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Historical fiction is a fabulous genre. It allows us all to empathise with someone from a different time with whom we would otherwise have no connection. It can illustrate historical points or it can highlight contemporary concerns; either way there is certainly something exciting about swashbuckling heroes, the true stuff of fantasy as often historical settings really can consist of worlds not imaginable, especially to youngsters now. In our high tech age, pantaloons, sabres, even guns are items of rich imagination.
Here is a selection of what I consider to be the best historical novels for children. The definition of a historical novel can be as broad as you like, but all of these fit any definition, just about.
The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland
“Medieval life and Arthurian magic – a novel that transcends
all boundaries. I was spellbound.” – PHILIP PULLMAN
Set in the Welsh Marches in the year 1199, The Seeing Stone is a uniquely contemporary take on the Arthurian legends. It is an enthralling story of secrets and mysteries in the life of young Arthur de Caldicot, who discovers his namesake, the boy King Arthur, in his seeing stone. In a hundred short chapters that seem like snapshots of the past, The Seeing Stone brilliantly evokes the earthy, uncomfortable reality of daily life in the Middle Ages, and of a whole community- from Gatty the reeve’s daughter to Tanwen the chamber-servant, from Oliver the priest to Lady Alice, keeper of a terrible secret- facing the conflicts and uncertainties of a new century.
Winner of The Guardian Children’s Fiction Award and of the Smarties Prize Bronze Medal, The Seeing Stone is the first volume in the Arthur Trilogy. At the Crossing Places and King of the Middle March continue the story. Together they form perhaps the most thought-provoking view of the medieval world written for young readers, and push Kevin Crossley-Holland, a distinguished poet, to the front rank of children’s writers since the Second World War.
Other books that deal with Arthurian legend are T.H. White’s epic The Sword in the Stone (followed by The Once and Future King) and Susan Cooper’s ambitious sequence of five books with a contemporary twist, The Dark is Rising. White’s timeless classic was written in1938 and combines in engaging fashion legend, history, fantasy and comedy; there is even a walk-on part for Robin Wood. Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table is a beautifully written and classic account. Green was a pupil of C.S. Lewis, and became part of the Inklings group alongside Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams and others. His retelling of myths is well chosen, teeming with life, wonderful and captivating.
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
In the second century AD, when the Ninth Roman Legion marched into the mists of northern Britain, not one man came back. Four thousand men disappeared, and the Eagle, the symbol of the Legion’s honour, was lost. Years later there is a story that the Eagle has been seen again. So Marcus Aquila, whose father disappeared with the Ninth, travels north to find the Eagle and bring it back, and to learn how his father died. But the tribes of the north are wild and dangerous, and they hate the Romans…
There are two more books that continue the story of Marcus’ descendants: The Silver Branch, in which the Eagle is rediscovered and used against the cruel emperor, and (perhaps the best book of the series) The Lantern Bearers, in which Aquila has to choose between leaving Britain with the Roman army and searching for his lost sister.
Rosemary Sutcliff, who died in 1992, wrote wonderfully about panoramic and exciting set-pieces. Yet she also portrayed the psychology of her younger characters with fine detail; recurrent themes are friendship and loyalty, and with the cruelty of the Roman era as a backdrop, overcoming pain and difficulty. Other books by Sutcliff include The Mark of the Horse Lord, the tale of a boy who becomes first a gladiator and then, after many adventures, the Horse Lord of a strange tribe, and Outcast, concerning slavery in the later part of the Roman Empire.
If you are interested in Roman history, the prolific Caroline
Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries, starting with The Thieves of
Ostia, will engage, a junior written soap opera.
Troy by Adele Geras
The siege of Troy has lasted almost ten years, and the citizens are suffering. Prince Hector is risking his life daily, defending his beloved city from the terrifying Achilles and the rest of the Greek army. But life goes on within the walls. This is the story of two devoted sisters, Xanthe and Marpessa, both servants in the royal palaces of Troy. When the Goddess Aphrodite grows bored with the war, she makes mischief between the two sisters by making them both fall in love with the same man, the young warrior Alastor. For the sisters, love seems everything – but they are living on borrowed time…
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
After braving a treacherous journey through snow-covered wastes populated by packs of wild and hungry wolves, Sylvia joins her cousin Bonnie in the warmth and safety of Willoughby Chase. But with Bonnie’s parents overseas and the evil Miss Slighcarp left in charge, the cousins soon find their human predators even harder to escape. This is an exciting tale set in the nineteenth century, full of engaging characters (especially villains!). Joan Aiken has written other fast-paced historical adventures – such as Nightbirds on Natucket and Dido and Pa – all set in the imaginary reign of James III, featuring the daring heroine Dido Twite.
Smith by Leon Garfield
Smith is a twelve year-old accomplished pickpocket, and when he is witness to a dastardly murder of a confused old gentleman (from whom Smith had just stolen a document), he did not know that his troubles were only just beginning. Hunted by the murderers, he is eventually arrested and locked up in Newgate Jail on false charges, only to escape the night before his execution. The climax of the plot, involving highwaymen, a coach and a graveyard near London, is a barnstormer.
Leon Garfield was a master-storyteller, with a strong sense of historic language and a concern for poverty. He wrote moral adventure stories with melodramatic plots and strong characters: his literary roots are most definitely Dickensian. Other books by him include Jack Holborn and John Diamond.
Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart novels (Tiger In the Well, Ruby in the Smoke and The Tin Princess) are set against a veiled and misty Victorian underworld. Of course Dickens himself is still vibrant and packed full of humour and historic detail: Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are particularly recommended for young readers. Other novelists who write about historic London include Sally Gardner, whose I, Coriander (the unhappy daughter of a seventeenth century silk merchant) is gripping and suspenseful. Mary Hooper’s books, At the Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes, follow the remarkable life of a girl in London in the tumultuous years of the Great Plague and the Great Fire.
Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin
A thrilling book of gothic mystery and authentic detail set in the eighteenth century. The ‘Coram Man’ toured the country supposedly collecting unwanted babies for a fee to take to the Coram Hospital in London. But this newly-founded hospital had never employed such a man, so what exactly was he doing with all these babies?
Jamila Gavin’s earlier novel The Wheel of Surya tells the story of India’s move to independence in 1947 through children’s eyes.
Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner
This book has no place, it seems, in the modern day school, although it was once deemed a classic and read by most schoolboys. Fast paced, always intriguing, smugglers galore, fishing villages in Dorset, secret passages and skeletons hidden under the local church. The style is outdated enough for it be considered nostalgic and atmospheric. In real life, Falkner left his only copy of a completed novel on a train – and never saw it again.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
This is the precursor to Oxford publisher David Fickling’s masterful marketing of the same book to both young and adult audiences (Philip Pullman, Mark Haddon, et al). It is a white-knuckle ride, originally published in serialized form in a children’s magazine, with brilliant literary devices and deceptions (Jim Hawkins takes up his pen “in the year of grace 17—.”), a strong cast of characters (early product placement as Ben Gunn worked for the Cheese Marketing Board), the Black Spot, and enough mystery and untied ends to the plot to live on in the imagination. Long John Silver, of course, still raises eyebrows: is he the hero or the villain of the plot? Well he escapes at the end, and that’s a clue. Stevenson described him as being a man of “magnificent geniality,” best expressed in the “terms of the culture of a raw tarpaulin.”
Witch Child and its sequel Sorceress by Celia Rees are written in diary form and recount the life and times of Mary, whose grandmother had been hung as a witch and who sails to a new life in America.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of novels starting with Little House in the Big Woods are classic accounts of life in a log cabin in mid-nineteenth century Wisconsin.
Sadly, Geoffrey Trease and Henry Treece (two great authors who wrote compulsively) and Cynthia Harnett’s Wool-Pack are all out of print, and they really shouldn’t be. But, of course, Rene Goscinny’s Asterix still rules OK…