Sunday 25 June 2023

Historical Fiction an important and safe tool for opening discourses with children about the present


Historical fiction is important because it makes history accessible, particularly in schools where it provides a tool to open dialogues about the present by looking through the lens of the past.  It can be less frightening if you open these discussions based on past events. There can be a greater experience of understanding for a child who looks at complex current issues through the historical fiction lens via the eyes and voices of child characters that they can empathise with. Giving them opportunities to ask questions of the narrative with answers that they may be able to apply to the world around them.  As Neil Gaiman points out stories are ‘a way of learning about life without experiencing it.’ (2016: 27) It is about experiencing challenging situations and considering what they, as a reader, would do in said situation within page turning safety.

Historical fiction continues to be popular with children and teachers alike. It is a convenient way to bring history to life through narrative. Giving the children a real sense of what it was like to be alive then as it is a chance to experience it while walking in someone else’s shoes, as Rowe suggests ‘[f]iction …allows the reader to actually experience the world from another person’s point of view.’ (2018).

            Unlike history where the risk is it will so often be written from the perspective of the victorious or the most powerful and educated as they are the ones creating the documents/resources used. Historical fiction can be told from the viewpoint of those whose voices were often silenced. The women, the children, the poor, the enslaved, the invaded and those who would now be considered to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. Fiction is a chance to investigate themes and ideas that might be ignored or glossed over in other circumstances. To take a different perspective. It is an opportunity to examine difficult subjects such as genocide, persecution, discrimination, displacement, death, poverty and reasons for war. In my own novels, Flight (2018) and Safe (2022), I explore the hidden stories of children’s experiences during the Second World War linked with persecution and displacement. Experiences which can easily be used to reflect on situations in the contemporary world.

Gaiman (2016:175), Ali Smith (Higgins, 2018) and Peter Bowker (2014) have all said at various points that if you want to find the truth look at fiction. Ally Sherrick’s recent novel Vita (2023) also plays brilliantly with the idea of truth. It explores the issue of whose truth to believe. As does Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk (2018), which tells the story of a young Bontok boy and the impact the American’s have when they ‘bring war’ and colonization to the Philippines in the late 19th/Early 20th Century. Both highlight how every story has different perspectives and that there is no single truth.

    Sadly, we know that history repeats itself. Historical fiction can be used to highlight that some lessons are learned. That there is hope. However grim it is, we will find a way out of it because there are good people around. The work that Empathy Lab UK has undertaken highlights how reading fiction can create empathy in the reader. It can be used to increase compassion and understanding for those who have been ‘othered’ in the past, and in some cases, continue to be so. Encouraging a world where tolerance and inclusivity is the key rather than discrimination and persecution that we know is still sadly prevalent when history is still repeating itself.




Peter Bowker (2014) A Writer’s Journey From There to Here, BBC4 18 May 2014 21.30

Empathy Lab  

Neil Gaiman (2016) The View from the Cheap Seats, (London, Headline Publishing Group)

Candy Gourlay (2018) Bone Talk (London, David Fickling)

Vanessa Harbour (2018) Flight (Cardiff, Firefly)

Vanessa Harbour (2022) Safe (Cardiff, Firefly)

Charlotte Higgins (2018) ‘Fiction not lies is a way of telling the truth – Ali Smith in Edinburgh’, ‘Culture’ The Guardian, 21 August 2018   

Dora Byrd Rowe (2018) ‘The “Novel” Approach: Using Fiction To Increase Empathy’, Virginia Libraries, Vol 63 No1 www.ejournals.lib.vt/edu/valib/article/view/1474/2159  Accessed March 2019 

Ally Sherrick (2022) Vita (Frome, Chicken House)