For more than three decades, the same children's historical novels have been taught across the United States. Honored for their literary quality and appreciated for their alignment with social studies curricula, the books have flourished as schools moved from whole-language to phonics and from student-centered learning to standardized testing.
Books like Johnny Tremain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry stimulate children's imagination, transporting them into the American past and projecting them into an American future. As works of historical interpretation, however, many are startlingly out of step with current historiography and social sensibilities, especially with regard to race. Unlike textbooks, which are replaced on regular cycles and subjected to public tugs-of-war between the left and right, historical novels have simply - and quietly - endured. Taken individually, many present troubling interpretations of the American past. But embraced collectively, this classroom canon provides a rare pedagogical opportunity: it captures a range of interpretive voices across time and place, a kind of "people's history" far removed from today's state-sanctioned textbooks.
Teachers who employ historical novels in the classroom can help students recognize and interpret historical narrative as the product of research, analytical perspective, and the politics of the time. In doing so, they sensitize students to the ways in which the past is put to moral and ideological uses in the present.
Featuring separate chapters on American Indians, war, and slavery, Child-Sized History tracks the changes in how young readers are taught to conceptualize history and the American nation.
Sara L Schwebel —
Sara L. Schwebel is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. She received her Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University and has taught middle-school English and history in Connecticut and Virginia. She is the co-author of The Student Teacher's Handbook, 4th Edition.
Schwebel, Sara L. Child-sized history: fictions of the past in U.S. classrooms. Vanderbilt, 2011. 255p bibl index afp; ISBN 9780826517920; ISBN 9780826517937 pbk. Reviewed in 2012may CHOICE.
Many states are moving toward greater integration of literacy into content areas such as social studies, and Schwebel's fascinating book addresses the very important topic of the uses and misuses of historical fiction in the middle-grade canon. As Schwebel (English language and literature, Univ. of South Carolina) notes, historical fiction "straddle[s] the divide between fiction and history, balancing literature's belief in the ability to access universal truths of the human condition with history's guardedness about the possibility of accessing that which is distant, foreign, and irrevocably past." She provides a comprehensive exploration of the history of historical fiction in schools, a strong critique from both a literary and a historical standpoint, and many examples of problematic topics addressed in historical fiction, such as the representation of Native Americans, African Americans, and war. The book closes with concrete suggestions and helpful examples for effectively utilizing historical fiction in classrooms. The appendices track nationwide trends in middle-grade historical fiction and provide readers with the historical sources mentioned in the pedagogical ideas section. This book offers great insight into the use of historical fiction for children; this reviewer plans to include it as a required reading for teacher candidates in social studies methods courses.
Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. -- P. M. Del Prado Hill, Buffalo State College