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A Parcel of Books: Children’s Historical Novels by Elizabeth Hawksley

June 21, 2012

I review children’s books for the Historical Novel Society and my latest parcel of books to review has just arrived. What have I got this time? It’s always an exciting moment. There are three books.

The first is The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse, Caroline Lawrence’s new P. K. Pinkerton mystery set inVirginia City, a lawless mining town in 1862Nevada. Her twelve-year-old detective hero is a loner who hates being touched, he collects things – for example, over one hundred different sorts of tobacco – he suffers from depression and isn’t good at understanding other people’s emotions. On the other hand, he’s intelligent, brave, tenacious and truthful, and he goes to chapel on Sundays. He’s a sort of autistic Huckleberry Finn – though I doubt Huck would be keen on the chapel on Sunday bit.

The best children’s authors don’t pull their punches. Caroline Lawrence’s young hero frequents low bars, meets ‘soiled doves’ (prostitutes), visits a morgue and experiences a stream of racist abuse (he’s half-Indian) in his search for Sally Sampson’s killer. It’s a terrific read.

The next book is Stones for my Father by TrilbyKent, set in Dutch South Africa in 1900. Twelve-year old Corlie lives on a farm in theTransvaal, land the British want for the gold nearby. When the farm is torched, Corlie’s family escape, only to be captured and sent to one of the notorious internment camps set up by the British for women and children. TrilbyKent does not soften the horrors of disease, death and semi-starvation. Corlie has much to learn, not only the secret of why her mother hates her but that help and comfort can be found in the most unlikely places.

I’m just about to embark on the third book, City of Swords, the latest in Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series. Enter a World of Treachery and Danger shouts the strap line. It’s obviously aimed at teenage girls who like adventure with, perhaps, a touch of romance. Her heroine, Laura, may be able to time-travel to 16th centuryItaly but, as the cover shows, she never forgets her mascara and eyeliner. I always enjoy Mary Hoffman’s books and I’m looking forward to this one.

Children’s books nowadays have got to be a jolly good read. Children are highly discriminating. They won’t tolerate being preached at, condescended to, or bored. In the 19th century, children were given books that were good for them. For example, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies has characters called Mrs Do-as-you-would-be done-by and Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did. A Victorian godfather is recorded as giving his goddaughter Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Daisy Chain because he knew it was ‘A safe book for girls’. Those attitudes have gone, thank goodness.

21st century writers of adult novels have to cope with publishers wanting slot their books into a known category: saga, thriller, chick lit, or whatever. Children’s authors are more fortunate; they can write what they want, and the results, as my haul shows, are books that are thrilling, thought-provoking and moving. No wonder there are so many crossover books.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2012 8:46 pm

    I was interested to read about these books. My first reaction on seeing that you were writing about Historical Fiction was that I don’t usually go for those kind of books. However, I then remembered that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Troubadour’ by Mary Hoffman.

    I am currently deep in a story by Sally Nicholls entitled ‘All Fall Down’. This is about the Black Death of 1349 and that is certainly a historical novel! I might blog about that soon.

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley permalink*
    June 23, 2012 8:09 am

    I, too, enjoyed ‘Troubadour’. I wish Mary Hoffman had been writing when I was a child!

    What I love about Historical Novels is that, not only can you escape into a different time and place, but you also learn a lot in a painless way.

    I realized this when I was teaching ‘Richard II’ for English A level. I knew exactly who was who (the Plantagenet family tree can be complicated) because Anya Seton’s ‘Katherine’, about Katherine Swynford, the mistress of John of Gaunt, had been one of my favourite books as a teenager.

  3. June 28, 2012 10:20 am

    I’m drawn to the first book and it’s unusual slant on the detective novel. I’m also interested in how the book features a hero who just happens to be autistic, rather than a book that deals with autism– a bit like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night.

  4. Elizabeth Hawksley permalink*
    June 29, 2012 11:41 am

    ‘The Case of The Good-looking Corpse’ is a first person narrative by the young detective hero, which helps to get across how someone who is autistic thinks. It’s a great read, John; it has humour, wisdom and pathos. I recommend it

    The first book in the series is in Islington Central children’s library – at least it will be when I take it back!

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