This essay analyses the way History can be used in children's books
| Historical fictions are for children and young adults the means to transmit the souvenir of a civilisation and its history from generation to generation. Thanks to them, we can see the didactic function they convey, especially through the moral that readers can draw from the story they have read; but also, this kind of books makes the part of history it deals with, much more realistic, especially with books dealing with the Second World War, since it affected people we still know, like our grandparents. Then, we can imagine that this feature is more likely to arouse feelings from the young readers and this is precisely what makes these books challenging. In order to prove this argument, I am going to explain that History is the main element for fiction, but I will also talk about the impact of historical fictions on children, and the role of the illustrations and illustrators. Then, I am going to explain why it is not always easy to use History to write novels, as some topics are challenging and must be employed very carefully when they aim to be read by young readers.
History is a key factor in the building of a story. Indeed, it gives it a frame and allows it to be developed in a precise and accurate context. However, even if History provides fiction with real characters and an accurate account of what happened, it does not mean that the author is writing for the sake of retelling historical events that occurred in a clearly defined period of time. Actually, the historical context is the background situation in which the story takes place, but it also gives more credibility to the story itself. Indeed, by using historical events, the writer gives more authenticity to the fictional part of the novel.
Of course, the story is logic and easily understandable without its historical background, but it gives the story a non negligible asset in its race to accuracy.
Thanks to historical novels, children and young adults become familiar with their past and the past of their country, via delight. Indeed, reading historical novels provides children with historical events which allow them to get an education while having fun in reading a book. For instance, I believe that Once by Morris Gleitzman (2005) is one of the best examples to illustrate my point of view. Indeed, even though this novel for children is a fiction, the author has been largely inspired by true historical events. He actually said: "On the way to writing Once I read many real life stories - diaries, letters, notes and memories of people who were young at the time of the Holocaust." The inspiration he gained from real events is of great importance for the writing of his novel since this is what makes the novel historically interesting.
I believe that Historical fiction, by its distinctive characteristics, can be considered as a genre on its own, nevertheless, several sub-genres enter in this category.
The most common sub-genre that follows the rules of historical fiction for children and young adults is undeniably the adventure novel. Indeed, it tells stories about love, treasures, adventures and travels but the setting is not unknown.
Nevertheless, we also shall not forget a genre very popular especially during and after the Second World War, which is the testimony of ordinary people in autobiographies. Surely, the most popular of all is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947), in which we can measure all the atrocity of the Holocaust. Fiction is totally non-existent in the story, but what prevails is the accuracy of events. Indeed, we know that everything Anne tells in her book has really happened in a past not so far away from us.
Another historical fiction written as an autobiography that I find very touching is Blitz: The diary of Edie Benson by Vince Cross, in which we become aware of how war affected the life of a little girl of that time.
In this kind of literature, facts are told exactly as the writer feels them, which explains why autobiographies are generally very moving. Besides, autobiographies are probably the kind of novels that are the most affected by the breaking of the boundaries that slowly imposed themselves through time. This can be explained by the fact that they reflect what people lived and felt, and the reader knows that what he is reading is true, which makes it more moving and touching than any other texts.
Biographies also play an important role in historical novels since they deal with people that played a key role in History. Some of the biographies are told in the third person narrative, although some others are told in the first person narrative which gives the impression that the scene is set in a contemporary period. Anyway, both types of biographies are an elusive mix of fiction and reality, which means that it should be both serious and delightful.
Even if writing historical fictions means writing novels whose historical background is already set and does not have to be created, it does not mean that there is nothing left to do for the writer. On the contrary, there are a lot of things to be done, and not necessarily the easiest ones. However, the functions of these novels are numerous. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, the role of the book has a double function which consists in reading stories for pleasure, but it also consists in educating the reader on a subject.
By reading historical novels, young readers can measure the whole dimension of the past and the impact it has on our present and our future. It allows children not to face the future without understanding why the present is the way it is.
From this perspective, the meaning of "duty of memory" makes sense and we understand the importance of transmitting the past from generation to generation, not to make the same mistakes again. But above all, historical novels and books in general contribute to the development of children's personality and their maturity, but this maturity shall not arise too quickly, that is why it is important to measure the whole significance of what the writer says when he wants to go further than the boundaries allow him/her to.
Most of the time, illustrations are used to make the text much more lively, either by complementing it, or by simply illustrating it. When they are used to complement the telling, the story can be read on different levels. Indeed, there is the story told with words, the one told with pictures and the one that results from the combination of the two. Nevertheless, in historical books, I would say that illustrations make the book much more delightful for young readers and help erase the boring side. However, in books dealing with war, I would say that their function is much more subtle. Indeed, illustrations have to depict sadness and atrocities of war told in the story without being shocking, and I believe it is no easy task for the illustrator, especially with the holocaust theme. In this case, illustrators must not show the whole situation so as not to make the book inappropriate to young readers. The best example to illustrate my argument is Roberto Innocenti's picturebook Rose Blanche (1999). We understand what is going on even if it is not clearly shown. Indeed, the whole picturebook rests upon undercurrents.
When writing history books for children, the main difficulty rests upon not shocking young readers while bringing them some culture of the past. Consequently, we can say that writing historical novels is a bit of a brain-teaser for children's writers. Indeed, even if writing about History to children is a pleasure, History is also a restriction that both restraints the writer's imagination and but also inspires him. He has to interest children with parts of History without boring them. In order to achieve this, the author must have a good knowledge of the historical part he wants to talk about. Thus, he needs to do extensive research on the topic to acquire a perfect knowledge of it. Consequently, the author has to be a historian and a writer at the same time.
The responsibility of the author is all the more important as the way past is brought to life in this kind of novel, makes young people want to identify themselves with the protagonists of the story, but also with the difficulties they go through. Besides, the task is even more subtle since the writer's audience has limited history skills. Indeed, the historical background needs to be simplified to suit young readers' skills since they don't have a precise idea of what happened in History. Furthermore, young readers largely prefer action to analysis, and that is why history is not the topic children prefer the most. Indeed, children like when things are easily understandable, and that there are simple answers to difficult historical questions, but History is not always so easy to understand. Actually, even for adults, it is not always clear what are the reasons and causes of a conflict.
Vocabulary is also a delicate aspect of the writing process. Indeed, it is a question that authors always ask to themselves. They perfectly know that it is impossible to use vocabulary that corresponds to a revolved period of our History; however, the temptation of using such words that would look more genuine is important. Anyhow, the language used in everyday life seems to be the most appropriate to suit young readers abilities.
When the situation is hard to be told, illustrations are of great help when dealing with the expression of feelings, moods and things that are barely describable with words. Indeed, in these cases, language is almost useless, and it is especially true when dealing with historical themes such as war for instance. One of the best examples is without a doubt When The Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs. Indeed, pictures show the reader how sick the protagonists are, without they even know themselves. Their optimism wipes out reality and the role of illustrations is to bring the reader back to this reality. Once again, this example shows us how important is the bond between words and pictures, but also how difficult it is to show the disastrous effects of radiations on people without being sickening. This is precisely the reason why this picturebook is aimed at young adults' readers more than children.
The problem with historical books is that it deals with subtle topics that may hurt the sensibility of the youngest. Indeed, it is not always easy to get onto war stories without addressing themes such as death, loss, misery, separation, migration and children uprooted from their native city or home for instance. These themes are rather difficult to bear for young readers, but nowadays, they are more commonly used at schools to show the youngest generations what human beings are capable of, and to prevent these atrocities from ever happening again. Consequently, topics such as racism, exclusion or even genocide are taught in class.
We may wonder what the most bearable kind of work is, if it is the one that only uses words to depict the situation or the one that only visualises it. As far as I am concerned they are no differences between the two. Simply because with illustrations, the targeted audience is not the same, but also that it is a good means to explain something without knowing how to say so.
History books allow both writers and readers to explore the genre of children's literature to its boundaries. Indeed, writing about History is one of these themes that are becoming more and more popular in modern children's literature and that more or less wisely break the boundaries the genre imposed through time. Even if it has not always been an easy task to write about historical events that shaped our present, contemporary teachers and parents now try to use the mistakes of the past made by humanity, to shape a better future by using historical books as didactic "weapons". Thus, I firmly believe that historical books have found their place in the domain of modern children's literature.
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● Gamble, Nikki & Tucker Nicholas, Family fictions. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, 2001.
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● Briggs, Raymond, When the Wind Blows. Viking Childrens Books, 1986
● Cross, Vince, Blitz: The diary of Edie Benson. Scholastic, 2001
● Frank, Anne, The Diary of a Young Girl. Bantam Books, 1993
● Gleitzman, Morris, Once. Puffin Books, 2005
● Innocenti, Roberto, Rose Blanche. Carré blanc, 1999