A deliberately loaded question, I know. Implying that a Golden Age existed once in which children devoured stories set in another period…. and now maybe not so much. If there’s a grain of truth in this assumption, guess what: it’s not the children’s fault.
Growing up, I remember historical fiction in children’s books was huge. Giants like Mary Renault, Geoffrey Trease, Roger Lancelyn Green and Leon Garfield dominated the bookshelves. They had the knack of creating exciting, moving, well-written stories that plunged their readers into a different world where we absorbed details of language, customs, real people, events and battles without even realising it. Because what mattered above all was the story, powered by strong, finely-drawn, sympathetic characters.
Sounds familiar? That’s because this is how all good fiction works, whether it’s for children or adults; historical, romantic, thriller, fantasy. Children will go for a good story, no matter when or where it’s set. While they don’t need to know anything about the period beforehand, by the time they’ve turned the last page they’ll know a great deal, and this gives them a sense of empowerment included in the sheer enjoyment of the story. Contrary to what many adults think, children can fall easily into the rhythm of language spoken in a different period, with unfamiliar words. As long as the context explains the meaning, it’s fine. Writing the historical parts of my books, Ante’s Inferno (World War 1) and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst (Elizabethan England), I was determined not to dumb down the complexities of the period or the language for my readers. Young people’s response to my books has been not just enthusiasm for the stories, but also delight at being given something to get their teeth into. They know when they’re being taken seriously and when they’re being patronised.
No, the problem isn’t with the children. It’s with what they’re offered. And my impression is that the portion of the market historical fiction used to enjoy is now occupied by fantasy. This is also a wonderful genre, boasting books by some of the best writers around today, but in creating purely fantasy worlds it can’t do what historical fiction does. There are signs that the pendulum is swinging the other way, in Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series, for instance, and Lucy Worsley’s recently published Eliza Rose. The success of these and other titles show that children will seize on stories set in different time periods just as much as in parallel worlds.
Come on, fellow historical fiction writers, your market is out there!