Time & History in Children’s Literature

We asked Clare Walters, one of our MA in Children’s Literature alumna, to write about her experience auditing the Time and History module taught by Dr Lisa Sainsbury in Spring 2015.

All Things Must Pass

A reflection on the Time and History module for the Children’s Literature MA

Audited and reviewed by Clare Walters

The module began with a discussion of what might be meant by ‘historical fiction’. We loosely defined it as books that, at the time they were published, engaged with the past, often mixing in real historical characters with fictional ones. We noted that the nineteenth century texts – The Children of the New Forest and Kidnapped – reflected a fairly stable view of British history, but acknowledged that these books are now viewed in a different light. They are ‘doubly’ historical in that, being read years after first publication, they can reveal more about the time they were written than the period they describe. This was true even of the mid-twentieth century novel The Eagle of the Ninth.

A number of questions were posed of each text. Could a particular ideological framework could be identified, or a didactic purpose revealed? Were authenticity and accuracy of primary importance? And who was the implied reader? We applied these questions to fictional histories, too – those first-person novels where the narrative framework relies on an individual’s (potentially unreliable) memory, such as The Stonebook Quartet, Issac Campion and Code Name Verity. We discussed the inclusion of historical objects in fiction and asked whether these could provide continuity to the present; and we debated the role of images in the historical picturebook Rose Blanche.

Around Week Five the focus changed to the time-slip novels Charlotte Sometimes, A Stitch in Time and Midwinterblood, where the action shifts between various time frames. In these books less emphasis is placed on the historical and more on the personal. The text becomes an emotional dialogue between past and present, and there is often interplay between a linear structure of time (chronos), and a more mythical sense of time, in which significant moments repeat themselves (kairos).

From time-slip novels we moved onto Arthurian fiction, looking at The Lady of Shalott and The Seeing Stone, books more concerned with myth than history. Tales of King Arthur are constantly retold and embroidered, and this repeating cycle prompted further discussion of the notions of chronos and kairos. It was also suggested that myths and legends can serve the purpose of ‘hopefulness’, and remind us that the present is born from the past.

Similarly the future is always imagined in the present. So in the penultimate section we looked at The Knife of Never Letting Go and Feed, two twenty-first century texts that feature representions of the future. We talked about how science fiction might be distinguished from fantasy and concluded that the worlds of the former often seem more possible, more real and more political than those of the latter.

The module ended with Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, a time fantasy novel that deals with the paradox of wanting to live forever. For me, this deceptively simple fairytale-of-a-book was the highlight. It was a reminder of why these modules are so enjoyable – for not only do they increase one’s knowledge of children’s literature and hone critical skills, they also introduce new books that are frequently deeply enriching.

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About Erica Gillingham

Academic, Writer, Craft. LGBT Children's Literature. London, UK, via California · www.ericagillingham.com

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