True stories of the past

15th March 1996 at 00:00
FLASHBACKS SERIES ALL THE GOLD IN THE WORLD. By Robert Leeson. A CANDLE IN THE DARK. By Adele Geras. THE SAGA OF ASLAK. By Susan Price. A GHOST LIGHT IN THE ATTIC. By Pat Thomson A C Black Pounds 6.99 each

HISTORICAL STORYBOOKS WILBUR AND ORVILLE TAKE OFF. By Jeanne Willis. GUY FAWKES AND THE GUNPOWDER GANG. By Rob Childs. HENRY KING TO BE. By Geoffrey Trease. THE PRINCESS AND THE PARLOURMAID. By Jeanne Willis Macdonald Pounds 3.99 each Age range 8 - 11

Hilary Cooper welcomes a new emphasis on the value of historical fiction

Recent publications to support history teaching in primary schools have not included much historical fiction. This may be because the discovery that children can interpret historical sources has caused a reaction to the previous dominance of story, and also because of an uncertainty about the role of fiction in developing historical understanding, following the Great Empathy Debate.

Now that the Key Elements of history in the national curriculum provide a framework for evaluating accounts of the past, it is possible to reappraise the value of historical stories.

The books in the Flashbacks series have the kind of titles and cover illustrations which might encourage nine and 10-year-olds to pick them up in the hope of a good read; they would not be disappointed. The stories, told from the perspective of a child whose situation elicits genuine interest and concern are full of excitement and suspense.

In A Candle in the Dark, the tension and uncertainties in Germany and England in 1938 are movingly conveyed by nine-year-old Clara who feels a child's responsibility for the feelings of her mother and for her five-year- old brother.

In her English school playground she finds lack of sympathy and some anti-semitism, counterbalanced by an emerging genuine understanding of her Jewishness by the English girl with whom she lives.

But do the books develop an historical understanding which justifies reading them above the desk? Well, they are firmly based on real events; I understand far more about Viking settlement since I read The Saga of Aslak.

A wealth of historical evidence is integrated in the narratives; in All the Gold in the World the 16th-century docks in Plymouth can be heard, smelled, filmed or painted.

The complex interacting strands of political, economic and religious conflicts in the New World are shown through the ways in which they affected the lives of ordinary people, and though there is an understanding that the past was different there is also an awareness that similar issues remain.

"If the English don't sell slaves some other nation will." "You can't stop countries trading with the Spanish Main any more than stop the rain falling. " "But the French say a free people should not enslave itself."

Motives are never simple; father did not bring the forbidden book from Holland for religious reasons, but because of a belief in the need to read freely.

There is sufficient specialised vocabulary and contemporary turn of phrase to convey a feeling of the past. "Nat is breeding his teeth; his coral comforts him." "What a passion you are in."

The stories convey the excitement of historical imagination: "for hundreds of years real people had worn that step down, coming and going . . . the hand on the latch". And they convey the process of historical enquiry.

In A Candle in the Dark past and present weave in and out of the text as the children try to help a historian find out what happened to their 17th-century friend Edmund.

The Historical Story Books, written for younger children, also from a child's perspective, describe the little-known childhoods of famous people.

They convey a lot of information, but do not explain the attitudes or behaviour of other times: "What does your brother think about marrying a woman he has never seen?", the future King Henry VIII is asked. "They call it a wedding by proxy," said Harry. It is desirable to convey to a seven-year- old the possible feelings of Guy Fawkes, while waiting to be executed, but "Guy watched sadly as Tom was pushed towards the scaffold" seems inadequate.

The language is often anachronistic. In Scutari Hospital, "Eddy wondered what kind of girl would come to a dump like this", while Miss Nightingale urged her nurses "get to your rooms girls." "It's all the muck that's causing the tummy trouble."

A comparison of the two series raises the interesting question of whether a degree of maturity is necessary before children should learn about the past through story.

Hilary Cooper is director of professional studies, the Department of Teaching and Education Studies, at the University of Lancaster

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