Are there any great children’s books on Spain? I was a massive bookworm as a child, but I can’t remember ever reading a book set in Spain, until I got into historical fiction and discovered Jean Plaidy’s Katharine of Aragon on my mum’s bookshelf. So I was excited to find the Guardian’s recent interview with Theresa Breslin, author of Prisoner of the Inquisition, a new children’s book that has been long listed for the Guardian children’s fiction prize. There’s a short extract from the novel on Breslin’s website, which gives a sense of the general tone: a hint of bodice-ripping, the promise of violence, and a first-person narrator who may or may not turn out to be as snotty as she sounds.
I’m a huge fan of historical fiction for any audience, because it’s such a brilliant way to get to grips with the sweeping narrative of history, something that certainly didn’t happen in my history lessons at school – we did bits and bobs, the industrial revolution, the first world war, the Nazis, yadda yadda, but it was difficult to get a sense of how it all fitted together. Plus there was a lot of emphasis on the politics, and the battles, and the politics again. Yawn. It was the really good historical fiction I was reading at the same time – the Jean Plaidys and the Anya Setons – that put the people and their stories back into History (which didn’t really have people, apart from da menz who organised the battles and signed the treaties, that is) and THAT is why historical fiction for young people can have such great potential impact. Of course, there’s plenty of poorly-researched, over-written historical fiction out there too, but even that can open doors to the good stuff.
And it’s not just useful for history; historical fiction is a great tool in the modern languages classroom too, as a way of getting students engaged with the context of the language they’re studying. I used to co-teach a class on Representations of History in Spanish Literature and Culture, where we looked at Spanish books representing Spanish history. Last time it ran, we read Dulce Chacón‘s La voz dormida, about the Civil War; the Duque de Rivas‘s Romances históricos, on the Peninsular Wars; Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna; and the Poema de Mio Cid. It was great fun to teach, and I think the students enjoyed getting the history and literature in a single package. It could work in schools as well – for example, reading English-language books (like Prisoner of the Inquisition) alongside short texts in the target language, and you’ve got a great opportunity for building vocabulary alongside cultural knowledge. I haven’t taught that course for a couple of years now, but this is making me think it might be time to dust it off and update it … there are so many new contemporary novels that could be included, as well as fascinating combinations I’d love to try – like reading Blanca de los Rios’s Sangre española (1899) alongside Rivas’s Bailén (1841) as two very different fictionalizations of the famous battle of 1808. Hmm …
Historical fiction for teens may not be as in vogue as vampires right now, but for Theresa Breslin, the stories the past inspires can seem just as fantastical. The Carnegie-winning Scottish author has written more than 30 childrens books, many of them tackling serious contemporary subjects such as bullying – but, recently it has been characters from centuries gone that have caught her imagination. Her latest novel, Prisoner of the Inquisition, which has been longlisted for the Guardian childrens fiction prize, is set in 15th-century Spain. It was a time of tumult for the country: the throne was divided between two monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon; Tomás de Torquemada, the architect of the Spanish Inquisition, was at the height of his powers; and Christopher Columbus was about to set sail across the Atlantic.