Does your little one have an interest in how things were ‘in the olden days’? Or do you wish to help your kids realise that dinosaurs did not roam the wilds of Ireland when you were little? Kids who are into history tend to become experts in particular topics or periods, and keeping them plied with age-appropriate content that they haven’t seen already can be tricky. Likewise, children who have no interest can be hard to get into ‘old stuff’ (as they see it).
The good news is that there is more than one way to approach history, either through non-fiction, fiction or clever combinations of both. On many topics (1916, World War Two, Ancient Egypt, the Aztecs, you name it), the range is vast, from more classic titles combining factual text and historical documents, to narrative non-fiction mixing story and history (try the wonderful The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina and Anna Desnitskaya, 9+), historical novels or even comics and graphic novels. Author-illustrator Marcia Williams does brilliant diary-meets-comics books on a range of subjects from The Romans: Gods, Emperors and Dormice to My Secret War Diary, by Flossie Albright (World War Two) and lots more besides (8+).
You could also vary the angle and look at human history through the eyes of famous contemporary animals (try the seldom-heard story of Zeraffa Giraffa by Diane Hofmeyr and Jane Ray for ages 4+, or Wild Lives: 50 Extraordinary Animals that Made History by Ben Lerwill and Sarah Walsh, for ages 7+). Or if your reluctant historian has an interest in music, tap into that, with a little help from the ‘music stars’ strand of the LITTLE People, BIG Dreams series by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara (David Bowie, Josephine Baker, Dolly Parton, from age 5+ or even 3+ in their boardbook versions), or Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s brilliant The Beatles. You could also follow the evolution of a particular aspect of human achievements, say, architecture as in Eduard Altarriba and Mila I Bardi’s Discovering Architecture or Goldie Hawk and Sarah Gibb’s Step Inside Homes Through History (both for ages 7+).
For a more interactive approach, try books where the reader needs to exercise caution and judgment at all times. Spot the Mistake: Lands of Long Ago (by Amanda Wood, Mike Jolley and Frances Castle) is a non-fiction search-and-find book where readers must keep their eyes peeled for anachronisms and anomalies deliberately snuck into the pictures by the authors (8+).
Finally, for very young kids, a great introduction to how things change over time (aka history) is This or That? by Pippa Goodhart where the child gets to choose their favourite items from hundreds of pictures of artefacts from the British Museum: this strawberry (from a 1585 French painting) or that coconut (made of clay in 1980s’ Sri Lanka)?
Where will your historical adventure take you today?
Written by Juliette Saumande (juliettesaumande.blogspot.ie), a children’s book writer whose latest title, My Little Album of Dublin, is illustrated by Tarsila Krüse and published by The O’Brien Press.
This or That? by Pippa Goodhart and The Trustees of the British Museum, Nosy Crow, 32pp, ISBN 9781536212235
Hundreds of photos of objects from the British Museum collections await the inquisitive reader in this clever and fascinating book. With very limited text (along the lines of ‘All around the world and through history, people have … ’), each page invites the reader to look at an eclectic mix of paintings, drawings, sculptures, models and more, representing a culture’s particular take on a particular topic from food to animals via vehicles, music, hats or hobbies. By looking and naming and choosing which is their favourites, readers take their first steps in history and art appreciation while building up vocabulary and personal tastes. Brilliant! (Age 2+)
Zeraffa Giraffa by Diane Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 40pp, ISBN 9781847806611
A poetic account of the incredible, true journey of a young giraffe from Sudan to Paris in the late 1820s (the first ever to be seen in France), Zeraffa Giraffa is also a visual feast. Jane Ray’s illustrations are intricate and full of warm colours, and will have listeners poring over them for ages. Dianne Hofmeyr’s text is gentle and lightfooted, like Zeraffa herself. Themes of friendship, benevolence and good-natured curiosity abound and should help start plenty of conversations. (Age 4+)
Sophie Takes to the Sky, by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Briony May Smith, Barrington Stokes Little Gems, 104pp, ISBN 9781781128718
In late 18th-century France, young Sophie is scared of practically everything, but when the balloonist comes to the fair in town, she feels moved by a curiosity stronger than any fear to go and meet him. This is a great historical novel with a clear path for an endearing heroine to follow in order to overcome many obstacles. Readers will feel close to Sophie in spite of the time gap and the warm, friendly illustrations help building a mental picture of the historical context. This story is inspired by real-life aeronaut Sophie Blanchard and the author’s note at the end of the book will have readers wanting to find out more about her. (Age 5–8)
The Apartment: A Century of Russian History by Alexandra Litvina, illustrated by Anna Desnitskaya, translated by Antonina Bouis, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 64pp, ISBN 9781419734038
Follow the lives and destinies of a Russian family (and their friends, neighbours and country) as they unfold in one Moscow apartment between 1902 and 2002. The text alternates between diary entries from various protagonists and informative presentations of key moments in Russian history, while the illustrations offer panoramic views of the rooms with their occupants, furniture, fixtures and knick-knacks, as well as countless documents and objects typical of the period. There is a lot to take in, but it’s overall an impressive achievement that even manages to fit in a family tree, reproductions of historical documents and a very satisfying search-and-find element. Highly recommended. (Age 9+)
For more reviews check out Inis magazine which is published by Children’s Books Ireland, the national children’s books organisation whose vision is an Ireland in which books are central to every child’s life.