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