market. Kevin Crossley-Holland kicked us off with a quote from Hilary Mantel: ‘To live in the present without engaging with the past is like being a dog or a cat, bobbing along on a sea of egotism and ignorance.’ This set the theme for the evening as a large group of historical writers for children discussed the important place that this genre has on the bookshelves of young readers.

Literature for children has a fascinating history, and one that firmly set out its stand at the beginning as being primarily for instruction and education. The first novels for children were largely to stop them from falling down wells or petting wolves, but even from the earliest days of writing specifically for young people there were histories. Of course, these ‘histories’ were non-fiction and the contents reserved specifically to tell the tale of the winning side. History was a serious business for young people and was treated as a lesson.

Fiction for children boomed in the early 1800s, leaning heavily on the eighteenth-century legacy of John Newbery and his Pretty Pocket Books, and the first children’s periodical, published in 1751. However, it is not really until the twentieth century that we start to see the rise of historical fiction for children. In the early days this is still written by the victors and is instructive. It is as late as the twentieth century before we see the meteoric rise of historical fiction that is specifically written for children.
As a children’s writer and children’s book professional (aka librarian!) I have long had a fascination with trends in fiction. Working with children’s books for around 30 years I have had the chance to note the ebb and flow of certain trends, and to look back and see if there are patterns. If we look back across the last century, roughly mapping the trends in children’s fiction, it is perhaps no surprise to discover that trends in children’s fiction roughly follow those in adult fiction.

As I don’t want to clutter this piece with endless trend-mapping, I will concentrate just on trends in historical fiction. Looking back to sales and trends over the last century it is clear that these are greatly influenced by external factors such as political and social upheaval. During times of economic boom and prosperity, people buy more fantasy books and romance. During times of economic decline and austerity, people buy more history and science fiction. In fact there are some who suggest that these genres are, in fact, born of those times. Of course science fiction is heavily linked to aspirational dreams of scientific possibility, but it is also linked to times when people are most likely to be dissatisfied with their lot on earth.

Historical fiction always has a boost in sales and a rise in fashion during times of great social uncertainty or economic slump. Some have suggested that this is because, in times of uncertainty, readers will reach for the solidity of history. Personally I feel that there is also an element of yearning in these trends, a nostalgic pull to a time when things were different. It is certainly interesting that the two periods most known for giving us the finest historical fiction writers for children are the periods between the two world wars, and in the late 1940s just after the end of the Second World War. Both periods of huge uncertainty and change for young people and their families, and both peaks of historical fiction.

We have Geoffrey Trease to thank for dragging historical fiction away from being simply the mouthpiece of the victors, and in turn we can thank him for the hugely challenging historical fiction that we have today. With the publication of Bows against the Barons in 1934 we have a book that throws out the rigid (and somewhat racist) preoccupation with showing our empire driven past. Instead we have a book that is meticulous in its historical detail, but with a lavish plot and strong character engagement. This was, arguably, the first book to take us down the path that we are on today – one where historical fiction is no longer just a lesson, it is an adventure.

Why is this important? Why do we want children to read historical fiction anyway? This is a question we asked ourselves on the panel, and the answer is simple – because it’s great! Historical fiction speaks to us of a time long past, and helps us to better understand who we are and why we are here. It supports our empathy of other times and other places, and allows us to see the past through our own eyes.

I asked Sue Reid why she thinks historical fiction is important. She told me, ‘it’s a great way to inspire children to study history. History is full of fascinating stories. For myself, it was historical fiction that got me interested in history. It was very badly taught at my secondary school, long lists of dates with no real context as to why they were important’.

Historical fiction speaks to us of a time long past, and helps us to better understand who we are and why we are here

I think that this is an essential point – context is hard to get across in a modern classroom. How can a twenty-first century child fully understand what life was like in Roman Britain? Well, by reading Rosemary Sutcliff books of course – and today we have many more books of historical fiction from this period that will allow a child to immerse themselves in the time period.

Children’s writer, Ally Sherrick (Black Powder, 2016) says, ‘For me, if it’s well done, historical fiction offers a vital bridge to young readers in their quest to make sense of the present and how they might act to change it for the better.’

I think that this is another key point – historical fiction not only shows us the differences between us and the people of the past, but the similarities. As we meet and subsequently understand the characters, we also empathise with them and their situation. Understanding the past does help us fight the proverbial doom of repeating it.

This was a vital point supported at the Histeria event by Sarah Odedina who said that historical fiction ‘must humanise history’, and that ‘for a ten year old, something that happened even twenty years ago is unimaginable’. She drew attention to the fact that historical fiction can ‘show political realities in an apparently safe and distant past. It has a role in mediating the present through the past’.

We talked about what this all means for the writers of historical fiction, and Ruth Logan made a clear point that whatever period or genre people are writing in, it must ‘open the imagination of the child’. The panel agreed that since the ground-breaking work of Geoffrey Trease, the most important point about historical fiction is that it must be enjoyable. Ruth Logan said that agents and publishers look for books where the ‘story transcends the period’. It is all about the story, and all about the believability of the characters who bring the period to us.

I will leave the final quote to Kevin Crossley-Holland, who to my mind is the inheritor of the mantle passed down from Geoffrey Trease and through Rosemary Sutcliff. A quote from his wonderful book about an orphaned girl in Venice meeting the composer Vivaldi, Heartsong (2015) – ‘You can teach someone a skill but you can’t teach them spirit.’

This is what great historical fiction gives us. You can give a child all the factual history lessons in the world, but only by stepping into the period in their imagination can they hope to capture the spirit of the thing.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian, and a children’s book expert. She is past president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ national committee. Website Twitter @dawnafinch. If you would like more information about joining or supporting the Histeria Group of historical writers for children and young people, please contact author, Sue Reid on sueelreid@gmail.com.

Reference works cited

Crossley-Holland, Kevin (illus. Jane Ray) (2015) Heartsong. London: Hachette Children’s Group.
Sherrick, Ally (2016) Black Powder. Frome: Chicken House.
Trease, Geoffrey (1934) Bows against the Barons. London: Martin Lawrence.

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