Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Some comments on YA Historical fiction

Ask a bunch of teenage students who Julius Caesar was and they will answer “Who is she?” You need not blame the inadequacy of the history curriculum -  it is simply that they do not read much.
An understanding of history for most people probably comes from stories. I did not “do” history of ancient Rome much less Genghis Khan or the Vikings at school. (I think my early school history stalled on Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson).  Yet, however imperfect our knowledge, we usually know something about them. I DO at least recognise where John Flanagan gets his inspiration for the exciting Rangers Apprentice series.
If one reviewer in Reading Time is correct, that young readers have been on a diet of futuristic and Celtic fantasy for many years, it is no wonder historical understanding may be missing.
I have always been fond of historical fiction. Probably the earliest and still one of my favourite reads was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Black Arrow won as a Sunday school prize and read that afternoon.
I remember borrowing Geoffrey Trease and homophonic Henry Treece from Stanley Lady Clark Memorial Library, may it rest in peace. Enthralled with the adventures in historic times, I did not know I was learning about history, I was just reading stories. Merely writing about it reawakens my interest to read them again as an adult.
Coincidentally I recently picked up Rosemary Sutcliff’s Shield Ring while I was reading Robert Ferguson The Hammer and the Cross: a new history of the Vikings London, Penguin, 2010. Sutcliff’s fiction made me much more aware of Viking history.  In Sutcliff’s story of the resistance to the Norman invasion by the Lake District descendants of the Vikings, the history supports the story.  The story is not a device for teaching.
This has opened my eyes, though I admit not necessarily my mind/heart, to some contemporary YA historical fiction.
A story should need no explanations; it should explain itself. My adult science-trained brain bridles at the paradoxes of the popular time travel device which interferes with my enjoyment of these stories.
However, Maureen McCarthy in her The Convent really hits the spot.  It is never didactic and uses the stratagem of telling the story from four generations of “Catholic” women’s points of view with nary a Tardis in sight. 

Like Bernard Shaw, my education was interrupted by schooling. I hope that the Australian curriculum does not spawn historic fiction in which the story is the device to “teach” history rather than history being  a device to tell a story. 
My appetite however has been whetted (not wetted) for more YA historical fiction.  Go to http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/01/literary-tour-through-historical-y/60731/ and see for yourself.

Richard Pickup (President, Children's Book Council of Australia (Tas. Branch) Inc.

1 comment:

  1. You must have attended the same schools as me! Between 1968 and 1979 I was taught no history at all, except the two World Wars and Australian explorers - and the only ones I remember were indeed Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, because we had a comic book (which would nowadays be called a graphic novel) about them in the school library. However, thanks to Trease, Treece, Rosemary Sutcliff, Barbara Leonie Picard, Cynthia Harnett and Hester Burton, I got a little history in. The authors didn't intend to teach history - they just found the past a fascinating place where people had different beliefs and problems. And thanks to the fact that those books were well illustrated with a wealth of historical detail, a generation of children also grew up with strong visual images of the past.