Growing bookworms: The importance of historical fiction for kids

When I was in high school, history was an unpopular subject. It was so unpopular, in fact, that when the time came for the Grade 9’s to chose their subjects for Grade’s 10 to 12, the school paired history with typing, home economics and business economics so that the girls who chose this less academic combination were compelled to take history. This was how I ended up in a history class with mainly girls who hated the subject. I loved history and I took it through choice. My other subjects were maths, accountancy, and science. In South Africa, English and Afrikaans were compulsory subjects at the time.

I never really understood why my peers didn’t like history as it was a subject always loved. I’ve said it here before, however, that I was a very wide reader from a very young age and I read a lot of books set in the past. Among my favourite books by a South African author, were the collections of short stories by Herman Charles Bosman. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Herman Charles Bosman:

Herman Charles Bosman (5 February 1905 – 14 October 1951) is widely regarded as South Africa’s greatest short-story writer. He studied the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain and developed a style emphasizing the use of satire. His English-language works utilize primarily Afrikaner characters and highlight the many contradictions in Afrikaner society during the first half of the twentieth century.

On reflection, I realised that I have acquired a love of history because all the books I had read allowed me to include the facts and dates I learned into the fascinating backdrop I had acquired of life at the time. I could visualise the homes, lives, and loves of the Afrikaner people I learned about during the sections on the Great Trek and the Boers wars though my reading of Charles Bosman’s works. I also read books by South African Boer War veteran, Deneys Reitz.

My learning of international history including the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution (including the Luddite uprisings), and the Tudor period were coloured by my reading of certain books, in particular, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and Shirley and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I found it easy to remember my history because I entwined it with my understanding of life at the times as presented by these great novels.

I was delighted when I discovered that history is a popular subject at the college for boys my sons both attend. Gregory chose to take history to matric (along with IT, maths, advanced maths and science which shows that its mixes well with any subject combination) and Michael looks set to follow in his footsteps.

I am bowled over by their history curriculum and the amazing why they learn about the past through source documents, cartoons, and many other interactive and interesting modes compared to my school days of rote learning. My sons are also taught history from the perspective of how historical events have influenced the present which makes this subject a lot more useful. It helps them to see how people’s actions and reactions have set the path for the future and resulted in both the good and bad in society we see today.

I believe it is vital for kids to understand history in an expansive and wide context so that they can value the freedoms and benefits their forefathers fought and die to leave as their legacy. For example, what young girl would not value her vote if she knew about the suffering and hardships of the suffragettes who paved the way for the achievement of this equality for women.

I wonder how many British children know that compulsory education for children aged 5 to 14 years was only introduced in 1918. How many American children know that compulsory education laws were only passed by 1900 and then only in 32 states, with the other states following by 1930. 1930! That’s less than 100 years ago.

Modern children are so fortunate to have an education and the opportunities for self improvement that come with it. It isn’t equal for all yet, but there are lots of people who believe passionately in educating children and who work really hard to implement change and improvements in education.

Understanding and learning about real people in a historical context makes their passions, sufferings and beliefs so much more compelling. It is difficult to hold on to prejudice if you’ve read novels like I am David by Anne Holm, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Patton.

Historical books also teach children interesting information about how people survived in the past. I’ve always remembered the chapter from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder when Pa cleaned his gun and made bullets. There is also a chapter about how Ma made butter and coloured it yellow. Little House on the Prairie has a scene when Ma is helping Pa build their new log cabin and a log falls on her foot. The difficulties and dangers of life on the frontier were illustrated; there was no help to be had for an injury or if the family fell ill.

I learned a lot about the limitations of medical knowledge in the mid to late 1800s through my reading of the What Katy Did series by Susan Coolidge. I will never forget Katy falling out of the swing or Amy contracting, and nearly dying from, Roman fever. Such scenes induce great feelings of empathy and compassion in the reader.

It is for all these compelling reasons that I wrote While the Bombs Fell, a fictionalised biography of my mom’s life as a young girl growing up in a small English town during World War II. I wanted to capture and preserve her memories of life for ordinary people living through this extraordinary time so that others, children in particular, could read it and remember how life was during that time.

What are your thoughts about historical fiction for both children and adults? Do you see value in learning about history in through a good story?

About Robbie Cheadle

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Robbie Cheadle is a children’s author and poet.

The Sir Chocolate children’s picture books, co-authored by Robbie and Michael Cheadle, are written in sweet, short rhymes which are easy for young children to follow and are illustrated with pictures of delicious cakes and cake decorations. Each book also includes simple recipes or biscuit art directions which children can make under adult supervision.

Robbie has also published books for older children which incorporate recipes that are relevant to the storylines.

Robbie writes a monthly series for https://writingtoberead.com called Growing Bookworms. This series discusses different topics relating to the benefits of reading to children.

Robbie has a blog, https://robbiesinspiration.wordpress.com/ where she shares book reviews, recipes, author interviews, and poetry.

Find Robbie Cheadle

Blog: https://www.robbiecheadle.co.za/

Blog: robbiesinspiration.wordpress.com

Twitter: BakeandWrite

Instagram: Robbie Cheadle – Instagram

Facebook: Sir Chocolate Books

Want to be sure not to miss any of Robbie’s “Growing Bookworms” segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.


55 Comments on “Growing bookworms: The importance of historical fiction for kids”

  1. floridaborne says:

    My mom typed out her memoires on one of the first computers. Somewhere is a picture of my mother with her eyes lighting up at the best Christmas presents EVER when my sister gave her a computer and I gave her the daisy-wheel printer to go with it. The floppy disks were about 5 inches square and held a whopping 15 pages of information. She took at computer class at the local Junior College to learn more about how to use it. She was in her 70’s at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Robbie's inspiration and commented:

    Today, I am over at Writing to be Read with a post about the importance of historical fiction for children. Thank you to Kaye Lynne Booth for hosting me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to admit that I was only interested in history at university. It was always cruel at school, and before that I also had accounting. Just as terrible. Lol Before I went to high school, I really wanted to go to an economically oriented school. The only thing I took with me from there was typewriting. 😉 But it is certainly important to get children excited about history at an early age, and historical fiction is the best. Thank you for mentioning, Robbie! Enjoy a wonderful week! Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    • HI Michael, it think your comment makes my point exactly. Enjoyment of history, and any other subject, at school is all about how it is presented and taught. History, particularly, can be presented in a very bias manner.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Smitha V says:

    Agree with all that you’ve said Robbie. I too love History but the credit I suppose goes to my father and my History teacher in senior school who spoke of the various characters like they were family. Like you said, to understand and appreciate our today it is important to know our history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Smitha, thanks for visiting and commenting. The way history is taught and shared is important so as not to present a one sided view of historical events. It is valuable knowledge when the sharing is in the correct context and unbiased.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that reading historical fiction can help bring the people, places, and events of history alive. On the other hand, authors have been known to change the facts of history to suit the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    Fellow author Robbie Cheadle lays out a compelling case for how we can interest young people in historical fiction. Check it out!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Jim Borden says:

    History is one of the subjects I wish I had paid more attention to when I was in school, because as I got older I realized how fascinating, and helpful, it can be. And historical fiction is a great way to learn about history. It’s both educational and entertaining – a winning combination…

    Liked by 2 people

  8. beetleypete says:

    Great to see Robbie here, talking about the importance of History. It was my favourite subject at school, and a lifelong interest ever since.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. olganm says:

    Like you, I’ve always been a big reader and read all kinds of things, and I think I learned a lot about history, not only of my country but also international history thanks to my reading. I agree that historical fiction can get readers engaged and help them learn about the past in a more interesting way than the old history textbooks used to do. I’ve learned a lot about ancient crafts and about how life was for the everyday people and the general population, rather than only learning about kings and the powerful. A very inspiring post, Robbie. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • HI Olga, thank you, I am really pleased you enjoyed this post and added your thoughts and personal experience with reading historical fiction. I also love learning about the ordinary persons point of view and experiences during extraordinary times.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Annika Perry says:

    Kaye, it’s great to read Robbie’s article here!

    Robbie, a fascinating post and it’s brilliant how you fell for history as young! I was the same and devoured the subject whilst many seemed utterly bored. It’s lovely that your boys are taking such a deep interest in history and that it is now taught to include ‘how historical events have influenced the present.’ Very important and makes it seem more relevant one hopes!

    I strongly believe in the good of historically based children’s books and I’ve read some of those you mention and one other of my favourites was ‘Children on the Oregan Trial’!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Super article, Robbie. I was a history minor in college and have been fascinated with history my whole life. The idea of getting kids interested in history is an excellent one. Thanks to Kaye for having you today.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Darlene says:

    I completely agree with you on these points. history can be fascinating if it is presented well. Kids learn best when having fun and being entertained. I always slip some history into my books. The three books you listed should be read by all children or even better should be read to all children and discussed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • HI Darlene, thank you. I am always intrigued as to how you weave some historical threads into your Amanda books and make them a natural part of your stories. This is the type of historical sharing with children I am thinking of with this post.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I truly believe that weaving the “human element” of connection into historical events creates a relationship of humanity. Children learning from these writings have the opportunity to grow into more well-rounded adults.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Hi Annette, you have expressed this thought beautifully and you are absolutely right.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Teri Polen says:

    I can tell from your books you have a love of history, Robbie – it’s obvious the amount of research you put into them. Although I’ve never been a big history buff, both of my sons are – think it trickled down into the gene pool from my dad, lol.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. petespringerauthor says:

    Excellent post, Robbie! I think historical fiction is one of the best ways to engage children in history. One of my favorites from high school was Johnny Tremain. I also find history interesting, but a great teacher makes history come alive. I had a college professor who did an exceptional job of being folksy in teaching about the American Revolution, which further enhanced my interest.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A good teacher does make a huge difference, Pete, but the history syllabus for my kids is also much better than what I learned. So much more interactive and the new approach also teaches the kids to think more and is less focused on regurgitation of historical facts. If history is presented in a more relatable way, it is much easier to remember.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. memadtwo says:

    I think children don’t like history here in the States because of the way it is taught–you just memorize facts and dates, with no living context. It should definitely be paired with both literature and art to make it more real, and more interesting. Everything here is taught without context because of the emphasis on test scores instead of understanding. Some teachers manage to get around the curriculum limits, but not enough of them. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kerfe, this does make sense to me. The way languages are taught in the UK (French) is quite odd to me. I really can’t see the benefits of teaching a language that way. If something feels dry and boring, it is hard to focus on it.

      Liked by 2 people

  18. Carla says:

    My mom was a History Teacher for grade 7 and 8. When we went on vacation, we always went to forts, museums, and historical sites. I loved it, my siblings, not so much. I took History all through school and still love it. I tried to do the same with my children, but my daughter was not interested. My son, on the other hand got his minor in history when he got his University Degree. When I was a teacher librarian and had some control of what books to buy for the library, I bought as much historical fiction for kids as I could. There was a series that the girls loved about new Canadians. Great post as always, Robbie.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Carla, thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Some people enjoy history and some not so much. Making it more fun and interesting allows kids with potential interest in the subject to make a better choice. Dry facts and dates isn’t fun for anyone. History presented in fictional books is so much more relatable for children. I always remember reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and I related so much to Anna and her brother who had to flee their home in Berlin and the toy pink rabbit she left behind.

      Liked by 2 people

  19. TheIndianBookLounge says:

    I loved history and studied it through school and my favorite go-to genre is historical fiction. My kids have been enjoying the Little House in the Big Woods series, especially Farmer Boy. I hadn’t read it as a child so we enjoyed it read aloud on audiobook because of the long descriptive passages. Personal and real-life stories not only tell a story but reflect culture, a time period, and virtues.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I all of the Little House books including Farmer Boy, but my favourite was Those Happy Golden Years. I liked the romance between Laura and Almanzo Wilder. The one that I remember impacting me the most thought was The Long Winter when the family nearly starves. I was horrified and it was the first time I read about starvation.

      Liked by 2 people

  20. Christy B says:

    I found History courses in school were dull when I couldn’t relate them to something in my life. It was like they lacked value in that case, although now I see that isn’t the case. The story of Anne Frank hit me hard and I still remember trying to digest it and feeling so grateful for my home and safe life. I adored fiction as a kid but really didn’t get into historical fiction until I was older. Wonderful guest post here, Robbie!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Christy, I think historical fiction is more appealing to tweens and teens as it does make more sense when you are that age. It certainly shows us how lucky we are in our modern age. The sadness of Beth from Little Women’s death, after having had scarlet fever, stayed with me for years.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Loved the article. Of course it was easier in the old days (my days) because we had such a limited curriculum. For modern children, it was The Horrible Histories that changed ideas about history – and not before time. Where the lapse of teaching shows most is in tv quizz shows where a knowledge of history and countries is really mandatory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Barbara, thank you for visiting and commenting. My boys loved the Horrible Histories and we have a large number of them. I agree with you about the TV shows. I just can’t watch them, it is to depressing, but my hubby loves to watch them and answer all the questions. We are actually a good general knowledge team because I’m good at history, literature and musicals. Terence is good at geography, sport, and mainstream music.

      Like


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