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The Power of Historical Stories for Children

I remember very little about history from my lessons at school. Apart from Tutankhamen. He was indelibly marked on my memory after a rather exciting lesson in which the teacher pretended to be the Nile swooping around the room, knocking over desks and chairs to demonstrate the power of this renowned African river. My attention most certainly grabbed, I listened intently as he went on to explain how the ancient Egyptians settled around its fertile banks. Later, he presented us with a packet of clues, filled with hieroglyphs and scrolls, and asked us to assume the role of Carter in his discovery of King Tut’s tomb, unravelling its mysteries, and thereby appealing to my sense of child-like adventure.

But aside from this, I learned very little. And had you asked me to map out what we’d been taught on a chronological timeline, I wouldn’t have had a hope. Consequently, I’ve never really had an interest in the subject. Until I started homeschooling my own children. Fortuitously, very early on in our home education journey, we discovered the treasure of Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World curriculum (here’s the activity book for our current volume).

Over four volumes, designed to be taught across the same number of years (although it’s taken us much longer), it covers the history of human civilisations chronologically from the ancient times until the present, across all the continents. But more importantly, each time period is presented in terms of a story animating the key events of the time. And even more importantly, each section has a list of recommended supporting books to read with the express aim of bringing each topic vividly to life. Which they most certainly do.

A Time Machine

Snuggled together on the sofa each morning, these books have brought the lives of historical characters such as Florence Nightingale, Nelson Mandela, the first settlers in Virginia or the convicts sent to Australia, right into our living room. The carefully chosen words contained within their pages have painted for us an image of existence in the different time periods across the world. We’ve had an opportunity to delve into their lives and have a good nosy around, peeping into their houses and looking into their cupboards; watching how they interacted with their family, friends and enemies; seeing how they were treated; and understanding what was important to them.

In our minds, we can see a picture of Marie Antoinette being bathed with an audience of no fewer than eight women. We can watch with fascination as the Countess passes the soap and towelling to the tirewoman (the lady in charge of her gowns and petticoats), who would in turn hand them to the Lady of the Bedchamber, who would then hand them to the Lady of the Bath, who would finally bathe poor Marie, such was the rigour of the French court etiquette at the time. We’re also unlikely to forget the anecdote in her fictional diary that, despite this strict etiquette there were insufficient toilets for all the people required to implement it, so the sight of people urinating in the corridors at Versailles was commonplace. And let’s face it, anything with even a modicum of potty humour is bound to appeal to young (ish) children! They’re unlikely to forget that fact in a hurry.

Sometimes it’s through the poets of the time that we learn, as they condense images of past events or living conditions into just a few poignant and memorable sentences. The bravery of the fated Light Brigade in the Crimean War will be forever immortalised in Tennyson’s words: “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.” As will be the image of endless crosses in Flanders’ poppy fields, marking the senseless death of so many in the First World War, thanks to McCrae’s famous poem. In our morning basket, we study these poems and remember their words, at the same time forging a mental image of these historical events that will last a lifetime.

And it’s not just through words. As the old adage, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ says, images of people from the past can be exceedingly moving. We recently read a book (Kids at Work) about the work of Lewis Hinde, a photographer tasked with capturing the reality of children’s harsh working lives in the factories and fields of America in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. The haunting looks in the blackened faces of breaker boys, some younger than the Beans, after a day spent hunched over coal chutes picking out pieces that could not burn, will stay with us all forever more.

Through these stories, we have felt people’s pain and shared in their joy. Together, we have laughed out loud and cried real tears (OK this is mostly me – after having children, I seem to have turned into my mother and I’m now a gibbering wreck when presented with any emotional story…). The people have become real to us. We will not forget them. And in the process, all three of us have learned substantially more than I ever learned in all my years of traditional history schooling.

Lessons Learned

But what lessons have we gleaned from all our delving into these ghostly worlds? It’s much more multi-layered than at first it might seem. It’s far more powerful than simply enabling them to remember who Marie Antoinette was, that she wore intricate wigs, or that there were thousands of people surrounding her in the court of Versailles. It goes deeper than knowing what happened in the Charge of the Light Brigade, the First World War or that there were thousands of poor children employed in dangerous low paid jobs as the Industrial Revolution started to take hold. Alongside an understanding of the historical details, a knowledge of what life would have looked, smelled, sounded and felt like, here’s what else they’ve learned:

1. Empathy

These books focus on the characters and events first; the historical details playing a secondary, background role. Often, they’re are written from the perspective of children living during these periods – children of very similar ages to the Beans. Or if not, they’re written in a way which allows the reader to get inside the head of the historical individual. For a time, they are that person. Through this analogy, the Beans can more clearly see the similarities and differences between their lives and those about whom they’re reading.

They’re much more able to understand why they behaved as they did. They can start to connect with other cultures, perspectives and voices, markedly dissimilar from their own. It teaches them that the world isn’t black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Which in turn allows them to forgive past mistakes and hopefully grow into balanced individuals who can consider the views of both sides and thus make rational decisions. And stop history repeating itself.

2. Questioning and Self Evaluation

The books we read, and the way in which we read them – snuggled up together, sharing and discussing as a trio – encourages a questioning mentality. The literature not only triggers thoughts such as, “Which side do I believe in most? Is there a wrong side? What’s my opinion?” but the environment allows them to debate these meaty topics in safety, without fear of ridicule, as might be the case in a bigger group situation. The time we spend reading together gives them the space for self-evaluation, deliberating over how they might behave in a situation or what they might learn from someone’s actions, be they good or bad.

For example, we recently read an excellent book called The Value of Honesty: The Story of Confucius, from which we all garnered a degree of moral intelligence and sense of responsibility. There was a lesson contained within its pages about the power of letting go. Confucius asked if any of his pupils could work out how to get an apple out of a vase. One hungry student jumped up, thrust his hand down the narrow neck of the vase, grabbed the apple and attempted to pull it out. But his hand stuck fast. Confucius pointed out that he could not get the apple out of the vase until he let go of it, and once the student had released the fruit and removed his hand, Confucius simply turned over the vase to free the apple. His lesson: “It is often difficult to let go of a thing. But if you see that by holding on to a thing you are keeping yourself from getting what you want, then you must let go.” This struck such an incredible chord with me about something in my personal life that it prompted me to stop and conduct a bit of self-evaluation myself which I discussed with the Beans. Later I made some conscious changes to my actions in respect of this issue, which in turn made me feel a lot lighter. Modelling this self-critiquing behaviour encouraged the Beans to do the same and we applied the lesson to examples from their own lives.

3. Curiosity

For children, historical stories inspire a fascination in the captivating story of humanity, the tale of their ancestors, however distantly related. They allow the child to see history as a series of mysteries and secrets to unlock, which is so much more enticing than lists of dates and facts to memorise. It engages with their innate sense of inquisitiveness, inspiring them to want to find out more. For example, after reading the diaries of nine year old Elizabeth, a fictional account of one of the first settlers in Jamestown, America in 1609 (Our Strange New Land), they were keen to find out as much information as they could about the relationships between the native Powhatan tribes and the English settlers. In particular, they wanted to know what happened to two key characters from the story: Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.

For me, stimulating this sense of curiosity is key. Surely, it’s more important that we raise children to love and be actively engaged in a subject than those who are solely able to regurgitate someone else’s facts and opinions to gain an A* on a test, never to foray into those worlds again?

If you’d like any more information about the resources we’ve used, please feel free to comment below.

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  1. Look forward to reading this in detail.

    Just returned from running the church quiz.


    J &M

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Hi Philippa, further to the books linked in the post, here are some others we’ve enjoyed:
      – All of the Our Strange New Land: Elizabeth’s Jamestown Colony Diaries by Patricia Hermes
      – Beyond the Sea of Ice by Joan Goodman
      – The Landing of the Pilgrims by James Daughtrey
      – Peter the Great by Diane Stanley
      – The First Thanksgiving by Jean Craighead George
      – Hokusai, The Man Who Painted a Mountain by Deborah Ray
      – The Who Was series such as Who Was Winston Churchill by Ellen Labrecque. We’ve read loads of these such as Who were the Wright Brothers, Who Was Ferdinand Magellan, Who Was Christopher Columbus, Marie Curie etc
      – The Odyssey, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean
      – Anything by Michael Morpugo
      – Anything by Emma Carroll
      – Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
      – The Cheshire Cheese Cat just because it’s fun!
      – The Kidnapped Prince by Oludah Equiano
      – Johnny Tremain by Ester Forbes
      – When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
      – Sacagawea by Flora Warren Seymour
      – Bluebirds by Caroline Starr Rose
      – Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Velchin is supposed to be good but haven’t read it yet
      – Listening for Lions by Whelan
      – Leonardo Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd
      – El Cid by Geraldine McCaughrean
      – A Farm Through Time by Angela Wilkes.
      – Who in the World was the Forgotten Explorer, The Story of Amerigo Vespucci by Lorene Lambert
      I could go on and on!! We’ve read a lot!!
      Hope this helps xxx

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