Ringing the bells for historical fiction
by Barbara Henderson
Oyez, oyez, oyez!
Like the town criers of old, let me ring the bell for historical fiction! After all - to me at least - the past is the most exciting country of all.
I write predominantly historical fiction for children, and one of my books is currently shortlisted for the prestigious Young Quills Awards - The Siege of Caerlaverock published by Cranachan Publishing. They may be stories about other people, other times and other places - but they are about us as well, aren’t they? Our heritage and our values, our place in the world. Along with four other historical fiction authors, I have recently formed the Time Tunnellers, a collaborative blog and YouTube channel which uses inspiration from the past to get young people enthused about books and writing.
As a teacher I am aware that much of history is covered logically in the curriculum. However, as someone who was taught by the most boring history teacher on the planet – and believe me, that is no exaggeration! – I can attest with certainty that being taught about history may not necessarily be exciting. In fact, the potential for soporific droning, needless numbers and detached details is, regrettably, very great.
However, by its very nature, the genre of historical fiction does the opposite. It draws young people into the times and mores of the period through a story, and story should be part of history after all!
Children generally care little about the seismic political shifts which may have taken place decades or centuries ago. But throw a child character into terrible danger in a historical context, and readers are hooked and invested. Creating danger and jeopardy for our characters is only the beginning - giving them little or no way out heightens a modern reader’s sense of injustice and makes them identify even more desperately with any historical protagonist. Here are five reasons why, in my opinion, historical stories can be more exciting for young readers than their modern counterparts:
1. Children had more autonomy, independence and responsibility in centuries gone by. Far from the protection (and sometimes mollycuddling) that can characterise modern childhoods, children before our generations had to work, traverse large distances, make difficult choices and witness much which modern young readers will never have seen.
2. Life was full of dangers: poverty without a welfare system, accidents without healthcare, war, illness… the list goes on. Take a story to the past and the stakes will rise, making for compelling plots.
3. Communication was limited – in any emergency nowadays, a child would know how to access help. But without smartphones, the internet and modern transport, the odds were stacked against success – and the more unlikely success looks, the more we admire our heroes for achieving it.
4. Reading historical stories builds resilience. A modern young reader may (hopefully) never have to encounter an immediate threat to life, a sword-wielding villain or a pack of hungry wolves. But through the eyes of a character, a modern child can face and overcome these dangers and build resilience while simply turning the pages.
5. Historical books bring the past back to life. Done well, historical fiction will resurrect crumbling castle walls, hoist Viking sails and ring with lute music. A young reader will experience the adventures of the protagonist against the rich tapestry of a world we don’t know anymore, but one which we may just about recognise.
As a child I was gripped by the perils and pleasures of the past. I lost myself in these tales, a welcome antidote to all the limitations of modern life. Stories they were, yes, but stories with a bonus: I invariably and subconsciously learned about times long gone, too. I still love learning as I read, without any conscious reason why I should want to know.
Make no mistake: We are hardwired for story, all of us - and stories which ground us in our heritage deserve to be celebrated in our schools, libraries and bookshops.
Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!