Do children still read Historical Fiction?

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.

The King must dieGrowing 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 Ante thumbnaileasily 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 The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVERmy 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!

I’ll be discussing writing historical fiction for children with Helen Hollick and Lucienne Boyce on the Historical Fiction panel at the Self Publishing Conference  in Leicester on Saturday, 7th May.

5 best reads of 2015

Interesting to see what’s happened to my reading tastes this year.  I read far more children’s books – all highly regarded – than any other genre but only one stood out for me. Of my other 4 top reads, 3 are memoirs of lives, extraordinary, all of them, for very different reasons. Perhaps sometimes truth isn’t just stranger than fiction but a good deal more exciting.

Stet by Diana Athill

Stet

If I were to make one New Year’s resolution (which I don’t, being far too weak-willed), it would be to read more Diana Athill. Having read a number of her short stories, I knew I’d be in for a treat with this memoir of her long, distinguished career in publishing. She writes beautifully and sparingly, looking back with a clear, unflinching eye. Her description of what it was like working for the brilliant but volatile Andre Deutsch is hilarious, while several other colleagues and authors do not escape her sharp pen. Frustratingly, when she describes the second worst career mistake she ever made (something to do with V S Naipaul), she leaves dangling the teasing question of what the worst one could have been… did she tell J K Rowling not to quit the day job?

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

So much praise has been heaped on this book I feared it would prove to be a disappointment – especially when the premise seemed so weird. A mystery centering on the art of making tiny pieces of furniture for doll’s houses? I dreaded another My Name is Red,  which I found unreadable (fans of Orhan Pamuk, feel free to pelt me with illuminated manuscripts now).

To my joy, The Miniaturist proved very readable indeed. Inspired by a magnificent 16th century doll’s house in the Rijksmuseum, Jessie Burton has concocted a dark, gripping tale of young Petronella Oortmann leaving a poor but sun-filled childhood in the Dutch countryside for incarceration in the gloomy house of a prosperous merchant in Amsterdam. To give her something to do, her new husband tasks her with furnishing a doll’s house, as if control over an imitation of real life could compensate for none in reality. Yet even that small power is gradually eroded by the unknown miniaturist, whose exquisite creations reveal an uncanny, almost supernatural knowledge of details of the family and household and the threat hanging over them all… Brrrr.

Forever X by Geraldine McCaughrean

Forever X

Not a new book – published in 1999, in fact, and possibly out of print.  I hope not. Geraldine  McCaughrean is a terrific children’s author who writes in a wide range of genres – historical, contemporary, fantasy, myth, literary classics – excelling in all of them.  This delightful, slightly bonkers tale of a car breakdown which lands Joy and her family in a hotel that celebrates Christmas all the year round moves from surreal beginnings to a warm, funny, very human story about overcoming family difficulties.

 

I Will Try by Legson Kayira

I Will Try

Researching Malawian history, I stumbled on this extraordinary book and had to download it to my kindle. In 1958 a 16 year-old boy, inspired both by the motto of the Livingstonia Secondary School in Karonga and his own thirst to learn, decided he was going to study in America. Not having any money or other means to get there, he walked through Nyasaland (Malawi), Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan, where in the library in Khartoum, he found a directory of American universities and chose the first one to meet his eye: Skagit Valley College in Washington State. Astonished US consular officials helped him take up the scholarship that Skagit Valley, who must have been astounded by such motivation, promptly offered him, and he started his degree course a mere 2 years after setting out on his journey.

Kayira’s clear, detailed account of every step of the way is very readable, and his difficulties in adapting to American culture amusingly and touchingly drawn. A memoir added in 2012 by his widow, Julie Kayira, sketches out his subsequent life as a gifted writer and successful civil servant. An extraordinary achievement, by any measure; yet I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the family left behind in the village in Malawi.

Lifting the Latch

Lifting the Latch

You know how, when a friend presses a book on you ‘because you’ll love it’, you almost don’t want to read it; you already have a stack of unread volumes teetering by your bedside and weren’t looking to borrow another one just now. So you put it aside and, coming across it 3 months later, open it guiltily, intending to skim it before returning it to the poor friend who by now wants it back… and then are absolutely hooked. So hooked that the last thing you want to do is read it quickly; you want to take time to absorb every tiny detail, every ring of Montgomery Abbott’s voice that Sheila Stewart has captured so beautifully.

Born in Oxford in 1902, Old Mont recounts his life growing up in a tiny cottage in Enstone before spending a long, hardworking life bound to the land, as a farm labourer and later on, shepherd. I expected a prosaic read with some interesting historical detail: what I got was a vivid, lovingly-observed memoir from a man whose greatness of soul left me with no words to describe it. Old Mont’s voice bursts from the page with such warmth, freshness and a vision frequently poetic, that I can’t tell where his account ends and Sheila Stewart’s masterful shaping of it begins. Mont’s good humour, kindness, appetite for hard manual labour (and I mean, hard) and sheer stoicism in the face of some really awful bad luck (minor setbacks and heartbreaking tragedy are met equally with his cheerful ‘Us’ll get over it’) had me often in tears. Of all the books read in 2015, this is the one that has stayed with me most and I can’t stop telling everyone about it.

Which just shows that my friend was spot on.

We Need New Pigeon Holes

TooManyPigeons

I’m delighted to be asked by Writers’ and Artists’ Year book to write an article for their website.  Here it is: WANTED: A New Category in Children’s Books

My chance to air a subject close to my heart: the problem presented to children’s writers by pigeon holes imposed by the book trade (don’t say that with your mouth full).

Picture: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5c/TooManyPigeons.jpg/1024px-TooManyPigeons.jpg

How to Host a Diabolical Book Launch

IMG_6732Cor, what a weekend! Blackwell’s Bookshop hosted a FABULOUS launch fest on Friday for The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. Much Feasting and Fun and a Foison (oh dear, I’m running out of Fs) of books sold.  It was a huge pleasure to see so many friends and particularly children enjoying Hetty Gullifer’s devilish canapés (Gullifer Eats) P1020410and listening in awed hushsomeness to extracts from the book given by two very polished young readers. No Faustian pacts were made (at least I hope not), though I couldn’t help noticing that some of the guests had adopted Mephistopheles’s signature colours of scarlet and blaP1020475ck in their dress.

Uncanny, eh.P1020321

Then lovely invitations from two of my favourite websites to contribute an article. First, a guest blog on Childtastic Books all about the ideas behind The Tragickall HIstory of Henry Fowst.  Then, How to Write a Book on Muddy Stilettos (nothing to it, er, nothing to it at all. Cough cough.)

IMG_6752

Phew. A well-earned rest beckons.

What do you mean, it’s only Tuesday?

Well, there’s magic – and then there’s magic

Last week I wondered what would induce an ordinary, well-meaning 13 year-old boy to make a pact with a demon. Traditionally demons are evil and scary, and using magic to summon one to your aid is a dangerous step to take, right?

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADOR

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, out 28 August 2015

Not necessarily, according to the Elizabethans. For them, magic wasn’t always a bad thing. Witches, curses and evil spells – yes, these were terrible and people feared their power.

But there was also a belief in a good kind of magic flowing through all creation, whose very existence – being a miracle brought about by God – was somehow magical. This magic was present in all nature – in stones, herbs, animal bones, the stars, geometrical shapes – and, with the help of various charms, you could unlock it and so discover the secrets of the universe.

SLIDE 13  John Dee with Edward Kelley skryingOr you could enlist the aid of one of the thousands of spirits who were also part of God’s creation. A number of natural philosophers – the precursors of scientists – saw nothing irrational in this.  The famous mathematician and astrologer, Dr John Dee – thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s benign  magician, Prospero, in The Tempest – created tables of ‘angelic codes’ and used a crystal ball, through which he believed the archangel Uriel spoke to him.  In short, he called up ‘good spirits’ to help him in his scientific enquiries.

Crystal ball for skrying. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Crystal ball for skrying. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

And there I had it.  If a great mathematician like Dr Dee could call on the aid of ‘good spirits’, then why shouldn’t my 12 year-old Elizabethan boy, John Striven, do the same?

It is unfortunate, for John, and for Henry 430 years later, that the spirit who arrives is…

Mephistopheles.SLIDE 14 Mephistopheles