Multi-platformed historical fiction: Literacy, engagement and historical understanding

Peer reviewed article

Image: Dr Debra Donnelly, University of Newcastle, Senior Lecturer, History Education, School of Education

History is an interesting subject to learn and to teach. The matters under study are gone, and, from the present, we try to understand the past with incomplete and flawed sources. We cannot take our students on a field trip into the past, but we can recreate a sense of history and ignite their historical imaginations by incorporating historical fiction texts.

Historical fiction, in print or on electronic devices, as well as historically themed picture books and graphic novels, feature films, computer games and virtual worlds are mechanisms through which historically based or inspired stories can now be experienced (Landsberg, 2015). These varied historical fiction texts are engaging for many students, integrate literacy practices, and can be useful vehicles for examining the nature of historical interpretation and representation in 21st century history classrooms.

Literacy and historical fiction texts

The basic concept of literacy has been deepened and broadened in response to an educational shift, from traditional notions of teaching and learning as knowledge transmission and reception, to a more learner-centred model that positions the learner as actively constructing knowledge and understanding (Grushka, Donnelly & Clement, 2014; Killen, 2011). Instead of simply reading and writing, being literate today encompasses multiple literacies and various skills and capabilities (Anstey & Bull, 2009; Cope & Kalantzis, 2009). In addition to text skills, a literate person is increasingly required to master some degree of visual, media, digital and internet literacy and the ability to move with fluidity between communication platforms and devices (Donnelly, 2014b; Grushka & Donnelly, 2010). It is these capabilities which allow individuals to act and participate fully as citizens in their own culture and society (Virta, 2007).

In history too, the term ‘historical literacy’ has moved beyond the memorisation of names, events and dates and is commonly used for higher-order capacities related to historical thinking, understanding and research (Taylor & Young, 2004). This critical literacy is one of the basic tools for studying history as it facilitates an appreciation of the power and hidden ideological messages underlying the texts (Apple, 2000) and allows the reader to move to the sophisticated level of ‘empathetic literacy’.

Historical Empathy from Professor QW on Vimeo.

This term refers to an attempt to understand the purpose and values of the author, as well as ‘understanding the world in which the people of the past lived … putting oneself in their position and trying to understand the issues from their points of view’ (Jenkins, 1991, p.309). Experiences with accessing and evaluating historical fiction texts allow for the development of skills of discernment and understanding which are beneficial during school life and beyond.

Rationale for using historical fiction texts

Historical fiction texts encourage students to see history as significant and connected with their lifeworld (Reynolds, 2006). Their narratives are often more accessible to students than textbooks, in terms of reading levels and concept load, and the narrative form facilitates entry into a past time via the protagonist and other characters (Rycik & Rosler, 2009). Historical fiction can pique the curiosity about historical events, figures and eras, and provides audiences with everyday details that can enliven the study of a period of history and help them imagine the past.

Engaging with historical fiction texts enables a vicarious experience of places, cultures and life in the past and opportunities to view historic worlds through multiple perspectives. It can highlight exploration of minority views and experiences and, seeing the world through the eyes of the protagonist, can bridge gaps of understanding across cultures and time (Freeman & Levstik, 1988; Marcus et al., 2010).

These attributes of historical fiction texts help teachers and students to avoid reductionist thinking that oversimplified the complexity of the past. As Barton (1996) explains, common pitfalls here include:

* stereotyping

* personifying large groups as all holding the same views and traits

* ignoring minority perspectives.

Historical fiction texts are often based on personal choices forced by historical events or context, they are an engaging format to discuss:

* differing points of view

* distinctions between fact and opinion

* difficulties of conflict resolution.

For example, ‘Chains’ (2008) by Laurie Halse Anderson gives insight into the lives of slaves in the time of the American War of Independence and ‘Catherine, called Birdy’ (1995) by Karen Cushman examines the role of women in 12th century England. The protagonists of both these novels are young teenage girls whose stories tell powerful tales of injustice and change in social mores and values.

Historical fiction can generate interest in other times and places and begin a path of historic investigation and help students understand the dynamics of cultural, social and religious values over time and place. This historic distance is useful providing a safe space to explore sensitive issues, such as invasion and immigration, which can generate strong emotions and polarise classes.

Reynolds (2006) highlights the important role of historical fiction in enabling discussion of values that may be overlooked in the more traditional approaches. She suggests using analogies and parallels to current controversial situations by removing them temporally to stimulate debate and provide new perspectives on current issues. For example, John Marsden and Shaun

Tan’s post-modern picture book, ‘The Rabbits’ (1998), which is an allegorical exploration of the impact of the white settlement of Australia, is an excellent stimulus for provoking discussion and debate. Distance allows the principles and issues to be explored without the emotional aspects that current issues often incite. Links with the present-day issues can be made in subsequent comparative discussions.

Therefore, the attributes of historical fiction closely align to the overall aim of the History K-10 syllabus for the Australian curriculum in NSW. Historical fiction cultivates an

interest in and enjoyment of exploring the past and to develop a critical understanding of the past and with the objective of the opportunity to develop lifelong interest in and enthusiasm for history.

(NSW Board of Studies, 2012, p. 15)

Historical understanding and historical fiction texts

For the teacher of history, the issue is that these historically-based texts are often a single representation of the past with no obligation to adhere to evidentiary records. Added to this, there is often a commercial imperative and, coupled with the limitations of the various art forms, this can lead to manipulation of the narrative and the inclusion of fictionalised elements. Despite these flaws, international scholarship suggests that these frequently historically inaccurate and distorted resources are being utilised as teaching resources in history classrooms (Donnelly, 2014a; Paxton & Metzger, 2017; Rodwell, 2010).

Many history teachers appreciate the power of these historical fiction texts to motivate today’s visually-oriented digital learners – to engage them both emotionally and intellectually and to provide narrative frameworks to orientate and support their understanding (Landsberg, 2015).

However, it is important that teachers test these historical fiction texts as primary or secondary sources, assessing their veracity by referring to other source material. Historical fiction texts are more commonly used as a secondary source, a present-day historical representation set in the past (Donnelly, 2016; Levesque, 2008).

For example, the graphic novel, ‘Ned Kelly: The Man behind the Mask’ (2016) by Hugh Dolan, is an excellent resource for exploring the image of Australia’s most famous bushranger. This could then be compared to the primary source evidence as well as selection of film portrayals.

Older stories can be used to explore the values at the time of production of the stories and primary sources for the period under study. For example, the nationalism and gender stereotyping in Ethel Turner’s Australian fiction text, ‘Seven Little Australians’ (1894) and in the feature film (1939) and TV mini-series (1973) of the same name are excellent starting points for an exploration of change and continuity.

The notion that historical fiction texts are secondary sources can be easily overlooked. Some teachers report using these texts for motivation or to begin or conclude a study, rather than integrating and interrogating them, as they would other sources (Donnelly, 2014b). The interrogation is an important teaching and learning moment, as it highlights that historical fiction does not provide a perfect window to the past, but that these past worlds are present-day creations and may be historically flawed. This is the intellectual challenge for students and the pedagogical quest for their teacher when using historical fiction texts, but one well worth undertaking.

Historical fiction texts can be valuable stimuli for inquiry, critical thinking and in the development of perspective taking and empathetic skills (Levstik & Barton, 2008). They can be used to inspire high order historical literacy skills and enthusiasm for exploring and understanding the past and its resonance in the contemporary. Evaluating the historical fiction texts against other sources of historical knowledge enriches and enlivens the exploration as more nuanced narratives and understandings are conceived and can be collaboratively scrutinized with peers and teacher.

In contemporary history classes, the cognition of the historian is modelled for the students and they are given opportunities to create historical arguments which are defensible interpretations of the past (Reddy & Van Sledright, 2010). The objective of historical literacy instruction is not necessarily to produce mini-historians, but young people and adults who are able to negotiate and create contemporary texts with an appreciation of the relationship between:

* historical evidence

* interpretation

* representation

* the differences between history and historical fiction.


Historical fiction texts alone will not give students a sense of history or an understanding of the discipline, but they can plant the seed of interest to be nurtured by good teaching.

The accepted practice of using printed texts has been eroded by rapid technological advancement and an engaged teacher sees an array of print and non-print sources peppered throughout teaching programs. This engagement across modalities enriches pedagogy and makes the classroom encounters significant and relevant to students’ world life outside and beyond school. So, equipped with empowering critical multi-literacy skills, historical understanding becomes the foundation of both teacher and student identities as present-day citizens, inheritors of the past and makers of the future.

References and further reading

Anstey, M. & Bull, G. 2006, Teaching and learning multiliteracies: Changing times, changing literacies, International Reading Association, Newark, Delaware.

Apple, M.W. 2000, Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age, (2nd edn), Routledge, New York.

Barton, K. 1996, ‘Narrative simplifications in elementary students’ historical thinking’, in J. Brophy (ed.), Advances in research on teaching volume 6: Teaching and learning history, JAI Press, Greenwich, CT.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. 2009, ‘Multiliteracies : New literacies new learning’, Pedagogies: An International Journal, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 164-195, accessed 30 June 2017.

Donnelly, D.J. 2016, ‘Filmic pedagogies in the teaching of history: Research on and recommendations for using video in the classroom’, International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 113-123, accessed 30 June 2017.

Donnelly, D.J. 2014a, ‘Using feature films in teaching historical understanding: Research and practice, Agora (Sungrapho), vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 4-12.

Donnelly, D.J. 2014b, ‘Using feature film in the teaching of history: The practitioner decision-making dynamic’, Journal of International Social Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 17-27, accessed 30 June 2017.

Freeman, E.B. & Levstik, L. 1988, ‘Recreating the past: Historical fiction in the social science curriculum’, The Elementary School Journal, vol. 88, no. 4, pp. 329-337.

Grushka, K. & Donnelly, D.J. 2010, 'Digital technologies and performative pedagogies: Repositioning the visual', Digital Culture and Education, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 84-102.

Grushka K., Donnelly D. J. & Clement, N. 2014, 'Digital culture and neuroscience: A conversation with learning and curriculum', Digital Culture & Education, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 358-373.

Jenkins, K. 1991, Re-thinking history, Routledge, London.

Killen, R. 2013, Effective teaching strategies: Lessons from research and practice, (6th edn) Thomson, Melbourne.

Landsberg, A. 2015, Engaging the past: Mass Culture and the production of historical knowledge, Columbia University Press, New York.

Levesque, S. 2008, Thinking historically: Educating students for the twenty-first century, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Marcus, A.S., Meztger, S.A., Paxton, R.J. & Stoddard, J.D. 2010, Teaching history with film: Strategies for secondary social studies, New York, Routledge.

Metzger, S.A. & Paxton, R.J. 2017, ‘Gaming history: A framework for what video games teach about the past’, Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 44, no. 4, pp. 532-564.

NSW Board of Studies 2012, NSW syllabus for the Australian curriculum: History K-10 syllabus, vol 2, Sydney.

Reddy, K. & Van Sledright, B. 2010, Epistemic change in history education, Paper presented at the annual conference of the College and University Faculty Assembly, Denver Colorado.

Reynolds, R. 2006, ‘The values in historical fiction: Avenues to global citizenship’, The Social Educator, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 28-33.

Rodwell, G. 2010, ‘Historical novels: Engaging student teachers in K-10 History pre-service units’, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 35, no. 7, pp. 14-29.

Rycik, M.T. & Rosler, B. 2009, ‘The return of historical fiction’, The Reading Teacher, vol. 63, no. 2, 1pp. 63-166, accessed 30 June 2017.

Taylor, T. & Young, C. 2003, Making history: A guide for the teaching and learning of history in Australian schools, Commonwealth Department of Education Science and Technology, Canberra, accessed 30 June 2017.

Virta, A. 2007, 'Historical literacy: Thinking, reading and understanding history', Journal of Research in Teacher Education, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 11-25, accessed 30 June 2017.

How to cite this article: Donnelly, D. 2017, ‘Multi-platformed historical fiction: Literacy, engagement and historical understanding’ Scan 36(2) pp.43-47

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