Reviews 2012

Child-sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms

Child-sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms. Sara L. Schwebel. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011. $69.95 (hardback).

Sara L. Schwebel’s Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms considers the ‘canon’ of historical fiction that is taught in American middle-schools, and deliberates on why certain texts have remained on the curriculum since the 1980s while pedagogy and text-books have changed drastically. Schwebel also analyses the interrelationship between these texts and school curricula, historiography, societal shifts brought on by, for instance, the civil rights movement, and political incentives such as ‘No Child Left Behind’. Schwebel suggests ways of teaching historical fiction which do not simply reaffirm old stereotypes, but rather take into account both context and subtext – not only the realities of the time which the book sets out to portray, but also the personal, societal and political conditions of the author and her time of writing.

Child-Sized History is divided into five chapters, where the first and fifth deal with the changing societal and educational context within which a certain curiously non-changing ‘canon’ of historical novels is taught in American middle-schools. The three central chapters constitute close-readings of such books, divided into thematic sections. In a concluding ‘Afterword’, Schwebel also offers useful suggestions of alternative ways of using these texts in the classroom today.

Chapter One, ‘Classroom Entry’, traces how the War on Poverty, multiculturalism, and the rise of the authentic literature movement jointly contributed to bringing historical novels into U.S. classrooms in the 1980s. Fruitfully discussing the impact of different factors, such as the publishing industry’s realization of potential profit, educators’ desire to balance multicultural initiatives with the use of social sciences as a means of citizenship education, the influence of librarians and editors, and the embrace by schools nationwide of the use of trade books alongside text books as core curricular tools, the chapter provides a fascinating background to the present day situation.

Chapter Two, entitled ‘Indians Mythic and Human’, considers how the image of Native Americans in historical fiction has been that of the mythic, vanishing Indian, an image which fits into the American grand narrative of the frontier and the self-reliant settlers. Astute as this analysis is, however, the most interesting section of the chapter is its account of the ways the Native American community has responded to such portrayal, for instance through websites such as Oyate and American Indians in Children’s Literature. Hence, Schwebel’s work points to the present and the future as much as outlining the past of the field.

Chapter Three, ‘War Novels’, looks at novels describing the United States involvement in war, from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, through to the Second World War. Outlining three generations of children’s war fiction, it fruitfully incorporates a discussion of how the Pacifist movement and the resistance against the Vietnam War influence stories about the Civil War.

Chapter Four, ‘Black and White’, discusses novels about slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the increasing focus on multicultural perspectives- It includes a comparison between Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, suggesting that despite similar plotlines, the texts differ in their vision for a future multicultural America. As in previous chapters, Schwebel takes into account the societal and literary responses to and influences on these texts at the time of their production. For instance, she considers how the Council on Interracial Books for Children (CIBC) influenced, if not the “conservative institution of the public school”, then the “all-white world of children’s literature” (117).

Chapter Five, ‘Historical Fiction in the Classroom’, turns to the American middle-school system itself. Schwebel covers a wide array of topics in a convincing, engaging manner, discussing the impact of political incentives like ‘No Child Left Behind’ on the education policies of the U.S., as well as research into pedagogical approaches and their respective successes. The Afterword, ‘Pedagogical Possibilities’, finally, offers concrete suggestions of how to teach historical fiction in a more rewarding way. Here, Schwebel no doubt draws on her own experience as a middle-school teacher.

If there is one weakness in this otherwise very convincing text, it is the absence of a discussion of the field of ‘history’ itself. While intensely concerned with the need to alter the way in which historical fiction should be viewed and taught, Child-Sized History remains vague on the best methodologies for the study of history itself. Chapter Five does make the point that, while classroom projects frequently labour under the assumption that history is knowable, consensual and positive, “discipline-based scholars”, by contrast, consider “the past ... frustratingly unknowable and at times bafflingly complex. Far from harmonising, historical narratives are understood as powerful social and political tools that reflect authorial perspective and divide as frequently as they unite” (135). These words are enlightening, but the discussion would have been helpful much earlier on and could have been expanded on. It would have helped convince those academic readers whose specialty is not history, but perhaps come from the literary field or from pedagogy, not to mention those middle-school teachers whose ways Schwebel seeks to alter. But the absence of a discussion on historical research is a minor problem in what is otherwise an excellent read.

Sara Schwebel’s work is scholarly convincing and highly accessible at the same time. It will be of significant practical use for teachers of all levels – including those of us working with teacher-training programs at universities. The main contribution of Child-Sized History, apart from its immediate practical use, is surely its illumination of the fact that historical fiction tells a double tale: one of the time it portrays, and one about the time of its own writing.

Marie Wallin
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden