Using true stories from the past to inspire children to read

Published on: 01 February 2023

Author Richard O’Neill explores how reading about real historical figures can engage children.

History can seem like an abstract concept to children: the old days, some part of the distant past that has no real relevance to them, particularly in the digital age.

But history connects us whether we like it or not; we are a part of it and it is a part of us. When we make it relevant to children’s current lives and experiences they generally like it, or can even truly value it. Hearing or reading a story that chimes with you and your challenges can be powerful and motivating, especially for children. And when it comes to sport, particularly football, reading about it can open so many doors to learning on so many levels and subjects.

In my book A Different Kind of Freedom: A Romani Story (part of Scholastic’s Voices series), set in the early twentieth century, the main character Elijah is inspired to overcome many challenges in his desire to become a professional footballer like his hero, Rab Howell. Like Elijah, Rab is Romani, and Travellers didn’t usually play football at that time.

There is no real difference in the desire of Elijah or real-life professional players like Rab Howell, George Best or Cristiano Ronaldo to become the best footballer they can be, despite the fact that over 100 years separate them. The game of football hasn’t changed that much. For sure the stadiums have, the kit has and the wages have, but essentially the aim of the game and the thrill of wanting to score the most goals and win hasn’t changed.

Football is a great tool for teaching children about history as it connects them to the past in a way that is meaningful and relevant to their lives. Through the stories of players from different eras, children can learn about the changes that have occurred in the sport and the world at large. The similarities between players from different generations, such as their background and their love of the game, can also help children understand that people throughout history have shared many of the same hopes, dreams, and challenges and knowledge.

In my book, I used the sport of football and its players as a way to connect the past to the present. Through this, I aimed to demonstrate to modern readers that children in the past were just as inspired by individuals who they could relate to and look up to, just as children today are.

But it’s not just football players that can serve as inspiration for today’s children. There are countless historical figures who have made significant contributions to society and whose stories can be used to inspire and motivate young readers. From scientists and inventors to activists and leaders, there are countless biographies available that are tailored to young readers.

One of the key things to keep in mind when selecting a book for a child is to consider their individual interests and backgrounds. For example, if a child has a particular connection to a certain culture or historical period, finding a book that reflects that can help to make the story more relatable and engaging.

Similarly, if a child is passionate about a specific subject such as science or art, finding a book that explores the life of a notable figure in that field can be an excellent way to spark their interest and curiosity.

Whether it’s a fictional story or a non-fiction biography, when a child feels seen and represented in the pages of a book, it can have a powerful impact on their motivation and self-esteem. By exposing children to the stories of historical figures who have overcome adversity and achieved great things, we can help to inspire them to reach for their own goals and aspirations.

A Different Kind of Freedom: A Romani Story is out now.

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