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A Radical Past

There is something of an assumption made about children’s historical time fantasy. It is that it is a generally conservative genre (or sub-genre, depending on your point of view).
It is conservative in form, say some critics, written to a formula laid down more than a century ago by Edith Nesbit, whose The Story of the Amulet (1906) is regarded as the first time-travel story for children.
It is conservative in content, with certain favoured periods of history featuring more often than others, and middle-class protagonists lacking in diversity.
Perhaps worst of all, there is an accusation that it is conservative in ideology, with its suggestion that children should be looking to how things were done in the past in order to learn how to conform to expected societal or familial norms.


When I set out to write my own historical time fantasy, I was dismayed by this verdict on my chosen genre. I wanted to be part of a tradition, but not one considered to be ideologically and creatively stuck, as it were, in the past.
I re-read all the ‘classic’ historical time-slip books that so many of us loved as children. And I came to the opposite conclusion! Nesbit, a well-known Fabian Socialist, was a pioneer of the genre and inserted her politics into her stories. Alison Uttley, in A Traveller in Time (1939), mined her knowledge of contemporaneous scientific research on dreams and became the first of a long line of time fantasy writers to explore modern child psychology in the heart of her story.
Writers like Lucy Boston and Penelope Lively expounded a ‘green’ political agenda long before it was fashionable.
And as for innovation in form – try Gary Crew’s Strange Objects (1990) for a new way to tackle an old idea (and the political message of the novel is hardly traditional). Or see how Jill Paton Walsh disrupts the so-called conventions of the genre in A Chance Child (1978).
Another interesting phenomenon flagged itself up as I read through those enduring works of fiction: this is a genre loved by female writers. Most, although of course not all, of the well-known children’s time fantasies are written by women, and they often contain strong, brave and complex female characters. It has been pointed out that the plots often contain ‘a female quest’ rather than the adventure-led, dragon-slaying quests of children’s stories with male protagonists.


There can be no doubt of the quality of much children’s time fantasy, as a high proportion of works in the genre have won prestigious awards such as the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian and Whitbread Prizes.
I found, then, much to admire. Okay: in the end I did not tinker with the formula too much. My character learns from her journey to the past and her ‘female quest’, certainly. But she does not learn to conform; she learns to rebel. I think this is fitting for the children’s historical time fantasy genre and its unsung radical tradition

Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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4 thoughts on “A Radical Past

  • Interesting article. Thank you. I shall break the tradition and consciously get my child to read a bit of rebellious time travel. This led me to wonder, in regards other forms of arts, do you think that learning from old masters (as an alternative to time travel) can be a starting point for painting artists to show a more rebellious approach in their creativity?

  • I’ve always adimired writers who can ‘slip’ their time travellers without a clunk. Tom’s Midnight Garden is high on my list, and more recently Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution uses an artifact to link two girs in two centuries. My own Sweet’n’Sour uses Malaysia now and in the 19thC for its slip. More recently, in Tough Luck I’ve tried telling the story of someone from history (a 9yr-old 18thC slave) through the eyes and voice of a character in today’s world. I don’t think of this as ‘time-slip’ exactly, but sub-genres are not an exact science, are they?

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