Education Opinion

Taking a Critical Look at Children’s Literature: Sara Schwebel

By Sara Mead — August 07, 2012 7 min read
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If you were a nerdy kid like me, you may have spent a significant portion of your childhood poring over historical children’s fiction in books like Little House on the Prairie; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; The Witch of Blackbird Pond; and Island of the Blue Dolphins. With their ability to transport children’s imaginations to a different place and time, engage complex social and political issues at a child’s-eye level, and help children learn about and identify with historical events, historical fiction books have become a critical piece of the kiddie lit canon--even if you weren’t a nerd, you probably remember reading or being read some of these books in school. And the things we learned from children’s literature often shape our understanding of historical events well into adulthood. In her new book, Child-Sized History, Sara Schwebel, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in History of American Civilization and is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina, discusses some of the pros and cons of how historical fiction is currently used in U.S. schools, and offers concrete suggestions for how teachers can use historical fiction to more critically engage kids in understanding both literature and history.
I interviewed Schwebel recently about her work:

Why did you decide to write this book?

I was an avid reader of historical fiction as a kid--I think this was what originally drove my interest in history. Between college and graduate school I taught middle school for two years and again saw the power of these books.

But when I was in graduate school I started to think about what I’d learned from children’s historical fiction, both in school and through my own reading. I went back and re-read some of these books, and as I did, I grew concerned about some of the messages being presented to children.
My goal in Child-Sized History is to help the education community think about how we can teach kids to think critically about history and critically read history, whether it’s in textbooks, historical fiction, or our founding documents. I want to empower students and teachers to be interpreters of history themselves.

What are some of the problems?

Classics of children’s literature have tremendous power to engage children as works of literature. But as works of historical interpretation, they are often out of step with historians’ current understandings and contemporary sensibilities. Moreover, the way in which we teach historical fiction in schools often encourages children to uncritically accept these novels as a presentation of “accurate” history, rather than as texts that themselves interpret the past. When we read children’s historical fiction, we need to recognize that the books are “doubly historically": they tell us about the past which is their setting, but they also tell us about the historical period in which the book was published. For example, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain is about the American Revolution, but it was written during World War II, and this affects the way Forbes’ sees and interprets the War of Independence. But for today’s children, both the American Revolution and World War II are foreign--they’re historical.

Often, authors of historical fiction are using the past to advance a particular moral or ideological goal in the present. The way we teach historical fiction to children often fails to recognize that.
Part of the problem stems from the way we currently train teachers. Elementary teachers in many states can graduate and be certified to teach with only 1-2 history courses at the 100-200 level. Teachers preparing to teach elementary and middle school get a lot of instruction in English Language Artsin skills like teaching narrative structure, alliteration, vocabulary development, etc. They receive much more training in that than they do in historical thinking. Not surprisingly, then, many teachers are doing a very good job teaching literary skills with historical novels but are approaching the books only as literature: They never step outside the books. They never think about how the books themselves present historical arguments.

Often, educators use historical fiction as a way of sidestepping controversial issues in history and young adult literature. Federal and state policy around Native Americans is an example of an issue that’s quite controversial. Even as public school classrooms are involved in whole units studying about Native culture, they continue to read books--like Island of the Blue Dolphins--that represent Native peoples as vanishingKids tend to love and identify with [the heroine of Island of the Blue Dolphins], an indigenous woman who is abandoned on a remote island for 18 years, because she’s presented as very resourceful and independent. But at the end of the book she is “rescued” and brought to the mainland. The historical figure upon whom she’s based dies just seven weeks after she’s brought to California. It’s an interesting paradox where you’re celebrating Native peoples as part of a multicultural curriculum and then focusing on this heroine who dies as the “last of her tribe.”

Older books tend to be taught particularly in elementary school because there is so much fear about tackling controversial subjects--both in history and in contemporary society--and older texts seem safer. Principals are afraid of parental response and sometimes don’t want to approve new books. Of course, tight school budgets can also lead to teachers’ reliance on book collections that schools already own.

What kind of response have you gotten to the book?

Very positive. In the past month or so I had the opportunity to visit two groups of public school teachers who are involved with federal Teaching American History grants. Teachers really appreciate this combined historical and literary approach to teaching historical fiction. I had teachers come up to me and say “we teach these novels,” and they were excited about new ways to use the books.

How will Common Core impact use of historical fiction for children in schools?

The Common Core does not create social studies standards, but it does create a whole set of literacy standards about reading and writing historically that encourage just the approach I’m advocating for--explicitly teaching students how to make arguments as a historian would, detecting implicit as well as explicit arguments in the texts that they read.

Some teachers are concerned because the Common Core increases the emphasis on nonfiction texts, but historical fiction will continue to be taught. My goal is that teachers will continue to teach historical fiction not only to develop students’ skills in reading and literary analysis, but also to develop the critical history reading skills called for in Common Core.

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

I read so many! The Witch of Blackbird Pond (It’s about a girl who moves from Barbados to Puritan New England and has to adapt). It became the basis of my first article that became the basis for this book.I enjoyed the Little House books and Johnny Tremain.

What are some historical fiction books you’d like to see used more in our schools today?

My new favorite is a book by M.T. Anderson called The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. It’s written for an older audience. Also Joseph Bruchac’s The Winter People and Debbie Edwardson’s book My Name is Not Easy, about the boarding school experience of Alaskan natives.

Melba Beale’s Warriors Don’t Cry--it’s not historical fiction, but her memoir of being a student who integrated Little Rock High School, written for high school-aged students.

For slightly younger kids, Christopher Paul Curtis’s books are great; I particularly like Bud, Not Buddy.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, set in 1900 Texas, is a recent Newberry winner--It’s fantastic.

We’re presenting much more sophisticated fare for children today than we did 50 years ago. The level of violence and historical atrocities that are deemed acceptable for children has really changed. Part of that is that children are now being exposed to those things through other entertainment media and the news, so schools and parents are less hesitant to present them in historical fiction.

What are you focusing on in your research now?

I’m currently at work on a critical edition of and companion website to Island of the Blue Dolphins, it will be written with an introduction that places Island of the Blue Dolphins in historical context and has footnotes throughout given anthropological and historical evidence about the actual Lone Woman who was the model for Scott O’Dell’s protagonist. It’s intended as a resource for teachers both at the elementary and middle school level and in the college classroom to really think about the complexity of O’Dell’s narrative--children’s books aren’t simple texts, they have complex histories and will reward critical approaches to study.

Children’s literature is growing as a field--it really took off in the 1970s. We have critical editions of older children’s literature, but it’s important that we now look critically at newer, twentieth century classics. Island of the Blue Dolphins is the 6th highest selling children’s book of all time and deserves more substantial study.

I went out to the San Nicolas Island, where the book is set. Walking around on the Island gives you a real sense of how remote the Island is, even today. It really makes you appreciate [Author] Scott O’Dell’s ability to describe what it was like to be and live on the island, which he had never been to.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.