Once upon a time

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Sometimes some extra imagination gives history a hand, say Fiona and Anthony Lafferty

Historical fiction is an enduring genre and the passing of time inevitably provides more opportunities for new settings for drama, romance and tragedy. This is clearly borne out by the variety of books here.

Inevitably there are the tried and trusted backdrops of Tudor turmoil and trench warfare, and skilful authors can bring the traumatic events of those times alive, which helps the history teacher turn the demands of the national curriculum into real issues. However, each generation has its own immediate history to deal with which is happening too fast to fit into any syllabus. Children coming through school today should have some knowledge of the issues in Northern Ireland or Kosovo if they are to understand the world in which they are growing up.

The young are affected by the political events of an age as much as anyone, but even those caught up in the events don't necessarily understand them.

Adolescence is a time of challenging, the point in your life where you question the religious, social and political standards set by your family, friends and culture.

Books need to show how conflict inevitably means contact and this in turn can lead to understanding. One child's education is another child's indoctrination. Children also have to deal with the shifting sands of growing up. It is not only the world that is changing, so are they. In whichever age we live, sibling rivalry, parental approval and sexual awareness complicate our view of the outside world.

Historical fiction is a paradox and inevitably the question of how much is true arises, particularly from children. Each book should be judged individually and every author should give some indication as to how much licence he or she has taken. However, even a good historian is not omniscient and must interpret and imagine in order to fill the gaps that the passage of time has created. He or she also has to know what to leave out so that the story remains manageable and comprehensible.

As Melvin Burgess writes in his introduction to Robbers on the Road in the Flashbacks series: "History is interesting, but the main thing is always the story." The books detailed here fall into three categories: those that have used a historical setting to tell a story and entertain; those that enlighten by creating an atmosphere and providing some empathy for characters swept along by the tide of history; and those that educate because they actually tell us what happened with little or no embellishment. Well-written history is as good as beautifully crafted fiction with the added frisson that it is real, which is why the Short Books series deserves its place here.

Very few of these books, aimed across key stages 1-3, would be used within the confines of a conventional history lesson alone, but they could be used as background reading for topics, as further reading for more able pupils and in some cases as a way of introducing reluctant readers to fiction.

These books should be available to educate, enlighten or entertain. The best should do all three.

KEY THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A SERIES:

Most of these series have a longer list of titles than the ones read for this survey, which were chosen neutrally before applying the criteria.

Presentation Initially the book's immediate appeal is important, that is the size and feel of the book as well as its cover design. Next, the inside layout and text-size must be appropriate to the level of the target audience and any illustrations should be relevant and enlightening.

Story value

In evaluating the success of the story, the credibility of the main characters is paramount. Their thoughts and feelings and their relationships and dialogue with other characters must convince the reader, whose response is an emotional one.

Ultimately, the reader needs to care about the characters and be moved by the events in order to be captivated by the unfolding drama.

History content

Inevitably, we are looking for historical accuracy, but at the very least we should not expect blatant errors in books written for children. Within the licence of fiction any account of a historical event should focus on the facts that are immediately relevant to the story and not get bogged down in extraneous explanation or irrelevant detail. In other words, the book must include enough background to enable the reader to understand the whole situation, but authors should avoid showing off how much they know for the sake of it. It is a skill indeed to create the atmosphere of a particular period without being too didactic.

Anthony Lafferty is head of history at Twyford Preparatory School near Winchester and Fiona Lafferty is librarian at St Swithun's Junior School, Winchester

TITLES

Castle Diary Series Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page 1285 Pirate Diary: The Journal of Jake Carpenter 1761 By Richard Platt, illustrated by Chris Riddell Walker Books pound;6.99 pb eachwww.walkerbooks.co.uk

PRESENTATION

Attractive, large-format books illustrated in colour. Both are beautifully produced, with illustrations by Chris Riddell that manage to combine accurate detail with humorous characterisation. The picture of the castle and the cut-away drawing of the pirate ship are meticulously drawn and labelled with a key, and vibrant double-page illustrations dramatically portray scenes such as jousting and a pirate attack.

STORY VALUE

In each book, the narrative takes the form of a "diary" written by a young boy. The use of first-person narrative engages the reader from the start, immediately involving them in the day-to-day running of the castle or ship as each character begins his new life.

HISTORY CONTENT

Castle Diary is an accurate, detailed and entertaining account of all aspects of life in a grand medieval castle. Toby experiences the highs and lows of aristocratic living, as he has to serve his uncle and aunt and play his part in hunting, harvesting and feasting throughout the year. In Pirate Diary, Jake boards the Greyhound in Charlestown bound for Martinique, with its irascible captain, and discovers the crew is involved in smuggling to avoid paying taxes.

BEST IN SERIES

We suspect this was not originally planned as a series. Castle Diary stands out as a one-off, highly individual and historically accurate chronicle of life in a medieval castle. In contrast, Pirate Diary does not have the same amount of factual information and relies more on a fictional account; it has the look of having been forced into the same successful format.

VERDICT

Despite Castle Diary's superiority, both volumes are exceptional books for a classroom andor library and will provide classic browsing material for children in Years 3-6.

TITLES

Short History series The Bloody Baron By Nick Middleton; Anne Boleyn By Laura Beatty; Charlotte Bront By Kate Hubbard; Ned Kelly By Charlie Boxer; Ada Lovelace By Lucy Lethbridge; Alexander Selkirk By Amanda Mitchison Short books pound;3.99pb each www.theshortbookco.comchildrensbooks200301.html

PRESENTATION

The neat size and concise format of these books is instantly appealing. The covers look fresh, even "trendy", and quirky little sketches break up the text. All are clearly written in a contemporary style that is immediately accessible and likeable.

STORY VALUE

Not fictional at all, these are excellent biographies dealing with the full lives of their subjects. For example, Alexander Selkirk was the inspiration for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, but how did Selkirk come to be stuck on a desert island? The account of Anne Boleyn brings her to life and makes clear why Henry VIII would have risked everything for her.

HISTORY CONTENT

All titles are packed with historically accurate information that never gets in the way of the actual story of the person's life. Children often ask: "What happened after they were famous?" These books answer those questions. They are as amusing, intriguing and moving as any fiction, but each tells the story of an extraordinary individual. In fact, if they weren't true, you might not believe them.

BEST IN SERIES

It is extremely difficult to pick just one of these fascinating books above the others, but we particularly enjoyed those on Ned Kelly and Charlotte Bront . The volume on Ada Lovelace has recently won the Blue Peter Non-fiction Award.

VERDICT

Although the subjects have few direct links with the history curriculum, this is a brilliant series, well worth pushing in the direction of curious children in Year 6 and above.

TITLES

Sparks series Escape from Germany By Penny McKinlay; Sid's War By Jon Blake; Stop, Thief! By Karen Wallace; Bodies for Sale By Mary Hooper; Mystery at the Globe By Michael Lawrence; London's Burning! By Karen Wallace Franklin Watts pound;3.99 pb each www.wattspub.co.uk

PRESENTATION

These short books, with attractive bright covers, good-sized type and lots of cartoon-style line drawings, look like "readers". They will appeal equally to those who like factual books and those who prefer fiction.

STORY VALUE

Entertaining child-based stories, these are easy to read, fairly rattling along. Each short story centres on a self-contained incident in a particular period. Children will identify with characters like the baker's daughter in London's Burning! as she rushes to save her dog, or with the young boy who finds that being evacuated isn't quite what he expected.

HISTORY CONTENT

Each story has an excellent feel for its period. The history content is not laboured within the stories, but complemented by very good historical notes at the back of the books.

BEST IN SERIES

Bodies for Sale is a lovely story based on the body-snatching antics of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh during the 18th century.

VERDICT

This series is closely allied to the key stage 2 curriculum. The series has the balance of fact and fiction absolutely right and will be popular with Years 2 and 3.

TITLES

Coming Alive series Dear Mum, I Miss You; What if the Bomb Goes Off?; I Can Never Go Home Again; God Bless Queen Victoria!; Beware the King!; Princess Elizabeth, Are you a Traitor?

By Stewart Ross Evans pound;4.50 pb each www.evansbooks.co.uk

PRESENTATION

Attractive cover designs suggest a morelively series than is actually delivered. Line drawings intersperse the text, but these are irritatingly repetitive.

STORY VALUE

The stories fail to convince, whether describing the life of a monarch such as Queen Victoria, or a Jewish refugeefleeing from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The books read more like watered-down textbooks than the exciting adventures that are promised in the blurbs, and it is often difficult to believe in the characters or the dialogue.

HISTORY CONTENT

Although there are introductory notes under the heading "The story so far" and the books end with sections on "What happened next?", "How do we know? and a timeline, there are occasional worrying factual inaccuracies.

BEST IN SERIES

Of those read for this review the best at capturing the feelings of its protagonists is Dear Mum, I Miss You! which is about a young girl who reluctantly leaves London during the Blitz to stay with her aunt in the country .

VERDICT

This promising-looking series is ultimately disappointing.

The facts are clumsily included and often get in the way of the story.

Errors indicate hasty editing.

TITLES

My Story series Bloody Tower By Valerie Wilding; Armada By Jim Eldridge; Mill Girl By Sue Reid; Crimea By Jim Eldridge; Battle of Britain By Chris Priestley Scholastic pound;4.99 pb each www.scholastic.co.ukzone

PRESENTATION

Attractive, chunky books that look like real diaries or notebooks.

Each is an account of a particular period in history, supposedly written by a childteenager who lived through it. Some are in diary formchronicling events day-by-day or weekly. Other accounts recall events monthly or less regularly.

STORY VALUE

The personal nature of each of these accounts makes it very easy to empathise with each character. They deal as much with the ordeal of adolescence as with being a boy soldier in the Crimea or a girl working in a Victorian mill. Personal relationships between friends and families are particularly well developed.

HISTORY CONTENT

All the books are soundly based on facts, even though necessity dictates that much of the material is fictional. For example, Mill Girl - The Diary of Eliza Helsted, Manchester 1842-1843, paints a realistic portrait of what life was like for poor families in the mill towns in England. The historical content is backed by a section giving background notes to the period, a timeline of actual dates and events and relevant illustrations or photographs.

BEST IN SERIES

Bloody Tower is an exceptional portrait of a young girl living in the Tower of London with her family at a time of great political and religious upheaval.

VERDICT

My Story is an excellent series that makes the past accessible to children in key stage 3 and above and would be much-used in a school library.

TITLES

Survivors series False Papers (First World War); Everything to Live for (Northern Ireland); The Beat of A Drum (African Slavery); Only a Matter of Time (Kosovo) By Stewart Ross; Long Walk to Lavender Street (South Africa) By Belinda Hollyer Hodder pound;4.99 pb each www.hodderheadline.co.uk

PRESENTATION

Although these are fictional stories, this series has a serious non-fiction format, without illustrations and with photographic covers.

Although not exciting to look at, they are well designed with text that is spaced out and easy to read.

STORY VALUE

Told in the first person, each of these stories features a young person caught up in a particular conflict or disaster. The teenage narrators all develop a strong sense of the individual and grab the reader's attention from the start, and many of their stories are intenselymoving.

HISTORY CONTENT

An introduction by the author explains the background, putting each story in context and generally acknowledging the inspiration behind it, whether it is the first published account by an African slave taken to the New World, or a story an author was told while on holiday in France. There are further historical notes specific to each story at the end of the books, together with a glossary and some ideas for further reading.

BEST IN SERIES

Perhaps because it focuses on one specific and horrific event, Everything to Live For: A Story from Northern Ireland stands out as being particularly gripping and moving.

VERDICT

Although he subjects tackled are not all relevant to the national curriculum, this series would prove rewarding for increasing general knowledge and political awareness.

TITLES

Flashbacks series Robbers on the Road By Melvin Burgess; Gunner's Boy By Ann Turnbull; The Eyes of Dr Dee By Maggie Pearson; Boy King By David Belbin; A Slip in Time By Maggie Pearson; Final Victory By Herbie Brennan Aamp; C Black pound;4.99 each www.acblack.com

PRESENTATION

These are serious-looking books with interesting covers that give a good indication of the subject matter. The text is clear and there are no illustrations.

STORY VALUE

All these books have very good story-lines. The stories are seen through the eyes of adolescents who describe events as they watch them unfold. Some of these characters are major players while others are caught up in the maelstrom of history. With all of the stories, though, there is a feeling that none of the protagonists can control destiny.

HISTORY CONTENT

Possibly because each of these books is written by a well-established author they are very varied and individualistic. Some have more explanation than others about the historical background. Author's notes, glossaries, diagrams and recommendations for further reading are all idiosyncratic but always relevant and helpful. Within the stories, the historical content is extremely varied.

BEST IN SERIES

The Tudor Flashbacks are all excellent. In addition, Maggie Pearson's A Slip in Time is an exciting story in which a young boy pops out to the local supermarket and slips back in time to Victorian London. The way in which the present is neatly tied to the past is ultimately satisfying.

VERDICT

This is an excellent series, but where they belong in a school is a problem because they are so varied. Most are simply very good fiction, welcome in any school library.

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