Is poetic licence an option for the writer of non-fiction?
Re-writing history in children’s books

Rhiannon Ifans, Saturday 11.30-12.00

A particular difficulty for an author attempting to communicate and interpret certain areas of the Celtic past to a young audience is the lack of certainty concerning historical facts. That may be turned to advantage. But as an academic and children’s author, how much a part of the complete writing process should research be, and should it govern the finished text? Is poetic licence an option for the writer of non-fiction?

I will discuss my authorship of non-fiction books on two important characters in British history. Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, was a sixth-century monk whose biography was written by an eleventh-century author, Rhigyfarch, five hundred years after the saint’s death. Owain Glyndwr was the last native Welsh person to hold the title ‘Prince of Wales’. On 16 September 1400 Owain rose up against the English king, Henry IV, and subsequently earned himself a prime position in the Welsh history books but whose disappearance after 1412 is still a mystery.

What are the challenges for authors and scholars in writing children’s literature set in earlier historical times? Writers of non-fiction for children should be well acquainted with the history of the period under discussion and should be intimately familiar with the people involved, but in the case of David and his contemporaries very little hard evidence has survived. Key issues relating to the life of both David and Owain have been irretrievably lost. Is it therefore permissible to provide the missing links based on imaginative reconstruction? The Synod of Llanddewibrefi was held in the year 569. Is it within the realms of history to write of David preaching a sermon there? Probably. Did David stand on a white handkerchief and did the ground under his feet rise up to form a mound that he could use as a preaching platform? What exactly is non-fiction?

Dr Rhiannon Ifans’ main field of research is medieval Welsh literature. Other research interests include Welsh folk life and folk culture, carols, Welsh theatre (with special reference to the eighteenth-century interludes), and the assessment of Welsh publishing. An award-winning children’s author, she is a regular participator at festivals, in schools, and in higher education institutions.