Children’s publishing can be quite the mirrorworld sometimes. Any successful picture book author will tell you: the ones with the fewest words are absolutely the hardest to write. For older children, fantasy is not a niche for the slightly pitiable, but well and truly courses through the mainstream. And historical fiction is not considered lightweight or indulgent, but has been the preserve of admired children’s authors and prestigious children’s prizes since long before Wolf Hall made a favourable impression on the Booker committee. For some of the authors I’ve covered this year – Kevin Crossley Holland, Terry Deary, Paul Dowswell, Geraldine McCaughrean – historical fiction counts for most or all of what they write. Others have made occasional and brilliant historical forays alongside – usually – fantasy writing: Joan Aiken’s Midnight Is a Place, Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows and Victory; Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea and Star of Kazan; Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia; Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart quartet, Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur and Marcus Sedgwick’s Blood Red, Snow White, The Foreshadowing and Revolver. Some even combine the historical and the fantastical in a way that hardly ever happens, or not without terrible tweeness (excepting perhaps Susanna Clarke and Naomi Novik), in adult general publishing – Sally Gardner’s I, Coriander stands out.
But there are many more terrific authors and golden books out there – not to mention plenty of serviceable silver ones, and plenty of lazily-produced tin too. It’s no good writing a historical series (and the duff ones usually are series, more’s the pity) with an eye to the history curriculum: children rarely take to a reading book just “because we’re doing that at school”. That said, a history topic can provide a way in to a great story, especially if that story then draws on the wealth and vividness of what we know about the Romans, the Tudors or the Victorians. Beyond the perennials, I admire even more those books that bring that much vividness to less familiar periods or settings: the European Dark Ages, say, or ancient China. As with fantasy – and this may be why authors can so easily cross the genres – what works is the ability to conjure up an unfamiliar but perfectly coherent world, and to have readers empathise with characters who have very different values, imperatives, hopes and constraints. To do that without letting twenty-first century knowingness seep into the writing, and without such a slavish true-to-period tone as to alienate your readers, is brilliance indeed and entirely deserving of prizes.
In gathering the gold and silver below, the easiest thing seems to be a tour by period (of setting not of writing), beginning with the prehistory of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, which I believe still holds the record for the highest advance ever paid to a children’s author (£2m, albeit over six books). Was it worth it? Not for me to say. Is it good? I loved it. As it happens, I read Wolf Brother a little while after visiting the extraordinary caves of Pech’Merle in France – less well-known but very much older than Lascaux, they bring you to within metres of still-vivid and amazingly graceful outlines of dappled horses, deer, aurochs and mammoths, as well as thirty-thousand-year-old handprints and footprints. Suddenly, the impossibly remote past was within touching distance… and so it feels with the Chronicles, something akin to an out-of-body experience as you are swept into the sights and sounds, scent and savour of Torak’s world, with its blend of acute hunter-gatherer sense and shamanic superstition. At the book’s opening, Torak’s father is dying, attacked by a vicious bear-demon; estranged from his clan, Torak must not only keep himself alive but also fulfil his father’s last charge, to make his way to the Mountain of the World Spirit and take on the demon. So far, so heroic, but the story takes on a whole new dimension (and voice) when Torak finds an orphaned wolf cub and is unable to follow cold sense and kill it. Wolf’s share of the story is a brilliant, skittish counterpoint to Torak’s hero-myth, in which the river that killed his wolf-family is the Fast Wet and Torak is Tall Tailless, and there is only the vague past, the moment and the unquestionable instinct that guides him towards the Mountain. Then, escaping from the hostile Raven clan, Torak and Wolf are reluctantly joined by clan girl Renn, suspicious and sharp-tongued and fiercely loyal, in an increasingly urgent and dangerous quest. Resistant at first, Torak gradually learns more about his father, the evil unleashed by the bear-demon and the role Torak himself must take on. The mystery is anchored by hunter’s-eye descriptions of terrain, missing nothing: the scents of animals and sounds of birds, the crushed undergrowth that shows an animal’s passing and the painstaking finds of roots or berries to eat. Visceral in more ways than one, it’s a blazing start to an acclaimed series.
Thanks to The Eagle of the Ninth and its sequels, Rosemary Sutcliff is most associated with the Romans – but her imagination and writing powers ranged far wider than that, from the Bronze Age to the Jacobite Rising of 1715, including some of the best retellings for children of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the legends of Beowulf, Cuchullan, Tristan and Isolde and King Arthur. The 2011 film The Eagle (not quite Gladiator, and somewhat reductive of the original – but not bad, as film-of-the-books go) gave The Eagle of the Ninth a welcome boost and reminded many children of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s of a book they had greatly loved. Almost sixty years in print, it retains its immediacy as young officer Marcus leaves a privileged life with an unloved uncle and aunt in Rome for the dangerous frontier country of Britain – in the north of which his father’s legion vanished without trace. Following a tribal attack, Marcus recovers from a leg wound with his uncle Aquila, and on impulse buys a defeated British gladiator, Esca, as a slave; and it is his unlikely bond with Esca that allows him to undertake an impossible rescue mission when rumours come through that the legion’s totemic Eagle has been seen in a tribal temple far to the north. It’s a gripping story in which every character is finely drawn – Marcus and Esca finding common ground in their stubborn pride as invalid and slave respectively, Aquila the bluff old soldier, Cottia the British girl rebelling against Romanisation – and the impeccable authenticity serves, as it should, to bring to life and never to clog the reading. Many, many history writers for children (Michelle Paver among them, I shouldn’t wonder) owe Sutcliff an enormous debt, and many readers likewise for hours of marvellous writing and good-as-being-there pleasure.
K.M. Peyton is best known for more contemporary stories with horses and ponies; in the Roman Pony trilogy, she is in similar territory to Sutcliff with the story of blacksmith’s daughter Minna, arrogant young commander Theo and Silva, the abandoned foal Minna rescues and nurtures at the beginning of Minna’s Quest. Childhood friends, Theo and Minna are now being pulled apart by the allegiances of Roman and Briton, soldier and civilian, privileged young man and little-regarded girl… until Theo’s remote fort is attacked by pirates, and Minna and her charge are the only hope of reaching help. Two highly readable and atmospheric sequels see Theo being promoted steadly northwards into the line of conflict, and compelled to admit his feelings for Minna, just as she is drawn into ever greater danger.
Caroline Lawrence may not quite be in Sutcliff league but, writing for slightly younger readers (8+), she’s a lively guide to the first-century Roman empire at the height of its sway. Flavia Gemina is a bright and observant sea-captain’s daughter; with her slave girl Nubia, secret Christian neighbour Jonathan and mute beggar-boy Lupus, she leads a formidable team of investigators. Red herrings, plausible rogues and unsavoury villains abound, along with a sharp eye for period detail and a good feel for the complexities of Roman society. (With which, perhaps Flavia Gemina herself has a little too much twentieth-century sensibility in treating slaves and beggars and heretics as friends, as does her remarkably open-minded father; and it’s an unusual Roman lass who aspires to own her own copy, or even to read, Virgil’s Aeneid. Minor quibbles, I grant you.) Both critically and with readers, the series has been a resounding success, gaining in strength and complexity across seventeen books and a handful of shorter episodes. Most recently, Lawrence has embarked on a Western-based series (Goodness! Rome and the Wild West – what could they possibly have in common?), reviewed with similar plaudits, not least from fellow writers.
For books set in the Middle Ages, among current authors Kevin Crossley Holland can hardly be bettered. Jane Nissen Books also deserves hurrahs for reviving such classics as Barbara Willard’s Lark and the Laurel and Sprig of Broom, and Cynthia Harnett’s Stars of Fortune… which brings us into the fertile Tudor period. The Tudors – the Elizabethans in particular – do seem so much closer to us; perhaps because they are so much studied in schools, or because they leave far more trace in buildings and portraits and artefacts than earlier ages, or perhaps most of all because we can actually hear their voices – and often do – in the works of Shakespeare. We recognise them when they are being high-minded, or cunning, or boastful, or frightened, or – often – gleefully earthy.
For girls of 8+ or 9+, The Lady Grace Mysteries might just sound like a Roman Mysteries me-too, but the flavour is very different. Orphaned Lady Grace Cavendish is god-daughter and maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, although she’s not above climbing trees and building dens with tumbler Masou and laundrymaid Ellie. She knows how the queen can be kind and perceptive, but also irritable and with a fearsome temper; and she well knows the gossip, intrigue and sometimes terrible danger that threads through the routine and formality of court life. In Assassin, the first in a twelve-book series, Lady Grace is none too keen to be betrothed at the age of twelve, but the queen encourages her to choose one of three suitors. By the next morning, another suitor is dead, apparently stabbed by Lady Grace’s suitor of choice… but in all the consternation, Lady Grace notices that the facts that don’t fit. Why didn’t the dead man bleed from his wound? Why is the other suitor, her sometime friend Sir Charles, behaving so oddly? Written in diary form, these are irrepressible inside views of the court and its workings, with a sparky and engaging heroine.
Boys of 9+ might enjoy John Pilkington’s Elizabethan Mysteries, in similar vein. Pilkington’s hero is boy actor Ben Button, and in the first book, Rogue’s Gold, his company is out of London for the summer and travelling the countryside from one manor to another. On their very first stop at Bowford Manor, however, a valuable golden plate goers missing, and the company are accused of stealing it. Ben must use all his wits to try and clear their name, and in the process he makes not only some vital allies – Lady Sarah, daughter of the house, and her tutor Henry, and Ned the falconer – but also some dangerous enemies – Lady Sarah’s bullying brother Giles, and the domineering steward Bullen. Soon it transpires that the plate is not only valuable but hides further secrets; and that someone will stop at nothing to keep them hidden. A cracking plot and a persuasive, unforced period feel.
Pauline Francis’ Raven Queen is pitched a little older, at girls of 10+, and gives voice and a one or two more dimensions to one of the great ciphers of British history: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen, not much more than a subtitle and a mawkish picture in the general imagination. Francis’ Lady Jane is as serious and thoughtful and wryly observant as ever a political pawn can be, crushingly aware of her role and her fate. The raven symbol is apt: told in an urgent present tense, the story darts and alights as Lady Jane stands up to her manipulators and dares a forbidden friendship with Ned Kyme, the Catholic boy she rescues from a roadside hanging. As the friendship deepens, King Edward sickens and Lady Jane is manoeuvred into a hated political marriage, and then into a deadlier trap as her powerful father-in-law designates her as Edward’s heir. We know how the story ends, we know there was never a chance she could escape her fate and be happy with a real or imagined Ned; can Ned’s friendship and his love make any difference, any impact on the political might of the Protestant families? An illuminating and haunting read – necessarily without “sequels”, but followed by two more imaginative, thoughtful and finely written Tudor-period novels: A World Away, set between Old-World Plymouth and New-World Roanoke, and Traitor’s Kiss, set in the unregarded time of Queen Elizabeth’s girlhood when coming to the throne was barely imaginable.
This week’s reader challenge is to suggest a Stuart-period gem that I have somehow contrived to miss (and no, Children of the New Forest isn’t it). And the Georgians, whatever happened to the Georgians? Three of the enduring English-language children’s classics, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Moonfleet, are rooted in their Georgian settings. More recently, Leon Garfield brilliantly explored the leaky boundary between high Georgian respectability and low Georgian lowlife with a succession of chancers and changelings – all too many of whose exploits, I have to tell you, are now out of print. Then the Georgians fell off the National Curriculum (why??) and mostly off the children’s fiction radar, with one bright and honourable exception: Julia Golding’s Cat Royal. Cat is a foundling, abandoned on the steps of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, and taken in in a fit of boozy benevolence by owner-author Mr Sheridan (yes, that Mr Sheridan). Cat is, happily, no mouse: cheery, sparky and resourceful, she is Golding’s best creation, with a delicious deapan delivery (one advantage of being raised in a theatre, no doubt). Known and trusted throughout the theatre, she herself knows (almost) everything there is to know – but not the nature or whereabouts of the fabled Diamond of Drury Lane. Scrapes and misunderstandings follow thick and fast – but Cat of all people is used to high drama and deadly peril, and has a 24-carat family of theatre folk to see her through. In five sequels, Cat proves that Covent Garden and indeed all London isn’t big enough to hold her, pursuing adventures across the Atlantic to the West Indies, and into the ferment of revolutionary Paris. Magnifi-Cat!
The Victorian era is another honeypot for children’s fiction. It’s a curriculum topic of course, but it’s also nearer to the touch than ever. Many of us live in Victorian houses – or would like to. Thanks to the 1870 Education Act, many of our children attend Victorian-built schools. You don’t have to be a museum to own a Victorian table, print, book or plate; and Dickens gives us the private thoughts and everyday voices, just as Shakespeare did for the Tudors. Even so, we give a fascinated shudder at the death and disease, hard work and blatant exploitation and swindling, not to mention the casual, unthinking or unknowing prejudice. Still the books endure: the Victorian era saw authors writing for children, intentionally or not, in a way that had never before been considered. The three Georgian-set classics I mentioned had Victorian authors, soon to be joined by E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Secret Garden, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty respectively. Add to those the Victorian reminiscence of CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and the tongue-in-cheek of Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda (inspiring the Nanny McPhee films), and the Victorians seem quite within reach (only with fewer appliances and far more children).
Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather and sequels are a rare departure, for Wilson, into another era: warm, personal and convincing, they’re reckoned to be among her best. Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books are cracking adventures and acutely aware of all that is best and worst in Victorian society. There are so many examples (not all as good as these). One intriguing concept is Usborne’s (oh, all right) Historical House series, in which three top children’s authors set their stories in the same grand house in Chelsea over two hundred years. Two of these are set in 1857 and 1895 respectively; their heroines, Lizzie and her niece Cecily, are determined and independent-minded – as they need to be to pursue their passions for gardening and photography respectively, rather than embroidery and the polite expectation of a good marriage. All the Chelsea Walk heroines are spirited, or learn to be: in 1764, Mary Ann is determined to become a singer; in 1914, Polly befriends her new neighbours and becomes involved in the Suffragette movement; in 1941, Josie stands up to her friends when they bully a classmate with a secret; and in 1967, Andie summons the courage to show her paintings to the successful artist in the downstairs flat. The house with its changing cast of inhabitants provides a lovely thread of continuity to beautifully observed moments and lives.
There is also, of course, the rich strain of books in which child heroes and heroines actually do travel through time. Again, this can be clunkily done (how unfortunate that so many children’s first experience of time travel literature is the Oxford Reading Tree’s Magic Key), but at its best it is haunting. Hands up who loved Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe books, or Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, or Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes? I would love to cover these in more detail, but I’m well aware (says sleepily) that this is already a much longer post than usual – who knows how many are still reading by this point? If you are, I hope I may have given you and your children some inspiring holiday destinations, and I’d be glad to have a postcard or two from Georgian London or Ancient Rome. Bene ambula et redambula!