The Educational Value of Historical Fiction
© Beverley Paine, August 2007
Historical fiction can encourage not only an interest in history but also an interest in the study and observance of human behaviours: this is all part of social development and the socialisation process. In addition, a sense of history also helps children learn about geography, which is essentially why and how people make use of the place where they live, as well as understand how that place shapes and determines culture.
The fact that historical fiction is not 100% (or in some cases 10%!) accurate is beside the point, provided we don't pass it off as being 'true' in the first place. Children are not interested in facts or what really happened, they simply need to make sense of the world, and stories have been the way that humans have done this for millennia. Children tune into good, engaging stories and take from them what they need to learn. The rest they forget!
I have learned that the mere act of recording an event - whether by storytelling or by writing it down - changes the story. Think of the several witnesses at bank robbery or site of an accident: they all have a different version of what has occurred. Some have viewed the scene from a different physical perspective, but all bring to their story their personal perspective and cultural/social biases. As a writer I can't divorce these from my writing, no matter how hard I try. And if I ever get close to successful what is left is a dull and boring account which is still, at best, an impression of what really happened.
History is a collection of memories and interpretations. Both are imperfect. It is better to judge historical fiction for what it is: a work of fiction.
I enjoyed reading books about history as a young child. The pictures fascinated me more than the text. I would make up my own stories staring at the drawings. But even then, how can anyone sum up the exploits of Alexander the Great in two pages? It was only ever to whet my appetite, or to teach a moral lesson about what it takes to become a famous person, a conqueror, a hero... As a teenager I read historical fiction and it transported me to another 'gentler' time. There were enough details to create a vivid picture of one side of life at this time. Reading another author, actually writing during that period, showed another less pleasant view of the times!
As parents wanting to teach history through stories and concerned about historical fact, the best we can do is offer a range of texts: autobiographical accounts and those written by first hand witnesses during the historical period, as well as dry factual texts, and engaging stories which are little more than fantasy.
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