Fiction beats fact for study of history, says John Boyne

13th November 2015 at 00:00
Author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas says novels are a more engaging way for young pupils to learn

Reading historical fiction is much more effective for teaching younger pupils history than studying factual accounts, according to bestselling children’s author John Boyne.

“Fiction engages with young people by igniting their imaginations,” the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – a novel about the Holocaust – told TES.

“If the child reader goes on a journey with the character, and takes them through those events in history, then I think they’re more likely to be engaged with it. Non-fiction in the most part works when they’re older.”

As a schoolboy, Boyne read Ian Serraillier’s Second World War thriller, The Silver Sword. “It was much more interesting to me – and much more frightening, to be honest – than what we would read in the textbooks we used in school,” he said.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is already studied in many key stage 2 and 3 classrooms, though it tends to be used in English rather than history lessons.

Boyne was speaking to TES after the publication of his latest book for children, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain. The novel tells the story of Pierrot, a half-French, half-Austrian child who strikes up a friendship with a deaf Jewish boy. After Pierrot is orphaned, he is sent to live with his aunt in Austria – a housekeeper at the Berghof, Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat. By the time he is 15, Pierrot has become Pieter, a power-struck pet of the Nazi leaders.

“Because he’s a child, because he’s had a lonely upbringing and he’s been bullied, he sees a place where he will no longer be a victim,” Boyne said of Pierrot. “He puts aside his essential good nature to get to a place where he will be part of the bullies.

“We all have the capability inside ourselves to be easily corrupted – to lose sight of who we are. That’s effectively what an entire nation did.”

Respecting children

Such challenging territory is not new for Boyne. In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he famously told the story of the friendship between an Auschwitz concentration camp child inmate and the nine-year-old commandant’s son. “As a novelist, I always feel that there’s no subject that you can’t write about for any age,” Boyne said, “as long as you can write about it in a sensitive and careful way, where you’re not trying to terrify them.

“I don’t write children’s books any differently from the books I’ve written for adults. I don’t make the language any different.

“I want to make my sentences every bit as interesting and complex as the ones in my adult books. I’m not interested in simplifying things.

“I wouldn’t have any interest in writing down for young people. I wouldn’t know how to. The only difference is that I put a child in the centre of the story.”

Writing for children, Boyne said, is about respecting them, and appreciating their ability to understand and engage with a story. For this reason, he believes adults should not assume that all reading is equally valid – or that there should be, as former education secretary Michael Gove hoped, “a culture in which the more you read, the more you are celebrated”.

“People often say, ‘As long as you’re reading, it’s good’, but what’s the point of reading rubbish?” Boyne said. “There are so many better things you could do in life than read, say, Fifty Shades of Grey. You could learn a language, climb a mountain. Reading for its own sake is not worthwhile.”

He drew a comparison with eating: food is intrinsically important for staying alive, but if you eat nothing except McDonald’s meals, you may end up dying earlier anyway.

“Reading for its own sake – what’s the point of that, if people aren’t reading interesting or challenging books?” Boyne said. “Then you’re just reading any words on the page for the sake of reading words.”

John Boyne’s new novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, is published by Doubleday

Getting the balance right

Paula Kitching of the Historical Association agrees that fiction plays a valuable role in the teaching of history.

“We completely understand and value the role that fiction can have,” she says. “It’s one of the avenues into understanding a subject that’s full of rigour and depth. For us, it’s about a balance of both factual history and fictionalised versions of history.”

Ms Kitching adds that she would not hold back factual history until children are older. “Children and young people are very engaged individuals,” she says. “One size does not fit all.”

Further reading

Children’s historical fiction, as recommended by the Historical Association


Sawbones by Catherine Johnson

Poppy by Mary Hooper

Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin


The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean

Song Hunter by Sally Prue

Billy’s Blitz by Barbara Mitchelhill

The Sacred Scarab by Gill Harvey

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