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 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.
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.