Historical fiction sits within the broad category of historical narrative. It is essentially a story situated within a specific historical time centred around an historical event, people or culture. The people and the places may be true, but it is written in story form and fact and fiction can both be present. Biographies and autobiographies seek to be factual interpretation and also forms of historical narratives. But much of what we introduce to children fits into the sub-category of historical fiction.
Many forms of artistic licence can be taken in this genre including inventing new characters, using new or altered names and places and creating new events. Depending on how far these accounts vary from historical accounts, they may be classified as alternate history or historical fantasy.
Why is it important?
a) Historical narrative can illuminate history and increase children's interest in it
b) It can enrich our understanding of the human condition and culture
c) It can highlight and make sense of the details of history often missed in textbook reading
d) In presenting multiple perspectives it can present complex issues in multi-dimensional ways, helping us to see things for the first time
e) It can connect children's learning right across the curriculum
In this post I offer 50 examples of excellent historical fiction from many places, peoples and times. I list some picture books first then novels for older readers (7-14 years). The novels are roughly in order of difficulty.
Picture Book Forms of Historical Narrative
The following picture books can be read to and by children 5-10 years.
'The Afghanistan Pup' by Mark Wilson (Lothian Children's Books)
Mark Wilson. It is the story of an abandoned pup, a young girl in Afghanistan who just wants to go to school, and an Australian Soldier. It is a story of unexpected friendship, sacrifice, and finding hope in the strangest places.
The puppy is found abandoned by a little girl, Kinah. The backdrop and setting is the war in Afghanistan. When Kinah's school is bombed the dog is alone again until an Australian soldier rescues it. You'll need to read the book to find out how these stories are woven together.
Mark Wilson uses his wonderful art and well-chosen words to tell a great story with power. His illustrative work includes newspaper clippings, and varied beautiful images that are stunning. This is a special book that children aged 7-10 will enjoy.
My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto - a picture book that offers a real life account of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima through the eyes of a child who stayed home that day sick rather than going to school. The illustrations complement the authentic personal story of Morimoto's memory of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on her city.
'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) and 'Fair's Fair' (1981) by LeonGarfield
Garfield is one of the greatest exponents of historical fiction for children. As well as many wonderful novels for older children he has also written a number of picture books. Two of my favourites are 'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) illustrated by the great illustrator Charles Keeping and 'Fair's Fair' (1981) illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain and in a newer edition with Brian Hoskin as the illustrator (2001).
'My Place' (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins) - was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment. See me previous post on visiting the 'real' My Place (here).
'Sweethearts of Rhythm' by Marilyn Nelson - This is the story of significant piece of cultural history. It tells through poetry of the first integrated all women's band in the USA. It played swing music and was formed in the late 1930s. The singers all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which was for poor and orphaned African Americans. It was formed to raise money for the school, but it was so good that it eventually toured the whole country and played to massive crowds.
The story is told through a set of rhythmic poems that are written in the varied voices of the instruments. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations add further richness with brilliant collages.
Jeannie Baker also offers some interesting examples of children's picture books that tell the story of specific places through brilliant collage illustrations. Here themes include the impact of people on their world and the connection between people and place over time. She rarely uses words except as explanatory words except as a foreword or afterword. The books enrich understanding of local history as well as environmental issues. 'Window' (1991) shows the changing physical and man-made landscape viewed through a single window. A mother and her baby look through a window at wilderness. But with each turn of the page time marches on. As we look from the same window, the world changes under the impact of people. This wordless book won the Australian Children's Book Council (Australia) picture book of the year in 1992. In 'Belonging' (2004) Baker returns to the theme of 'Window', man changes the world. Once again, the story unfolds through a single window of a house in a typical urban neighbourhood. The book is sold in the USA under the title of 'Home'.
'The Story of Rosy Dock' (1995) by Jeannie Baker
In this wonderful book Baker tells the story of how early settlers who move to a remote central Australia build a garden in the wilderness that is beautiful, but which ends up having an unexpected flowering. A single plant (that we now known as the weed 'Rosy Dock') can change the landscape and push many plants and animals to extinction. This simple book shows how a hundred years ago European settlers in the desert planted seeds from the other side of the world that changed the landscape.
The book has been produced as a 10-minute short animated film by Film Australia (here).
'Maralinga', was written and illustrated by the Yalata and Oak communities of South Australia with Christobel Mattingley. This is the story of the British atomic testing of the 1950s in Central Australia. It is told by Indigenous Australians who are the traditional owners of Maralinga (a region used for atomic testing in the 1950s?). In words and pictures community members, describe what happened in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands of South Australia before the bombs and after. This is an important and tragic account of human folly and its consequence for a people who were there first, but whose needs counted for little.
A Certain Music' written by Celeste Walters and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas is a fairytale in the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen. The story offers an account of Beethoven's creation of two of his most famous works, 'Fur Elise' and 'Ode to Joy'. It is set in 1821 and is the story of a young girl who is drawn to the sound of music coming from a house in the woods near Vienna. She visits the composer regularly to hear him play. Eventually the girl and her mother are invited to a concert in Vienna to see Beethoven perform ‘Für Elise’. The author Celeste Walters has previously written playscripts for children and adults, as well as novels and picture storybooks for younger readers.
Novels for Children Aged 10-14 years
The following are roughly in order of difficulty and age appropriateness, although this judgement will vary from child to child.
Little House on the Prairie', Laura Ingalls Wilder
This series of eight books tells of the life of a family that travels from the big woods of Wisconsin to a new home on the prairie, where they build a house, meet neighboring Indians, build a well, and fight a fire. This classic story was first published in 1935 and has never lost its popularity. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder it is based on her childhood in the northern midwest of the USA during the 1870s and 1880s. Eight books were completed from 1932 to 1943.
'Anne of Green Gables' by L.M. Montgomery
Lucy Maud Montgomery recounts the adventures of Anne Shirley an 11-year-old orphan girl, mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. This middle-aged brother and sister had wanted to adopt a boy to help on the farm in Prince Edward Island. The novel tells the tale of how Anne builds her life with the Cuthberts, as well as he experience of school and the town. Due to the popularity of the books Montgomery wrote a series of eight further sequels and referenced Anne in two other collections.
'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit', by Judith Kerr
Somme Mud, by Private Edward Lynch, Editor Will Davies
This is a fascinating true story, which follows the war experience of a group of young men who set out from Sydney in 1916 to fight in the 'Great War' in France. The main character and the other enlisted troops at the centre of the narrative are fictionalised, but all other elements portray their real life experiences. Edward Lynch who returned from the War and became a teacher tried to publish the manuscript in the 1930s but was unsuccessful. After his death family members succeeded and it was published for adults in 2006. This new book is edited by Will Davies and is an abridged version for teenagers. It offers a graphic insight into the horrors of the Western Front. It incorporates archival photographs as well as photographs of the sites today. It will interest boys aged 11+.
'Samurai Kids Series' (Walker Books)
This is a series about the experiences of a group of samurai children in feudal Japan. Like other stories about Japanese warriors, the narrative is interwoven with the philosophy that is the foundation of their life and training. The diverse samurai kids learn to fight, but always with the noble desire to prevent war. The stories and their characters seek to build just and ethical societies. The books offer a range of characters that represent both genders and children of varied qualities, characteristics and challenges.
'White Crane' (2008) Walker Books
'Owl Ninja' (2008) Walker Books
'Shaolin Tiger' (2009) Walker Books
'Monkey Fist' (2009) Walker Books
'Fire Lizard' (2010) Walker Books
'Golden Bat'(2010) Walker Books
'Red Fox' (2012) Walker Books
Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry
Number the Stars is set in Denmark during World War II. Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen is the central character, who is living in Denmark under German occupation in 1943. Her family becomes a target for the German forces as they help a Jewish family to attempt a daring escape. Annemarie and her family risk their lives to help Annemarie's best friend, Ellen Rosen, by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie's older sister. The title is taken from Psalm 147 in the Bible that speaks of God's power as the one who knows and has numbered every star. It is also probably a reference to the fact that God had promised Abraham the father of the Jewish nation that he would have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. The novel was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990 as the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".
This is a moving and compelling book that engages the reader from the start and in the process offers an insight into the lives of many innocent Jewish families in World War II and the lengths that some went to in order to survive. Suitable for children 11+.
Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O'Dell
Off the coast of California is a rugged rock known as the Island of San Nicholas. The seas around it are filled with dolphins, otters, sea elephants, cormorants and marine life all kinds. It was here in the early 1800's that an Indian girl spent 18 years alone. Karana has to maintain her food supply and avoid Aleutian sea-otter hunters and the perils of a pack of wild dogs that killed the brother she jumped ship to save. The spirit of this young woman and her ability to survive against all the odds offers an interesting insight into the challenges of life in another age.
This wonderful novel was O'Dell's first book and won the Newbery Medal in 1961. It is an excellent book for 10-14 year olds.
‘Strange Objects’ by Gary Crew (1990) - The story commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger who lives with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the 'Batavia' shipwrecked in 1629 off the coast of Western Australia. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time.
Crew won the 1991 Children’s Book Council Australia award for Older Readers for the book. Suitable for readers aged 12+ years.
Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA 1859' by Patricia McKissack - This book was originally published as "A Picture of Freedom" tells the story of a young slave girl who longs for freedom just before the Civil War. The year is 1859 and Clotee and has only known life as a slave mostly as an orphan) on the Belmont Plantation in Virginia. But she has learnt how to read and write in secret. She keeps a diary and hides it in a hollowed tree.
When a tutor comes to the plantation to teach the son of her master she discovers that he is an abolitionist and he offers her the chance for her inner longing, freedom.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose
This book is based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others. It tells the story of a teenager who on March 2nd 1955 was sick of the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation and refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The protest led to further injustice for the young women who is eventually brave and determined enough to challenge segregation as a key plaintiff in a legal case that became known as Browder v. Gayle. Suitable for readers 12+.
The Machine-Gunners (1975) by Robert Westall
Living in World War II Britain, Chas McGill has the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth and he wants to have the best. He is determined to outdo his rival Boddser Brown in obtaining the ultimate war souvenir. An opportunity comes when he finds a crashed German bomber in the woods complete with machine gun, he knows he can not only beat Boddser hands down, but can also play a role in the war. All he has to do is to remove the machine gun from the plane.
This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. Any boy aged 10-16 will love this book.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Christopher Paul Curtis in 1995. It was republished in 1997. It tells the story of an African-American family living in the town of Flint, Michigan that goes to their grandmother’s home in Birmingham, Alabama. This middle-class black family move to Grandma's because she's strict and they hope she will sort him out over summer. But they happen to be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown up, the 16th Street Baptist Church.
The book was Curtis’ first novel, and was named as a Newbery Honour book and won the Coretta Scott King Award. Curtis is also the author of the Newbery Award winner Bud, Not Buddy.
It was released as a film in 2013 HERE
'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor
The book has a sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, which was released in 1981. It also has a prequel written in 1975, Song of the Trees and a related prior book The Land that tells the story of the Logan grandfather who purchased the land that is central to this novel. It is suitable for readers aged 11-14 years.
'The Children of the Wind Series' by Kirsty Murray
The 'Children of the Wind' series is a sweeping Irish-Australian saga made up of Bridie's story, Patrick's story, Colm's story and Maeve's story. These four inter-linked novels, begin with the 1850s and move right up to the present.
'Bridie's Fire' is a heart-warming story of courage and resilience and is the first book in the series. The series starts in the 1840s and ends in present-day Australia. The quartet tells the stories of four young people brave children, Bridie, Billy, Colm and Maeve, who are born fifty years apart. The central character in each book becomes a mentor to the child in the next.
We enter Bridie's world in the 1840s. Her world is torn apart when her parents and baby brother die in in the potato famine, the 'Great Hunger'. She leaves Ireland, for a life in goldrush Australia on the other side of the ocean.
As Bridie looks up at the swirling stars, it seems that the whole world is opening up to her. She didn't feel like just an orphan girl at sea. She had money in her pocket, a swag full of food and a good companion. She was to be a new Bridie and nothing could stop her now.
The book was named as a 'Children's Book Council' Notable Book in 2004. The four inter-linked novels are suitable for children aged 10-14 years.
To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War' by David McRobbie (Allen & Unwin)
The boys had been trained for emergencies. They had to know how to launch a lifeboat and to know where the life jackets were stored. But they were hardly prepared for the horrors before them. What an exploding torpedo do? And how will the ship and its crew behave when it sinks under you. No-one was able to prepare them for the blackness of night, or the horror of battle.
It is 1940, war rages and there is nothing to keep Adam Chisholm aged 15 years at home. So he joins Britain's Merchant Navy. His first ship takes him on a stormy Atlantic convoy where he faces seasickness, submarines, and shipwreck. In his remarkable sea journeys, Adam meets enemies face to face, and makes friends—some for a lifetime. The book includes a seven-page glossary of nautical terms and features WWII memorabilia throughout.
This is a very readable book that will keep readers aged 12+ engaged. It is beautifully written as with all of McRobbie's books. It tells the story of war time battles that shows how men of honour and courage experience war. The book describes life at sea with great detail. This feature of McRobbie's books invites the reader to 'become' part of the action and adventure. A great read.
Playing Beatie Bow (1982) by Ruth Park
When Abigail Kirk joins in a traditional chanting game of 'Beatie Bow' in modern day Sydney she sees a mysterious urchin girl in the background and follows her. Unwittingly she stumbles into the past as she follows her up stairs and down alleys in the Rocks area of Sydney. She encounters a strange and different Sydney and finds herself walking the streets of the colony of New South Wales in 1873. Abigail is taken in by the Bow Family who believes that she is a mysterious 'Stranger' who is said in tradition to arrive to save 'The Gift' for future generations of Bows. Abigail remains in this past world to fill her role and in the process falls in love for the first time.
This is a book faithful to its time and setting but is best classified as historical fantasy. It won the Children's Book Council Australia Award for Book of Year in 1981. Suitable for readers 12-16 year olds.
The book has been adapted for film (details here).
'Chocolate Cake with Mr Hitler' by Emma Craigie
In this strange world, there is chocolate cake for tea every day with Uncle Leader, but Helga eventually notices that all is not as it once was. As the days pass and the rumbling storms that bring no rain draw closer, her underground world becomes increasingly tense. She hears tears and shouting behind closed doors. There is a slow realisation, perhaps her perfect childhood is not all that it seemed.
'To Kill a Mocking Bird' by Harper Lee
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.
This is a compassionate and moving story that explored the roots of human behaviour. It is based loosely on Lee's observations of her family and neighbors, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.
The narrator's father lawyer Atticus Fiunch serves as a moral hero for many readers.
The main themes of the book concern racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. It deals with the themes of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South.
'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak
Set during World War II in Germany, the novel tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau. This is a wonderfully crafted story of great power that shows how books can transform us and 'feed the soul'.
'I Am David' by Anne Holm
His first twelve years of life have been spent in the horror of war time incarceration. He escapes to a world he knows nothing about and struggles to cope in his strange new world. His basic resources include a compass, some bread and some vague advice to seek refuge in Denmark. This is a wonderful story that addresses the themes of freedom and the power of hope.
'Emilio' by Sophie Masson (Allen & Unwin)
Through My Eyes' series of adolescent fiction. It is a moving novel about one child's life in the middle of the drug war in Mexico. This of course is a different kind of war. Not a war fought over territory in the traditional sense but one that centres on control of places and the trafficking of drugs.
The central character, Emilio Garcia Lopez, starts out on an ordinary school day. That evening a knock on the door changes everything. The arrival of his police-officer cousin Juanita, flanked by a tall man in the uniform of the Federal Police, turns his normal day into the beginning of a long nightmare. Unidentified criminals, who appear to know a great deal about her and have mistaken her for a wealthy businesswoman, have kidnapped Emilio's mother in broad daylight from a hotel carpark. This is a dark novel that is engaging and challenging. Suitable for mature readers aged 13+.
'The Slave Dancer' by Paula Fox
This book tells the story of a boy called Jessie Bollier who witnessed first-hand the savagery of the African slave trade. The book not only includes an historical account, but it also touches upon the emotional conflicts felt by those involved in transporting the slaves from Africa to other parts of the world. The book received the Newbery Medal in 1974.And there are lots more....
There are many other stories about war and persecution like 'The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia' by Esther Hautzig. Or, 'Good Night, Mr. Tom' by Michelle Magorian that deals with WWII in London and its consequences for children's lives. Not to mention life, drama and conflict in the 1930s in the Lake district of England in the 'Swallows and Amazons series' by English author Arthur Ransome.
Then there is historical fantasy like 'Mary Poppins' by P.L. Travers, or 'Merryll of the Stones' by Brian Caswell.
Allan Garner has also written a number of fine examples set in Cheshire and often stimulated by local history and legend, including 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' (1960), 'The Owl Service' (1967) and 'The Stone Book Quartet' (1978).
'Emil and the Detectives' set in Berlin in the year 1929 by Erich Kästner or Rosemary Sutcliff's brilliant novel 'The Eagle of the Ninth' set in Roman Britain a book that has sold over one million copies.
'Best Children's Historical Fiction' - Then of course, you can consult good lists. This list published on the 'Good Reads' site in 2008 but is still a great one. As the books reflect the votes of readers, they might not match your own top list but it contains 562 books so is a comprehensive list.