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Writing History for Children

October 15, 2019

by Jane Smith Speech Pathology Book of the Year Awards shortlist 2019

WHAT IS IT ABOUT HISTORY THAT MAKES GREAT CHILDREN’S BOOKS? 

For a start, history provides an endless supply of stories.  History is not just a list of dates and names that you learn by rote for an exam, the way I remember learning it at school – real history is about people and adventure and drama and change.

History is all about the truth.  Kids love that – especially when the truth is amazing, as it so often is.  In The runaway, (the seventh ‘Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy’ book), the wanted bushranger Frank Gardiner has escaped to Queensland and is running a successful pub, when he is wrestled to the ground and captured by a pair of undercover cops posing as gold miners.  Did that really happen? Yes!  Did nineteenth-century women really wear corsets, floor-length dresses and petticoats all year round, even in summer, as they do in my up-coming children’s series ‘Carly Mills, Pioneer Girl’?  Yes – and just imagine how that felt!  So many details of daily life were different from how they are today, and these details can be fascinating for kids.  For example, when I talk to school children, I tell them that a bushranger’s favourite target was the mail coach. Why on earth would anyone want to rob the mailman?  It’s easier to understand when I point out the lack of internet banking in the 1860s.  As Tommy Bell discovers, the mail coach invariably carried cash and gold.  Through historical fiction like ‘Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy,’ children see the details of bygone times in a way that’s immediate, vivid and engaging.

Historical stories inspire the imagination.  While many details – like how people dressed, how they communicated, how they travelled – were different in the past, some things never change.  People are people, with feelings, aspirations, doubts and flaws.  That’s what makes history fascinating. Imagine – how would you feel if you were suddenly transplanted to 1862 and found yourself at the wrong end of a bushranger’s gun?  This is the challenge I put to my character, Tommy Bell: a contemporary kid who, with the aid of a magic bushranger’s hat that sends him to the gold rush era, has to navigate a very different world.  By reading about Tommy Bell’s adventures and amazing discoveries, children can put themselves in his shoes and ask themselves: if I was Tommy Bell, what would I do?

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