A Mirror to the World: Historical Fiction for Children & Young Adults


Children’s fiction has a huge responsibility and an equally big opportunity to produce inclusive books which accurately reflect the world around us. Books can and should hold a mirror to the world. This is especially relevant in children’s historical fiction. Even though based in the past, the characters and their stories need to have relevance and impact in children’s lives today.

As the UK children’s reviews editor for HNR, I am often astounded and delighted by the quality of the books that arrive. The majority are meticulously researched and shine new light on the particular time period the novel covers.

As children’s fiction is broken into four age categories, the approach to the presentation of the historical period undoubtedly will differ. There are the picture books for the very young. Even at this young age, historical events can be introduced in an interesting but educational way, as has been demonstrated by the number of books released to commemorate the anniversary of the First World War.  There are children’s books for 8-to-12 year-olds, that tackle more difficult and challenging issues, while the 12-to-14 category investigates historical events in a more detailed and mature manner, introducing deeper and more complex relationships between characters. The Young Adult category has grown and flourished in the last ten years and produces some excellent and gripping storylines to match the adult novels.

As well as the major publishing houses – Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Faber & Faber and Bloomsbury, for example – there are a growing number of independent publishers producing some outstanding historical books for children. The radical Seven Stories Press publish foreign language books in translation, for example, the novels of Holocaust survivor and Hebrew-language author Aharon Appelfeld. His books, Adam & Thomas (2015) and Long Summer Nights (2019), both translated by Jeffrey Green, recount the semi-mystical journey of an eleven-year-old boy and an old man, a former Ukrainian commander, to whom the boy has been entrusted by his father, a Jew, fleeing the ravages of the war. Another example is Martha and the Slave Catchers by Harriet Hyman Alonso (2017), which tells the story of thirteen-year-old African American, Martha, who in 1854 joins the Underground Railroad to bring her seven-year-old brother back home and out of slavery.

Another excellent publishing house is Chicken House, which covers virtually every historical time period from the prehistoric to the 20th century. In Nicholas Bowling’s In the Shadow of Heroes (2019), the reader is taken to the 1st century AD with fourteen-year-old Cadmus as the hero, and in Dan Smith’s She Wolf (2019) we are transported to 9th-century Northumbria, where a young orphaned Viking girl, Ylva, has to make her own way across the country in search of help. In the First World War feminist-themed book, Lilly and the Rockets (2019), by Rebecca Stevens, a detailed and moving account is given of the women’s football teams that grew out of the munitions factories.

There are also niche publishing houses whose authors tackle more national or localised issues. Irish publisher O’Brien Press publish some excellent books that examine world events and their impact in Ireland, or Irish events that had wider impact in the world, such as the Easter Rising or the Irish Civil War. Recently released Lily at Lissadell (2019), by Judi Curtin, is based at the start of the 20th century and combines the story of Lily, a young teenager forced to leave school and find work in service in a Big House, with that of her employers, the Gore-Booths, one of the most important republican families at the time in Ireland. As with this story, most of the historical facts in children’s fiction are clothed in an adventure or journey of self-discovery of the hero, where they find themselves in danger or jeopardy and eventually come out the other side a stronger and more mature person – unless there is a sequel planned, of course.

Feminism and feminist-related books have been quite popular in the last few years, especially since the centenary of women’s right to vote in 2018. The most outstanding I have received for review in recent times is Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls, published in 2017 by another excellent children’s publisher, Andersen Press. Based in 1914, the novel covers the suffragette movement and votes for women, on the verge of the First World War, but the main characters, Evelyn and May, also fall in love and have to manage their forbidden relationship in a disapproving world. Like many children’s and YA historical fiction, this book deals with issues and situations that many mainstream adult historical fiction novels are often not prepared to discuss.

Many authors focus on producing stories that have a strong social conscience. Two former UK children’s laureates, Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson, both known for their writing on contemporary social issues, have published historical fiction. Morpurgo, author of the children’s classic War Horse, in 2019 published Lucky Button (Walker Books), a moving historical time-slip story based in the 18th century, about the Foundling Museum, Britain’s first home for abandoned children. Jacqueline Wilson has also turned her hand to historical fiction over the years with her Hetty Feather series of books (Random House), also based around the Foundling Hospital, as well as the stand-alone 1920s novel Dancing the Charleston (Doubleday, 2019).

Anniversaries do tend to produce a spate of books. The First and Second World War are always popular topics to write about. Other titles may be inspired by the celebrations of 250 years since the birth of William Wordsworth, and, of course, in September we mark 400 years of the departure of the Mayflower, as well as the Speedwell, bringing pilgrims from England to Virginia. There are historical themes and topics that are consistently popular for children’s fiction, but which are not anniversary related, such as those where there are many myths and legends of heroes, gods and otherworldly beings. Many well-established historians and academics have turned their hand to writing Viking period fiction in recent years. One such person is cultural historian and television presenter, Janina Ramirez, whose first children’s book was Riddle of the Runes (OUP, 2018) and a second, Way of the Waves (OUP, 2019), is already out. Books such as these are not only exhilarating fast-paced stories, but also embed historical accuracy throughout the novels. In a recent conversation with Ramirez, she said she still has a vivid memory of how she became fascinated with history. She was seven years old and visiting Hampton Court Palace near London. At one point she noticed she was standing on a very worn step and realised how many people over the centuries had stood in exactly the same place. Her PhD thesis at Oxford was a study of the Anglo-Saxons in the North of Britain and their encounters with different peoples, including the Vikings, so the Viking period was an ideal choice for her first novels for children.

“People say to write what you know about,” Ramirez says, “so having studied that period of history for eight years, it was where I wanted to set my novels.”  She continues, “People love a Viking, but I am trying to myth bust. They didn’t wear horns, they weren’t dirty and smelly. They were the ultimate international travellers and everywhere they went they were fascinated by the people they met.”

Ramirez is commissioned to produce four books in the series; each one is stand-alone, but centring around one overarching mystery and each one rooted in historical fact. At the heart of the Riddle of the Runes is the Franks Casket, currently housed in the British Museum, whose runic inscriptions and other symbols still cannot be fully decoded by scholars. The books feature twelve-year-old shieldmaiden, Alva, and her adventures. Part of Alva’s journey is to uncover facts and stories about the casket, and clues are left in runes throughout the book for the young reader to decipher.

Ramirez explains, “I always wanted a strong female lead in books when I was growing up and Alva is everything I imagined. The character just came naturally and fully formed.”

Timeslip novels are also quite common and very popular for children and Young Adult readers. They provide a glimpse into the past and the issues being dealt with by the characters, as well as making those issues relevant in the present, especially when past and present collide. As historical fiction reviewers, however, we still have to make sure the main plot is being carried out in the past, not the present, and historical accuracy is paramount.

In my time as UK children’s reviews editor, I and my reviewers have, in addition to the ones already mentioned above, been transported to the time of the plague in 14th-century England, to the high seas with Irish Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, England under Henry Tudor, 18th-century Scotland under Bonnie Prince Charlie, France at the time of the French Revolution, South Africa during the Boer war and 1950s north-west England with the tale of an escaped elephant. Each book has left an indelible and memorable impression.

It has been encouraging to see the children’s book industry respond to the interest in historical fiction amongst younger readers, and also respond to the need for representation in children’s fiction, including a wider diversity of characters. Young Adult fiction, in particular, seems to be making headway in this. In many ways, children’s historical fiction is leading the way in the historical fiction genre. The books are often challenging, cover a range of issues, bring the everyday details of the past to life and allow younger readers to be excited about history and see the relevance to their lives today.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: As Senior Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, LINDA SEVER has an MA in Writing for Children and a PhD in Medieval Art History. Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape appeared in 2015 (History Press) and a co-authored short story collection Cross Words in 2019 (Comma Press).

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 92 (May 2020)

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