Historical Fiction for Children
By Michael foster
many of America's schools, the subject of history
is undervalued as an important aspect of a child's
education. As teachers are desperately employing
new techniques to reach the "instant-gratification"
generations, history is losing its relevance
in the minds of children. The values of heritage
and tradition that once bridged the past and
present are slowly being replaced with anything
that can momentarily capture the attention of
young minds. The current medium by which history
is being presented to children fails to touch
their sophisticated imaginations. Well-written
children's books in the genre of historical
fiction can present history as exciting and
relevant to young readers by synthesizing historical
accuracy with identifiable characters, an imaginative
story-line, and creative illustrations.
Challenge of Writing for Children
books have the awesome challenge of capturing
a child's imagination. Adult authors are naturally
aware of their own interests, but they are usually
perplexed when it comes to entertainment of
children. All adults were once children, but
years of mental and spiritual growth have distanced
the adult life from their childhood experience.
Adults then, for the most part, are left to
assume what interests children. For this reason,
the best approach in writing is to find a connection,
no matter how insignificant, with children.
Famed author, C. S. Lewis, best known for his
juvenile fiction, summed up this approach with
a real life example in his essay "Three
Ways of Writing for Children." Once in
a hotel-restaurant, Lewis exclaimed, admittedly
too loud, "I loathe prunes." An unexpected
six-year-old voice from another table replied,
"So do I." Lewis observed that the
sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of them
gave thought to the situation being funny because
the taste of prunes was far too nasty. Lewis
appropriately surmised that "this is the
proper meeting of man and child as independent
One literary medium to achieve this connection
is through the introduction of characters. The
success of children's books rests in believable
characters to which kids can relate. Children
want to read stories about kids like themselves
who overcome great odds and solve big problems
(Willo Roberts 3). Writers must, however, not
make the mistake of creating unrealistically
perfect characters. Children understand that
no one is perfect, so they are more likely to
identify with flawed characters, and they will
eventually learn from the mistakes of those
characters (Maifair 4). Characters, however,
must be basically decent. A corrupt character
is an undesirable character. Children must like
the characters before they will begin identifying
with them (Zach, "Capturing" 3). This
connection allows children to share common problems
with the characters.
Modern children may face different problems
than their parents or grandparents, but the
basic needs of children have always remained
the same. Issues concerning the values of family,
security, friends, approval, love, and recognition
will always interest kids (Willo Roberts 2).
Demonstrating values in books, such as the greatness
of courage or the possibility of achievement,
will help shape a young person's development
Many amateur writers choose to write children's
books because they think it is an easy task.
With the successful phenomenon of books like
the Harry Potter series, many writers are rushing
to their word-processors eager to write the
next classic children's story. Writers of children's
books, however, will be the first to testify
that writing for children is difficult. As an
example, many adults remember "The Tale
of Peter Rabbit" and conjure up visions
of blue-jacketed bunnies hopping through sunny
cabbage patches. Peter Rabbit has even been
a favorite theme used to decorate nurseries,
but this happy imagery gives a false impression
of what the story is about. Successful stories
for children aren't exclusively based in simple,
light-hearted concepts, and to believe so is
to insult a child's intelligence. Beatrix Potter's
story of Peter Rabbit is about the serious theme
of life and death (Lipson 2). In "Sometimes
Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said,"
C. S. Lewis explains his view on writing at
a lower level for children. "I never wrote
down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns
or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion
that a book worth reading only in childhood
is not worth reading even then" (48).
Most children's books illustrate elements of
universal Truth. These Truths are part of the
human existence. Because of this, history can
be a valuable source for both inspiration and
education. The facts of history can be plainly
found in school textbooks and encyclopedias,
but history within the field of creative literature
is special and has particular responsibilities.
The author must create a sense of balance between
fact and fiction. The two main rules of juvenile
historical fiction are to make sure the historical
background is accurate while not allowing boring
facts to slow down the story (Zach, "Bringing"
1). The story's background in historical fiction
is the actual events, but the fiction writer
must also weave a genuine story. Without a story
with dynamic characters, the book is merely
a historical framework. For the reader, the
facts may be foundational, but the characters
are everything else (Levitin 2).
Writers of fiction cannot merely record the
events of history without instilling a sense
of presence--a first-hand observation. Historical
fiction must, by its nature, recapture the past.
History itself, however, does not accomplish
this. The writer must complete history with
supposition (Butterfield 22). Since most writers
of history haven't experienced their particular
subject matter, there is a degree of "filling-in-the-blanks"
beyond the normal research. Most lovers of history
have had a special teacher or interested parent
who has fueled their passion for the study.
As they discovered their own heritage and how
it applies to them, history comes alive. The
once boring, dusty facts of history transform
into a thirst for the story of life. As the
historical fiction writer carefully wears both
hats of fact and fiction, he must be careful
to balance his responsibilities.
A serious dilemma arises when the writers fail
to objectively balance the aspects of fact and
fiction. Opponents of "revisionism,"
or the re-writing of history, contend that the
fundamental truths of history are sacrificed
when historians selectively interpret history
to placate the whims of their personal agenda.
Other historians, however, feel that since all
history is subjective, seeking a consensus on
what really happened is futile (Judt 3). Ultimately,
the responsibility of the writer is to be considerate
to his audience. Therefore, when writing for
children, it is good to write to them as adults--as
intelligent, caring, responsible individuals
(Willo Roberts 2).
The Vast Worlds of Fiction
of fiction contain several elements: character,
setting, plot, point of view, and theme. Academic
discussions can be waged over the use of each,
but more importantly is their relationship to
each other in the work being written. The elements
of fiction combine to complete a story much
like pieces of colored glass combine to create
beautiful stained-glass windows. Therefore,
the story must be analyzed both as parts of
the whole and as a complete work.
From reading a complete work, a reader can determine
the author's feelings about the subject matter.
This is considered the tone of the story (Edgar
Roberts 133). The tone is woven into the story
and can offer more insight than the dialogue
or narration. The enjoyment of a book oftentimes
stems from the tone or manner in which the story
A reader of fiction generally does not read
as a task, but as a diversion. Because of this,
the reader invests in the story. He is interested
in the characters, he is concerned about their
circumstances, and he sympathizes with their
troubles. Basically, a reader lives the lives
of the characters (Maugham 14). Because of this,
careful planning is necessary when a plot is
In writing fiction, many authors labor upon
telling a story as opposed to showing one. Although
narration is part of any story, writers must
allow the reader to discover the story through
the reactions and responses of the characters
to different situations. The pace of the story
is controlled by the writer's style through
the length and complexity of the sentence structure.
Far more important, however, is the rate of
revelation. When the story seems to progress
more rapidly when information is being revealed.
Conversely, the story slows down when the writer
uses extensive description, digression, or speculation
(Minot, 197). Good writers, in efforts to capture
a child's interest, fill their stories with
action and adventure.
An intrusive author will force a lesson or moral
into his story. C. S. Lewis writes in "Sometimes
Fairy Tales May Say Best What's To Be Said"
that many people have assumed that he first
decided to try to say something Christian in
his stories to children. They further believed
that he would research child psychology and
age groups. Finally, they thought that Lewis
used allegories as the vehicle by which he told
the stories. Lewis responded by writing, "This
is pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that
way at all. Everything began with images; a
faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge,
a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't even
anything Christian about them; that element
pushed itself on its own accord" (46).
These images in the author's mind can be complemented
in the form of illustrations.
Show and Tale
old adage that a picture is worth a thousand
words is very true for children's stories. This
visual concept plays a large part in the modern
picture-dominated world. As a society, a deluge
of information is processed through images on
billboards, television, and in magazines (Pitz
13). Not unlike the hieroglyphs of our ancient
ancestors, people of today also communicate
Illustrated pictures in children's books not
only foster a child's interest in reading, but
in some cases, they can be the catalyst for
reacquainting a generation with the written
word. Well-designed illustrations can help interpret
and extend a book's story through a pictorial
medium which children readily understand (Cianciolo
18). Since the writer's ultimate goal is to
produce a book that actually lives in the mind
of the reader, illustrations can serve to formulate
those images (Kingman xiv). This dedication
to reaching a child's imagination is an integral
part of creating a story of historical fiction
that will come to life. A child's understanding
of the history is richer if the visual story
is added to the verbal (Hill 22).
If children are to have an appreciation and
understanding of history, every effort must
be made to engineering an effective approach
to the presentation of history. Without an underlying
respect for the past, a child has no reference
by which to base the present and future. The
result is a society suspended in time, much
like a wayward ship at the mercy of the sea.
An exciting book that tells a story from history
can educate and inspire children, and maybe
even serve as that guiding light from shore.
Approach of a Young Writer
first step in writing my story of historical
fiction was to select an appropriate setting.
Knowing that this setting would need to include
an authentic time and place in history, I used
discriminating criteria. As a long-time student
of American history, I wanted to use a setting
from the annals of U.S. history. After much
research in both national and local history,
I settled for the setting of the War of 1812,
more specifically, the Battle of Fort McHenry.
This choice proved itself ideal when I gradually
discovered that many Americans are ignorant
of this particular facet of Americana. I looked
forward to the challenge of assisting others
in discovering this aspect of their heritage.
Next, I had to choose my audience, or more specifically,
the age group. Based on the subject matter,
I decided to gear my story to the 10-14 age
group. To guide the style of my writing, I imagined
writing as a thirteen-year-old boy--the same
age as the main character. This age group was
chosen because of the content of the story.
Consideration was taken to reach an age group
that could handle the mild violence of war and
also relate to a child's character.
I researched the history and significance of
the War of 1812, as well as technical manuals
relating to 19th century artillery and military
uniforms. Maryland tourist centers and sites
proved to be invaluable. In addition, I utilized
the library, the internet, and bookstores to
gather as much information as I could.
The majority of the historical background came
from reading summaries of the Fort and the battle
from internet sites, history books, and brochures.
From these summaries, I researched deeper based
on key words such as names and places. A biography
of Major Armistead proved particularly useful,
and I eventually added his character to the
story. An interesting story that was uncovered
in my research was the Battle of St. Michaels,
an unsung battle of the War of 1812. I was able
to add that story to help illustrate one of
the main themes: God's providence in the war.
The character of Mary Pickersgill is historically
accurate as far as her role in the war, her
occupation, her name, and her actual address.
Much of the description of the city of Baltimore
was a combination of old drawings and my personal
experience. This story, of course, wouldn't
have been complete without the inclusion of
the famed story of the Star Spangled Banner,
which I added at the end.
As the first words were typed, 1814 re-emerged
from the past. Characters, both historical and
fictional, began acting out my story on the
cobblestone streets of Baltimore in my mind.
Sights of masted ships sailed across the backdrop
of my story lending a panoramic realism. The
story had begun.
My first major decision came with the dilemma
of dialogue. I realized that I didn't have any
idea about how people talked almost two hundred
years ago, and without an intensive study into
historical linguistics, my story's authenticity
might be in jeopardy. As a compromise, standard
English was used, but without modern colloquialisms
and slang. The result was a historically accurate
story, but written in an easily understood language.
In addition to the written word, I decided early
that I wanted my book to be illustrated. Some
of my favorite books growing up have been illustrated.
Many of those images still linger in my head
and are affectionately associated with their
respective stories. Initially, I tossed around
the idea of commissioning someone to craft the
project, but in the end, due to the lack of
time and finances, I illustrated the book myself.
I appropriately chose watercolors because of
its tendency to be impressionistic and its inherent
forgiveness to mistakes. As I worked on the
art and inserted it into the text, a new sense
of reality was added to my story. This reality
was different from my original intention, but
Many of the painted pictures were from images
in my mind; however, I needed assistance on
the technical aspects. The illustrations of
Fort McHenry, British warships, and military
uniforms were all researched. The dimensions
and specifications of the ships were drawn from
oil paintings depicting the War of 1812. Much
of the Fort's detail came from personal photographs.
These pictures were taken on a tour of the Fort
several years ago. To my surprise, on the day
I took the pictures, a small militia re-enactment
troupe was performing authentic drill and musket
fire. These pictures aided me in creating authentic
scenes from the Fort.
As I worked on the story, current events marked
its timeliness. On September 11th, 2001, a terrorist
attack on the United States destroyed the World
Trade Center buildings in New York City and
damaged the Pentagon. The horrific result was
the death of thousands.
Ironically, parallels emerged between those
events and the circumstances of my story about
the battle of Fort McHenry. The first parallel
was the date. My story begins on September 11,
1814, when the British set sail towards Baltimore
after burning Washington. The second parallel
was situation. The terrorist attack was an act
of war against America. It was the first war
against foreign aggression fought on U.S. soil
since the War of 1812. The third, and most significant
parallel, is the theme. The defense of Fort
McHenry served to preserve our liberties and
our sovereignty in uncertain times. The United
States had gained its freedom from the British
in the Revolutionary War, but now it had to
defend that freedom. As a nation, we learned
early that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Just as the events of September 11th, the Battle
of Fort McHenry proved that our freedoms are
susceptible to foreign aggression. The fears
and concerns of Americans 187 years ago are
very similar to those of today. This common
thread can be seen as valuable in illustrating
the relevance of history to children.
Children's books written on historical fiction
can offer children stories that are relevant
and entertaining. This can be accomplished by
combining historical accuracy with identifiable
characters, an imaginative story-line, and creative