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An illustration of children by a farm by Caldecott
Randolph Caldecott
from Sing a Song for Sixpence (1880)


The Historical Novel Genre

  • There are a large number of engaging historical novels for children, many of which have won awards.
  • To be considered historical, a novel must focus on a period that is earlier than its creation.
  • The purpose of historical writing is to offer insight into people and events from the past.
  • “Costume dramas” are also set in the past but, unlike historical novels, are not concerned with conveying what it was like to live in an era.
  • The fact that a novel is set in the past does not necessarily make it historical.
  • If that were so, any novel written today would be considered historical after a certain length of time has passed.
  • Historical details are as accurate as possible and informed by historical research.
  • Many historical novels highlight the continuity between the past and the present
  • The similarity between reader’s concerns today and character’s concerns in the past is often emphasized

What are the advantages of historical fiction?

  • A particularly effective way of teaching history to children is through historical fiction.
  • Children gain a profound awareness and more personal understanding of the past when they identify with characters in a story and see historical events through their eyes.
  • When historical information is presented in the form of a story, it resonates in a way that is not possible with nonfiction.
  • Historical events depicted in narrative form have a profound impact on children because they form an emotional attachment with characters.

Different types of historical fiction

  • Many novels focus on important historical events and their impact on the lives of characters.
  • Other books focus on a historical period and the everyday lives of characters living in it.
  • Some novelists present actual historical figures, often from the perspective of a fictional child character.

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Time travel fiction

  • Another effective way of presenting historical information to children is through time travel novels
  • These works are also called “time slip” novels.
  • Characters travel magically across time to some other time period.
  • Usually a character from the present travels to the past, although the reverse can occur.
  • Since the protagonist lives in both the present and the past, the time travel novel can act as a bridge between the two.
  • Not all time-travel novels are associated with historical periods. Characters can visit a future period, a familial past, or a mythical period.

Resources on historical fiction

Agnew, Kate and Geoff Fox. Children at War: From the First World War to the Gulf. London: Continuum, 2001.


Butler, Catherine. Reading History in Children’s Books. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Chen, Fu-jen and Su-lin Yu. “Asian North-American Children’s Literature about the Internment: Visualizing and Verbalizing the Traumatic Thing.” Children’s Literature in Education 37, no. 2 (2006): 111-124.


Collins, Fiona M and Judith Graham, eds. Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past. London: David Fulton, 2001.


Garfield, Leon. “Historical Fiction for Our Global Times.” The Horn Book Magazine 64, no. 6 (1988): 736-42.


Hollindale, Peter. “’Children of Eyam’: The Dramatization of History.” Children’s Literature in Education 28, no. 4 (1997): 205-18.


Lynch-Brown, Carol and Carl M. Tomlinson. “Historical Fiction.” In Essentials of Children’s Literature. Boston, Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008, 168-86.


Kokkola, Lydia. Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature. New York: Routledge, 2003.


Lawson, Lucas, Ann. The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature. Westport, CT: Praegar, 2003.


MacCallum-Stewart, Esther. “If They Ask Us Why We Died": Children’s Literature and the First World War, 1970-2005.” The Lion and the Unicorn 31, no. 2 (2007): 176-88.


Norton, Donna E. and Saundra E. Norton. “Historical Fiction.” In Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2011, 407-38.


Russell, David L. “Characteristics of Historical Fiction.” Literature for Children: A Short Introduction. Boston: Pearson, 2012, 225-28.

Walsh, Jill Paton. “History Is Fiction.” The Horn Book Magazine 48, no. 1 (1972): 17-23.


Wilson, Kim. Re-envisioning Historical Fiction for Young Readers: The Past Through Modern Eyes. New York: Routledge, 2011.