Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Power & Place of Historical Narrative

In my home state of New South Wales we've just celebrated 'History Week'. The week was run by the History Council of NSW to promote the recognition, pursuit, celebration, promotion, communication and practice of history.  As my contribution (even though a week late) I wanted to remind readers of the amazing power of historical narrative to teach, enrich and transform us (see previous posts on the 'Power of Literature' and 'Making History Come Alive').

Above: Settler's Arms Inn, St Albans NSW, (c1842). An early stagecoach stop between Sydney and Newcastle

What is historical narrative?

Historical narrative is essentially the story of an historical event or times. The people and the places are true, but it is written as a story. Biographies and autobiographies are usually historical narratives.  Much of what we introduce to children fits into the sub-category of historical fiction that sits within this broad genre.

Historical narrative often focuses on a specific event in a time period and presents some of the actual events at the time through the presumed voices of people (using diary, journal, illustrative and secondary resource material) and offering a particular point of view of people living in the period.

Many forms of artistic licence can be taken in this genre including inventing new characters, using new or altered names and places and creating new events. Depending on how far these accounts vary from historical accounts, they may be classified as alternate history or historical fantasy.

Why is it important?

a) Historical narrative can illuminate history

b) It can increase children's interest in history

c) It can highlight and make sense of the tiniest of details of history often missed in textbook reading

d) In presenting multiple perspectives it can present complex issues in multi-dimensional ways, helping us to see things for the first time

e) It can connect children's learning right across the curriculum

Picture Book Forms of Historical Narrative

The following picture books can be read to and by children 5-10 years.

'My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto - a picture book that offers a real life account of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima through the eyes of a child who stayed home that day sick rather than going to school. The illustrations complement the authentic personal story of Morimoto's memory of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on her city.

Leon Garfield is one of the greatest exponents of historical fiction for children. As well as many wonderful novels for older children he has also written a number of picture books. Two of my favourites are 'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) illustrated by the great illustrator Charles Keeping and  'Fair's Fair' (1981) illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain and in a newer edition with Brian Hoskin as the illustrator (2001).

 'My Place' (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins) - was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment. See me previous post on visiting the 'real' My Place (here).

Jeannie Baker also offers some interesting examples of children's picture books that tell the story of specific places through brilliant collage illustrations.  Here themes include the impact of people on their world and the connection between people and place over time.  She rarely uses words except as explanatory words except as a foreword or afterword. The books enrich understanding of local history as well as environmental issues. Here are a few examples.

'Window' (1991) by Jeannie Baker - In this wordless book Jeannie Baker shows the changing physical and man-made landscape viewed through a single window.  A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on. As we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. As the child grows and ages, so too the view changes from a country scene to dense settlement.  This wordless book won the Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992.

'Belonging' (2004) by Jeannie Baker

In 'Belonging' Baker returns to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood and it has the same central characters Sam and Tracy. Each picture shows another year and new developments. This is in a sense 'Window' in reverse, as we go back through time and see the urban landscape slowly disappear to reveal the natural landscape that was once there. The images are stunning. This book is sold in the USA under the title of 'Home'.
'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) by Jeannie Baker

In this wonderful book Baker tells the story of how early settlers who move to a remote central Australia build a garden in the wilderness that is beautiful, but which ends up having an unexpected flowering. A single plant (that we now known as the weed 'Rosy Dock') can change the landscape and push many plants and animals to extinction. This simple book shows how a hundred years ago European settlers in the desert planted seeds from the other side of the world that changed the landscape.

The book has been produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).

'Maralinga', was written and illustrated by the Yalata and Oak communities of South Australia with Christobel Mattingley. This is the story of the British atomic testing of the 1950s in Central Australia. It is told by Indigenous Australians who are the traditional owners of Maralinga (a region used for atomic testing in the 1950s?).  In words and pictures community members, describe what happened in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands of South Australia before the bombs and after. This is an important and tragic account of human folly and its consequence for a people who were there first, but whose needs counted for little.

'Sweethearts of Rhythm' by Marilyn Nelson - This is the story of significant piece of cultural history. It tells through poetry of the first integrated all women's band in the USA.  It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.

The story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages.

'A Certain Music' written by Celeste Walters and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas is a fairytale in the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen. The story offers an account of Beethoven's creation of two of his most famous works, 'Fur Elise' and 'Ode to Joy'. It is set in 1821 and is the story of a young girl who is drawn to the sound of music coming from a house in the woods near Vienna. She visits the composer regularly to hear him play. Eventually the girl and her mother are invited to a concert in Vienna to see Beethoven perform ‘Für Elise’. The author Celeste Walters has previously written playscripts for children and adults, as well as novels and picture storybooks for younger readers. 

Books for older readers

'Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA 1859' by Patricia McKissack - This book was originally published as "A Picture of Freedom" tells the story of a young slave girl who longs for freedom just before the Civil War. The year is 1859 and Clotee and has only known life as a slave mostly as an orphan) on the Belmont Plantation in Virginia. But she has learnt how to read and write in secret. She keeps a diary and hides it in a hollowed tree.

When a tutor comes to the plantation to teach the son of her master she discovers that he is an abolitionist and he offers her the chance for her inner longing, freedom.

'The Thieves of Ostia' by Caroline Lawrence - I visited the ruins of Ostia about 15 years ago (it's incredible!) and wish that I'd read this mystery about Flavia and her friends in the ancient Roman port in the 1st century AD before or just after the trip. Flavia is fantastic at finding things, and becomes good at solving mysteries. She is the daughter of a ship's captain living in Ostia, which was the port of Rome, in AD79. With her three friends she sets out to solve the mystery of who severed the heads of the watchdogs that guard people's homes. This is an excellent mystery that offers an insight into the life of an ancient Roman city.  The story is brilliantly told.

Strange Objects’ by Gary Crew (1990) - The story commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger who lives with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the 'Batavia' shipwrecked in 1629 off the coast of Western Australia. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time.

Crew won the 1991 Children’s Book Council Australia award for Older Readers for the book. Suitable for readers aged 12+ years.

Somme Mud, by Private Edward Lynch, Editor Will Davies

This is a fascinating true story, which follows the war experience of a group of young men who set out from Sydney in 1916 to fight in the 'Great War' in France. The main character and the other enlisted troops at the centre of the narrative are fictionalised, but all other elements portray their real life experiences. Edward Lynch who returned from the War and became a teacher tried to publish the manuscript in the 1930s but was unsuccessful. After his death family members succeeded and it was published for adults in 2006. This new book is edited by Will Davies and is an abridged version for teenagers.  It offers a graphic insight into the horrors of the Western Front. It incorporates archival photographs as well as photographs of the sites today.  It will interest boys aged 11+.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose

This book is based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others. It tells the story of a teenager who on March 2nd 1955 was sick of the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation and refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The protest led to further injustice for the young women who is eventually brave and determined enough to challenge segregation as a key plaintiff in a legal case that became known as Browder v. GayleSuitable for readers 12+.

Playing Beatie Bow (1982) by Ruth Park

When Abigail Kirk joins in a traditional chanting game of 'Beatie Bow' in modern day Sydney she sees a mysterious urchin girl in the background and follows her. Unwittingly she stumbles into the past as she follows her up stairs and down alleys in the Rocks area of Sydney. She encounters a strange and different Sydney and finds herself walking the streets of the colony of New South Wales in 1873. Abigail is taken in by the Bow Family who believes that she is a mysterious 'Stranger' who is said in tradition to arrive to save 'The Gift' for future generations of Bows. Abigail remains in this past world to fill her role and in the process falls in love for the first time.

This is a book faithful to its time and setting but is best classified as historical fantasy. It won the Children's Book Council Australia Award for Book of Year in 1981. Suitable for readers 12-16 year olds.

The book has been adapted for film (details here).

Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry

Number the Stars is set in Denmark during World War II. Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen is the central character, who is living in Denmark under German occupation in 1943. Her family becomes a target for the German forces as they help a Jewish family to attempt a daring escape. Annemarie and her family risk their lives to help Annemarie's best friend, Ellen Rosen, by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie's older sister. The title is taken from Psalm 147 in the Bible that speaks of God's power as the one who knows and has numbered every star. It is also probably a reference to the fact that God had promised Abraham the father of the Jewish nation that he would have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. The novel was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990 as the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".

This is a moving and compelling book that engages the reader from the start and in the process offers an insight into the lives of many innocent Jewish families in World War II and the lengths that some went to in order to survive. Suitable for children 11+.

Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O'Dell

Off the coast of California is a rugged rock known as the Island of San Nicholas. The seas around it are filled with dolphins, otters, sea elephants, cormorants and marine life all kinds. It was here in the early 1800's that an Indian girl spent 18 years alone. Karana has to maintain her food supply and avoid Aleutian sea-otter hunters and the perils of a pack of wild dogs that killed the brother she jumped ship to save. The spirit of this young woman and her ability to survive against all the odds offers an interesting insight into the challenges of life in another age.

This wonderful novel was O'Dell's first book and won the Newbery Medal in 1961. It is an excellent book for 10-14 year olds.

The Machine-Gunners (1975) by Robert Westall

Living in World War II Britain, Chas McGill has the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth and he wants to have the best. He is determined to outdo his rival Boddser Brown in obtaining the ultimate war souvenir. An opportunity comes when he finds a crashed German bomber in the woods complete with machine gun, he knows he can not only beat Boddser hands down, but can also play a role in the war. All he has to do is to remove the machine gun from the plane.

This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. Any boy aged 10-16 will love this book.

And there are lots more....

Leon Garfield has written many fine examples mostly set in late 18th century England including 'Devil in the Fog' (1966), 'Black Jack' (1968) and 'Smith' (1967).

Allan Garner has also written a number of fine examples set in Cheshire and often stimulated by local history and legend, including 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' (1960), 'The Owl Service' (1967) and 'The Stone Book Quartet' (1978).

There are many books that deal with World War II (like 'The Machine Gunners' and 'Number the Stars') but one of my favourites is 'Summer of My German Soldier' (1974) by Bette Green and 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' (1971) by Judith Kerr (two great books for teenage girls).

'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor, which won the 1977 Newbery Medal Award, tells the story of a poor African American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression.

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