- Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms by Sara L. Schwebel
While the grade school history textbook is notoriously stuffy, with its boasting possession of hard facts, the most conservative and unexamined treatments of history in the classroom may result from a less likely agent: the children’s novel. In her illuminating study of the “middle-grade canon” of historical fiction adopted in U.S. schools since the 1980s, Sara L. Schwebel accounts for how these texts have become an integral—and problematic—part of children’s introduction to national history. Child-Sized History reveals how these works are treated as unmediated sources of historical fact about the era being depicted, without recognition of the novel itself as product of a particular author, time, and place. And unlike textbooks, which are inevitably replaced by publishers every few years, children’s novels endure for decades, preserving the lens of the historical moment of their creation even as curricula shift in response to new consensuses. Further, children’s novels too often become subjects for presentist moral claims or progress narratives—hailing students not into a sense of history, but instead into an uncritical “heritage-based” relationship to the national past (12). On the whole, however, Schwebel finds the novels full of pedagogical and democratic potential, as each of these [End Page 197] problems presents the possibility of its inverse: the kind of critical thinking that engenders sophisticated historical analysis. “Children’s historical fiction, Schwebel writes, “can be read as a challenge to the very master narrative it currently serves” (34).
Following the opening chapter’s contextualization of how developments in librarianship, publishing, and educational policy came together to establish historical fiction’s place in the classroom, Schwebel turns to readings of the texts themselves, organized around three prevalent topics: indigeneity, war, and race. Schwebel first examines novels including Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver, and Joseph Bruchac’s The Winter People, and concludes that these texts widely perpetuate notions of “mythic” Indians. Even as contemporary curricular multiculturalism has come to advocate diversity over the melting pot ideal, it still “denies the possibility of affirming distinctive cultures as alternatives to Western values and mainstream narratives of the American past,” and therefore suppresses Native history (69). Accordingly, Schwebel argues, Native characters in these novels remain devices designed to act out Anglo-American fantasies, until they meet their narrative fate and are “folded into [the] myths of tragic disappearance” (49).
Following her analysis of indigeneity, Schwebel traces three generations of children’s war fiction. Moving from Esther Forbe’s Johnny Tremain to Bette Green’s Summer of My German Soldier to M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Schwebel identifies reactionary movements. These texts represent shifts from a post-WWII patriotism that lauds moral military action, to an unqualified and deluded post-Vietnam pacifism, to post-9/11 confrontations with stark violence and disillusionment. Each generation’s novels have their own troubling blind spots, Schwebel argues, but together these texts indicate the nation’s shifting relationship to its own history of violence; novels that focus on civil rights and the legacy of slavery reflect the complex and uneven development of race relations in the United States. Even so, Schwebel suggests, this narrative is compromised when novels like William Armstrong’s Sounder or Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are used to enthusiastically map anti-racist progress, obscuring both the historical reality of persistent racial inequalities and novelistic engagements with that reality.
To gain insights to how these texts are used in the classroom, Schwebel ably consults teacher-created lesson plans and publishers’ reading guides, and shares the occasional anecdote from her own girlhood. That said, she misses an opportunity to hear from schoolchildren themselves. Accessing children’s relationship to their reading does pose methodological challenges, requiring maneuvers like those Karen Sánchez-Eppler has called “methods [End Page 198] for an impossible subject” (151). Children’s literature more readily...