Robert Hull reviews a range of history books for children and argues for a richer, subtler approach to non-fiction.
A reviewer in The Times Educational Supplement remarked, of a recently published non-fiction series, that they `are not books from which children can learn or extract facts … they (children) cannot read selectively but have to read the book from beginning to end …’
I read this while searching for history books which children might enjoy reading, preferably from beginning to end. I’d forgotten that non-fiction books are for `extracting facts’, and that `learning’ and `extracting facts’ are the same thing. That must be because I like the sight of children with their heads in a book, and don’t mind if they’re so enthralled by The Journal of Watkin Stench – by Meredith Hooper – that they don’t want to stop to do some extractafacting for my project on Penal Settlements in Australia. True, the project might founder because the children have read a book and know too much, but all teaching involves risk.
Children need books to look up facts in. It’s a fact. It’s also a fact that there are lots of books offering that extractive, dental kind of reading. But children have little natural interest in fact-extraction until questions are lit up in their heads. I’ve extracted this information from many sources, mainly the expressions on children’s faces. That is one of life’s more eloquent reference works, and should be consulted often.
Here is the biggest fact I’ve found doing my non-fiction history project. THERE ARE FAR TOO FEW HISTORY BOOKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE TO READ.
If the typical children’s history book isn’t meant to be read, one looks to the a-typical; to history writing which, borrowing the TES reviewer’s phrase, `is not what one expects from a non-fiction book’:
`Take marbles now. Since the 1890s marbles have been various big plunkers, steelies, brown claiy dawds, white jauries; and glassies with their mysterious twists of colour inside, sometimes winkled out of lemonade bottles, sometimes bought in packets by plutocrat weans. Whatever the name, stuff or size, they were all bools, and games of marbles clicked and bounced on, and mothers made wee bags to jingle them in, through three wars, depression and boom.’
Many a 15-year-old would love much of Anna Blair’s Tea at Miss Cranston’s – a Century of Glasgow Memories. It isn’t, however, written for youngsters. I wish – without wanting to deprive her adult readers – that it had been because I’ve not found, in books for children, words about their games written with anything like the same relish.
The a-typicality of A Mayan Town Through History seems less obvious. But it invites us to read, and tells a splendid, compelling story. Written by Xavier Hernandez and illustrated by Jordi Ballonga and Josep Escofet, it is a sumptuously detailed chronicle, from c 1000 BC to now, of a city’s growth. The narrative is carried by the drawings, which painstakingly record changes across crucial centuries. The shifting city scene is drawn from one viewpoint throughout, like time-lapse photography. The written text, on alternate pages, adds eloquent `vertical’ expansion to the ongoing horizontal narrative. It resembles, in certain ways, reading a good novel.
Bill Boyle’s Local Directories similarly and admirably stays with its own story long enough for the reader to really find out something. We follow the efforts of a school-pupil, John, to find out about his home town, Neston, using local directories from the library. I’d have liked more of John’s tale and fewer suggestions for the reader, but what is fascinating about this adventure is the sense that, through one set of local particulars steadily pursued, John – and his readers – come to have access to a general sense of exploring the local. This is because the story preserves its own narrative and doesn’t reel from region to region making `general’ points. Neston’s history, as slowly uncovered, thus comes to be any local history. The photographs don’t give off an anonymous picture-library feel. It’s an actual, not an exemplary or hypothetical place.
One can find a-typical books, then, in which history is a story to be read. Some though, perhaps especially those for younger children, still suffer from lethal doses of adult reading consultant. These sentences are from the otherwise charming Our Pets, by Gail Durbin: `This picture is from a Roman floor. It is made of tiny coloured bits of stone. It is called a mosaic floor. Someone made it about two thousand years ago. It shows a Roman guard-dog.‘ It goes on like that. Many books go on like that. That is the prose that children like. It is easy to read. It is good to edit.
Similarly with Ruth Thomson’s When I Was Young – Early 20th Century the autobiographical story of Nancy Emery, born in 1906 in Yorkshire. The idea is lovely and right, but the prose sounds, again, heavily consulted, full of sentences that don’t take off from the rhythms of the previous one, but lurch off afresh like items in a phrase book. And fatally for me, the text erases the teller’s voice. Do elderly Yorkshire folks speak like this? `Other people came to work for us as well. Miss Poole came to pluck the chickens in the wash-house. All the feathers were sorted and cleaned and kept in a bag to use for stuffing cushions, pillows and eiderdowns. If she was in the mood, Miss Poole would tell us our fortunes in tea-leaves.‘ No chickens squawk, no feathers fly – they were only sorted and kept in a bag. Feather-facts, to be extracted later.
In Tea at Miss Cranstons the ‘rememberers’ talk the way real people talk, occasionally even forgetting their Standard English Dialect: `She used to do a funny wee thing, mamma, she used to save any feathers that came out the pillows when she was whacking them into place with her walking stick, and she saved the feathers in the toothbrush-rack till she’d a wee bundle to put back into the pillow ticking . . . very thrifty mamma was‘. Relish for language.
And respect for the facts – of how people actually speak. “You should learn to keep more forrardst apart” a Lancashire woman called over the fence when my mother and her sister tangled bikes in about 1910. Or in consulted English: “You ought to learn to ride your cycles further apart”.
For older children, Tony Kelly’s Children in Tudor England juxtaposes passages about imaginary youngsters with passages about historically real children. This device isn’t wholly successful, because a lot of facts clamour for a place in the fiction. It only takes two sentences for Master Carey to stroll underneath a woman emptying a chamber-pot, avoid it only by stepping into the open drain, and be ushered to the Proctors’ table and sat in a carved oak chair. Even so, factuality in this text comes in anecdotal guise, atmospheric and quirky, not in ranks of generalities. It can be read, and explored.
The Hiroshima Story, told and drawn by Toshi Maruki and turned into English by Judith Elkin, was published in 1983. It’s a picture-book story which very successfully performs non-fiction in the manner of fiction. There can be few as good as this, but every such book undermines the argument that, as the TES reviewer puts it, ‘By it’s very nature, non-fiction cannot be written in the fiction mode’. Toshi Maruki’s version of Hiroshima `tells the truth’ so convincingly that I’d turn the argument on its head and suggest that the most terrible historical events need to be written in precisely this mode – though, of course, not only this mode – which preserves and `places’ the horror without annihilating the reader’s willingness to contemplate it. In Maruki’s fictive-seeming but unambiguously `true’ images, children encounter the unimaginable: `Hop, hop. Mii-Chan stirred as she sensed something move past her feet. They were swallows with their wings burnt and unable to fly‘. And in another terrible moment, `The woman waded deeper into the river until she was no longer to be seen‘.
In other words, surely there are different ways of doing non-fiction. Even the pair of terms `non-fiction’ and `information book’ suggests that.
I’ve come across, I think, about 6 types of non-fiction:
Type A is the overt reference work, of which two excellent examples are Watts’ `Timelines’ series and Dorling Kindersley’s Great Atlas of Discovery.
Type B is the type which is actually similar to A, while purporting to be something else; B’s language is essentially that of `entries’ in a reference work, though its function, to be ‘looked-up’, is disguised by being located in a double-spread.
C is the fact-story in overtly informational or expository mode, of which Bill Boyle’s book and Anna Blair’s books are, and Nancy Emery’s story might be, examples.
D is the fact-story which takes on the manner of fiction, as Hiroshima Story does.
And E is the historical fiction proper, as in The Journal of Watkin Stench.
At the moment the dominant type is B. It’s dominant in three ways. First, numerically, when compared with the relative paucity of type A examples and the extreme paucity of examples in types C and D. Second, it’s dominant by virtue of the fact that the language of types C and even D tends to model itself on that of B. The third kind of dominance is that endorsed by the TES reviewer I’ve referred to, who wants – apparently, in an argument calculated to give Procrustes a bad name – all non-fiction books for children to conform to types A and B.
My suggestion on the other hand, is that children are dismally served by being offered such a narrow selection from possible types of book. It is a sad prospect, if children are to continue meeting in the future only the kind of history books they’re meeting now.
What kind? The answer is the staple product of children’s history, the book of extractable and recapitulatable fact, `covering’ the National State Curriculum topic. Take the Aztecs, as they appear in three books – from Watts Books (in the `Craft Topic’ series), Oxford (‘Insights’), and Heinemann (‘Young Researcher’). All these books are `great for projects’; they’re `packed with facts’. So packed there’s no space for a poem, no time for a legend or myth in other than summary form, no extended treatment of a piece of craft or art.
Here is a key essential packed-in fact: `The Spanish attacked and destroyed the Aztec Empire‘. Well, yes, but . . . was Cortes in ‘attack-the-Empire’ mode from the off? Wasn’t he dead curious, too? How did he find out it was an empire? What sort of `empire’? A Roman sort? Or … ? For children, facts are often – unfortunately – packed with questions. ‘Montezuma was killed‘, for instance. This is more sub-fact than fact: did he fall or was he pushed? Was it stones flying through his window or was he murdered? A lot of books, like some teachers, don’t have time to answer.
In the empire of Aztec non-fiction, Extractafactozotl still rules. History is occupied territory, he says, despatching his priests to yank out the hearts of any competing read.
For this empire of generalities, detail is threatening, as well as messy. Spruce stereotypes are handier; they behave properly, they have `essential facts’. In a small pond ten feet away from me as I write this there’s a tadpole with a threateningly incorrect appearance. It’s wiggling around with an essential fact wrong. Facing due north, its tail points south south-east, about 15 degrees out. So we’d better ignore it.
Extractafactozotl’s empire has been beating off barbarian cases and particulars for so long that it has become blase. The National State School History Curriculum says (said?) that the Aztec civilisation was `without wheel’, failing to add the bent-tadpole truth that they did have wheels, but only on toys. The Watts book, referring to human sacrifice, remarks with enviable problem-free decidedness that `to the Aztecs sacrifice was neither cruel nor hateful. It was a most sacred act, and was carried out with elaborate ritual.‘
I’d sooner children heard inessential Aztecs with bent views:
`Arrogant stand the warriors,
those who snatch whatever is precious,
gold, splendorous feathers, turquoises,
those intoxicated with the liquor of death …
Let us spend our lives in peace and pleasure …
To invoke Him
with the strength
of the eagle and the jaguar
with the force of the warriors
will lead only to the speaking
of false words on earth.’
I’d sooner they heard Spanish soldier Bernal Diaz, with all his `ethnocentric’ horror at the stench of temple slaughter, the priests’ filthy matted hair, the blood smeared everywhere. It’s real, like his amazement at the cleanliness and splendour of Tenochtitlan.
History is a voice telling it. With actual past life, as with the vicarious life of fiction, children have to feel the pulse of the toiler. They have to make their own stories as they read, and to do that they need to exercise their own uncertainty, not exorcise it. Mysteries lie at the heart of any committed read, and a history that has no space for the reader’s puzzlement and wonder is utterly dead.
No matter, we’re delivering Curriculum. How many pints of project this week? There you go …
Details of books mentioned:
The Journal of Watkin Stench, Meredith Hooper, Piper, 0 330 32494 2, £2.99 pbk
Tea at Miss Cranston’s – a Century of Glasgow Memories, Anna Blair, Shepheard Walwyn, 0 85683 081 X, £4.95
A Mayan Town Through History, Xavier Hernandez, ill. Jordi Ballonga and Josep Escofet, Wayland, 0 7502 0619 5, £11.95
Local Directories, Bill Boyle, Collins Educational (1987), now o/p
Our Pets, Gail Durbin, Longman, 0 582 040213, £2.75
When I Was Young – Early 20th Century, Ruth Thomson, Watts Books, 0 86313 872 1, £8.50
Children in Tudor England, Tony Kelly, Stanley Thornes (1987), now o/p
The Hiroshima Story, Toshi Maruki, A & C Black, 0 7136 2357 8, £5.95
Great Atlas of Discovery, Dorling Kindersley, 0 86318 830 3, £10.99
Aztecs ‘Craft Topics’, Ruth Thomson, Watts Books, 0 7496 0839 0, £7.99
The Aztecs ‘Insights’, Fiona MacDonald, Oxford, 019 910049 7, £7.95
The Aztecs `Young Researcher’, Jacqueline Dineen, Heinemann, 0 431 00568 0, £9.99
`Timelines’ from Watts Books are priced at £7.99
Robert Hull taught for 25 years in state schools and is now a freelance writer and lecturer. He is the author of The Language Gap (Methuen, 0 416 39400 0, £7.95) and Behind the Poem (Routledge, 0 415 00701 1, £10.95), and the ghost-writer of My Childhood in Nazi Germany (0 7502 0077 4, £8.95) from Wayland, for whom he also edited A Prose Anthology of The First World War (0 7502 0452 4) and A Prose Anthology of The Second World War (0 7502 0453 2), at £8.99 each.