Of monsters and morality

19th November 2004 at 00:00
CHILDREN's FICTION: Freaks, pickpockets and foundlings all feature in these stories set mainly in London. Michael Thorn explores a rich vein of mystery and mayhem

Children's fiction, particularly historical fiction, provides many a picture of London life. If any children's novelist is more instantly thought of than another in connection with this historical city, it has to be Leon Garfield, who has set so many of his novels in 18th and 19th-century London.

Smith, the story of a young pickpocket who witnesses a murder, is well known, but the key title that should not be missed is The Apprentices (Egmont Pounds 3.99), a remarkable story-sequence set in the second half of the 18th century about trainee undertakers, printers' devils and hangmen.

Garfield uses real street names, which makes reading the stories especially evocative for those who know the city well. Garfield's books are for fluent readers of 10-plus. Paul Bajoria's exciting first novel The Printer's Devil (Simon Schuster, pound;12.99) is in the same tradition, and also set in recognisable Clerkenwell, Cheapside and Whitechapel.

A new writer of historical fiction for eight-plus is Chris Priestley. His "Tom Marlowe Adventures", Death And The Arrow and The White Rider (Doubleday Pounds 10.99), are set in the earlier part of the 18th century and feature serial murders and highway robberies.

Julie Hearn impressed last year with a debut timeslip novel, Follow Me Down (Oxford University Press pound;9.99) in which a boy comes to stay in his grandmother's house near Smithfield market and discovers, in the cellar, a "gap" which takes him to 18th-century London, where he meets up with some of the so-called "monsters" forced to perform at "freak shows" at Bartholemew Fair.

Jamila Gavin's novel about past attitudes towards illegitimacy, Coram Boy (Egmont pound;5.99), is described as "a tale of two cities", Gloucester and London. The evocation in the London scenes of squalor and of Thomas Coram's foundling children living at close-quarters, is made all the more forceful by way of contrast with scenes of rural and country house life.

Black Hearts In Battersea (Red Fox pound;4.99), the second book in Joan Aiken's "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" sequence, is mainly set in London.

She introduces Dido Twite, a pale and poorly heroine who, to all appearances, dies towards the end of the book. Excellent for reading aloud to any key stage 2 class, and as an example of how, in fiction, it is possible to mix historical and geographical accuracy with playful invention, such as the Castle of Battersea.

I enjoyed reading the Conan Doyle stories set in the London of Sherlock Holmes when I was young, but today there is an alternative source of Victorian mystery and detection in Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart novels, which begin with The Ruby in the Smoke (Scholastic pound;5.99), a useful reminder of how good a writer Pullman was well before His Dark Materials.

The first novel is suitable for readers aged 10-plus; the others are pitched a few years older.

Montmorency (Scholastic pound;5.99) by Eleanor Updale is an old-style yarn about a character leading a double life and working as a high-class thief, who uses London's underground sewer system for access to and escape from the scene of the crime. The mood of the period is so well realised you could imagine the book had been written a long time ago. The sequel, Montmorency On The Rocks, is even more Buchanesque, with a plot involving bomb blasts and murdered babies split between London and a Scottish island.

Bernard Ashley, a Londoner and former head, has set much of his fiction on home ground, most of it with a contemporary theme. A number of his earlier books are out of print despite the pertinence of his storylines. A Kind of Wild Justice (1978) is set in the East End at a time when it was under gangland control and concerns a scheme to bring illegal immigrants into the country. His Johnnie's Blitz (which has been brought back into print by Barn Owl, pound;5.99), is acknowledged to be one of the best books set in wartime London.

For teenage readers, Making Sense (Piccadilly pound;5.99) by Nadia Marks is a deftly realised novel about a Cypriot girl's coming to terms with life in north London 30 years ago - being unsettled by the coarse brashness of her new British friends but at the same time energised by the vibrancy of the city.

How It Works (Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;5.99) by Graham Marks is set squarely in London "now" and is a vivid "strong-language-from-the-outset" male perspective on a teenager's efforts to balance art coursework with the bidding of hormones, heartstrings and heavenly intervention.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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