Historical Musings #5: Books for younger readers

Historical Musings Historical fiction is my favourite genre, but that hasn’t always been the case. I only really started to read historical novels when I was in my late teens and at that age I was naturally drawn to books written for adults, which meant I missed out on most of the historical fiction available for younger readers.

I have been giving this a lot of thought and am surprised to find that I can only think of two historical fiction books I read as a child that were actually aimed at a young audience. The first is a book I remember reading at school: The Children of the New Forest, Frederick Marryat’s novel about four children orphaned during the English Civil War. It was published in 1847 and is thought to be one of the first historical novels written specifically for young readers. The only other book that has come to mind is Twist of Gold by Michael Morpurgo, the story of two children from Ireland who sail to America in search of their father during the Irish potato famine. I think I was about ten when I read it and all I can remember was that it made me cry!

Of course, just because I didn’t read a lot of historical fiction as a child doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of historical novels out there for children to read. Last week I read a great review by Yvonne of John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet and I have found a whole list of other books for children and young adults at www.historicalnovels.info sorted by time period and location. I’m also aware that Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a lot of historical novels for children and although she’s not an author I’ve ever read, I do have one or two of her books on my shelf which I’m hoping to read soon.

Did you read any historical novels as a child or young adult? Which would you recommend? Do you think they can still be enjoyed by adult readers?

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25 thoughts on “Historical Musings #5: Books for younger readers

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I feel that I must have read quite a bit as a child, but the only one I can think of now is The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (set in 17th century Connecticut), which I loved. I know I read a lot of time-travel books but I’m not sure if you would be interested in those. I did find a lot more wonderful historical fiction for children later on when I was teaching elementary school, but I’d have to hunt up those titles.

    • Helen says:

      I never came across The Witch of Blackbird Pond as a child and I don’t think it has ever been as widely read here in the UK as it is in America. I’m sure I would have liked it, though, so maybe it’s not too late for me to try it!

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    I read historical fiction voraciously when I was a child – The Children of the New Forest was one of them, but my favourite author was Rosemary Sutcliff – I’m amazed you’ve never read any of hers. The Eagle of the Ninth and its sequels are wonderful, as are her ‘prehistoric’ books like Mark of the Horse Lord and Warrior Scarlet. She also wrote several novels for adults – ‘Sword at Sunset’, about Arthur, ‘The Rider on the White Horse’ which is about Thomas Fairfax, and ‘The Flowers of Adonis’ about Alcibiades. She’s one of the few historical authors who seems to have actually lived what she’s writing about, and even more remarkably, she was a lifelong sufferer from crippling arthritis and spent most of her time in a wheelchair. I also enjoyed the novels about the Carey family by Ronald Welch – they were aimed at boys, but I went to a boys’ school and they were in the library, so I read them! Geoffrey Treece, William Mayne and Bryher I also remember. There were others which didn’t make much impression, but one I do remember was set in France, at the time when the Edict of Nantes allowing Protestants freedom of worship had just been revoked. It centred on a Huguenot family who were trying to escape to England, and I particularly remember a girl called Andree who had to disguise herself as a boy. I’ve never been able to remember the author or the title – it must have been published in the 1950s or early 1960s. Perhaps someone else remembers it?

    • Helen says:

      I’m amazed that I’ve never read Rosemary Sutcliff too! She’s just not an author I had any exposure to as a child (we didn’t have any of her books in the house, I can’t remember seeing them in the library and nobody ever recommended her to me). I have no excuse for not reading her as an adult, though, and I do now own copies of both The Eagle of the Ninth and The Flowers of Adonis, which I hope to read soon. The Huguenot book sounds interesting – it’s a shame you can’t remember the title.

  3. jessicabookworm says:

    Like you Helen I didn’t read historical fiction until I was a young adult. I did however as a child read any historical non-fiction I could get my hands on, in particular about the Ancient Egyptians 🙂

  4. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I’m sure that I must have read books with historical settings as a child, but none stick in my mind. What I do remember is reading Jean Plaidy quite young, and picking up my mother’s copy of Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour when she didn’t get on with it and falling in love.

    • Helen says:

      I think Jean Plaidy seems to be an entry point into historical fiction for a lot of young readers. I loved The Sunne in Splendour too but only read it relatively recently and still have most of Sharon Penman’s other books waiting to be read.

  5. elainethomp says:

    I read everything as a kid, historicals among them. Favorite writers were Sutcliff and Madeleine Polland. The Sutcliffs the library had were mostly the Roman Britain ones, but there were some like WARRIOR SCARLET that were set in the older world. Polland wrote kids historicals set everywhere, often with a religious background – missionaries in Canada, St Patrick in Ireland, Colmcille (founder of Iona), something dealing with the Varangarian Guard in Constantinople, some set in the Far East (possibly w/missionaries), ancient Crete & the labyrinth – that one was a timeslip before the term was invented I think, the title was DAUGHTER OF THE SEA, a retelling of the Irish legend of Deirdre…I’m pretty sure she’s the one who wrote the one featuring Tycho Brahe, too….

    Also Barbara Willard had a series following a family down the centuries. Most of them never came alive for me the way Sutcliff and Polland’s books did, but they were good enough.

    Charles Brady’s SWORD OF CLONTARF both I and my brothers loved. I’m pretty sure we read others by him, too.

    Ronald Welch, another family through the centuries series, all following wars, and possibly the only reason I know anything about the Crimean War. Had the brothers’ seal of approval, too.

    There were tons of good historicals for kids. Those I remembered especially fondly and have looked up in recent years have mostly held up, too. One rather old one starting from the Children’s Crusade makes me cringe a bit at the beginning, but once the kid gets overseas it’s good. When I found it in the school library and brought it to the librarian’s attention she looked at it, then later reported that an 8th grade boy checked it out and came back asking for more like it, so this book from the 1920s still works for (at least one) modern kid. That was BOY OF THE LOST CRUSADE by Agnes Danforth Hewes.

    and a bunch on those lists of YA historicals, although they were published as juveniles when I was growing up, like Jewett’s GLASTONBURY story, and the Sutcliffs, and Garthwaite and Crossley Holland, and Speare.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for that great list of books, Elaine. You’ve given me lots of authors and titles to think about. As a child I was more interested in reading mysteries, adventure novels and school stories (I think I must have read most of Enid Blyton’s 600+ books) so I missed out on most of the historical fiction available for children. It’s good to know that modern kids are still enjoying books like Boy of the Lost Crusade!

      • elainethomp says:

        I’ve thought of more, since, but I don’t want to totally spam your comment thread. And clarification on the BOY from 1920 – it was the school that our kid goes to whose library shocked me by having it. So this was in the ’90s sometime, probably that a modern boy liked it. a couple quick ones: Rita Ritchie (Ghenghis Khan-sih Mongolia, horses & hawks), Knights’ Ransom by someone at the end of the alphabet (Crusade -> Iceland, hawks again), John & Patricia Beatty separately and together for English/Scottish historicals. i liked Sally Watson’s at the time, but not all of them held up when I reread them a few years ago.

  6. Yvonne says:

    As an adult, I’ve read and enjoyed E.V. Thompson’s Cassie, Retallick Series and Jagos of Cornwall Series without realising these were YA fiction and, as you mentioned (thank you), I have recently read Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner. I currently have in my reading pile two books by Nicola Morgan set in the 18th century, The Highwayman’s Footsteps and The Highwayman’s Curse.

    A book I remember reading in primary school is Under the Red Robe by Stanley J. Weyman. This is set in 17th century France and one of the characters is Cardinal Richelieu. I’ve also read a couple of books by G.A. Henty, Saint George for England (Cressy and Poitiers) and The Young Buglers (Peninsular War). Being in primary school in the 1960s, most of the historical fiction I read at that time was by classic authors.

    • Helen says:

      Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a book is meant to be YA or adult, though I suppose it doesn’t really matter as long as you enjoy reading it. I will think about trying E.V. Thompson – and I definitely want to read Moonfleet!
      I hadn’t heard of Under the Red Robe but I’ve looked it up and it sounds fun.

  7. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I don’t think I read much historical fiction as a child. I loved The Children of the New Forest.The only book by Rosemary Sutcliff I read as a child was Brother Dusty Feet, then there is Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Catriona by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Gloriet Tower by Eileen Meyler, set in Corfe Castle at the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1327 after the death of Edward II and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (French Revolution). These are the books that came to my mind when I read your post – there may be more. But these were enough to set me reading historical fiction as I moved on later to the Jean Plaidy books.

    • Helen says:

      I forgot about Robert Louis Stevenson! I did have copies of both Treasure Island and Kidnapped (as part of a set of children’s classics), though I’m not sure I ever actually read them all the way through. I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel but only read it for the first time about three years ago!

  8. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    I loved both Moonfleet and Children of the New Forest – both are books that made the cut when I was having to cull some of my kids books- along with Cynthia Harnett The WoolPack and  Leon Garfield books. Stil love to re-read children’s classics.

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Children of the New Forest too and really must find time to re-read it to see what I think of it as an adult. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Cynthia Harnett or Leon Garfield, though.

  9. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I didn’t start reading historical fiction until I was old enough to just read adult titles. But I will definitely use all the recommendations in this post to look for books my kids might be interested in. They are early readers still, but the oldest likes to read the American Girl books that are set in different time periods and places. I think they are a pretty good and fun introduction to history, so hopefully, we can keep the interest going.

    • Helen says:

      I’m overwhelmed by all the wonderful recommendations people have been leaving in their comments! I can’t believe I obviously missed out on so many great books as a child. I hope your kids continue to enjoy history – and reading in general, of course.

  10. whatmeread says:

    Oh, gosh, I see someone has already mentioned The Witch of Blackbird pond, but Elizabeth George Speare also wrote more historical fiction. Rosemary Sutcliff is good and Robert Louis Stevenson. I see others have mentioned those. Also, The Loon Feather by Iola Fuller, some books that are just being republished by Sally Watson (all of hers are historical fiction). I’m sure if I thought longer I could think of more.

  11. Jess @ Curiouser and Curiouser says:

    I love me some historical fiction, and I first got into it in my pre-teens which means I didn’t jump straight into adult fiction. 🙂 I recommend checking out Celia Rees, who’s written a lot of historical fiction for younger readers; I particularly love Pirates! and Witch Child by her, and I definitely think they can still be read by adults. There’s also Eva Ibbotson, who wrote a lot of historical romance novels aimed at younger readers. When I was around 14 I read A Company of Swans and loved it, and I think The Morning Gift is also a popular one by her.

    And then there are the more well-known books such War Horse by Michael Morpurgo and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. I’m pretty sure Jacqueline Wilson wrote a historical fiction trilogy for younger readers recently – the Hettie Feathers books, I think?

    • Helen says:

      I love Eva Ibbotson but only started to read her books a couple of years ago so missed out on her as a child. I enjoyed War Horse too (though again, I only read it relatively recently after seeing the film) and I really should read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as I love John Boyne’s adult fiction. And it’s good to know that Celia Rees can still be enjoyed by adults – I’ll think about trying one of her books.

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