A site for the study of twentieth century British children’s books, particularly historical fiction, and their relationship to social change
Clive Barnes

2008 Righting History: social justice and the historical novel for young people in Britain, 1934 -1976

Righting History: Social Justice and the Historical Novel for Young People in Britain, 1934 -1976, 2008

This was presented at The Child and the Book Conference in 2008. This is an international conference organised and attended by postgraduate scholars in Children’s Literature. This paper has not been published anywhere else and has not been peer reviewed. It discusses some of the ways in which the theme of social justice in British children’s literature was related to the writing of historical fiction for children in the middle years of the twentieth century.


In the mid twentieth century, the children’s historical novel in Britain was both a means for the discussion of social and political issues in books for young people and an important contributor to the development and recognition of writing for children as a serious literary enterprise. This paper examines some of the characteristics of the historical novel at this time and its role in redefining not only children’s literature but also young people’s understanding of British history and identity. In a conservative publishing and educational world following the Second World War, writers for children had little scope for tackling contemporary issues of social justice. Yet the war marked profound changes in British society and the British role in the world: and, initially, it was through revisiting history that writers for children sought to understand these changes and accommodate to them. Within thirty years, the next generation of critics and writers demanded a more explicit commitment to contemporary social justice in children’s books, especially in matters of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, ending the pre-eminence of the historical novel.

Comment for readers

Reading the paper now, I am struck by its lack of a conclusion. This was, I think, a result of trying to pack too much into a twenty minute slot but also not being entirely sure of the overall point that I was making. The nub of the matter is perhaps the application of Alison Light’s insight into inter-war women’s writing (p5), and tracing the gradual transformation of the British historical novel, which had been a carrier of imperial values, into something more radical: the points of change being, first, the Second World War and the social changes introduced by the postwar Labour government; and, secondly, the impact of the civil rights and feminist movements in the 1970s; and the crucial author/critics in each being Geoffrey Trease and Robert Leeson respectively. It needs more thought.