Past masters

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
THE SILVER SPOON OF SOLOMON SNOW. By Kaye Umansky. Puffin pound;4.99

JAMMY DODGERS ON THE RUN. By Bowering Sivers. Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99

JOSHUA CROSS AND THE QUEEN'S CONJUROR. By Diane Redmond. Wizard Books pound;10

TREAD SOFTLY. By Kate Pennington. Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

ANNE BOLEYN AND ME: The diary of Elinor Valjean. By Alison Prince. Scholastic pound;5.99

Robert Dunbar reviews historical fiction for key stages 2 and 3

While much of children's historical fiction remains characterised by a high seriousness, the past few years have seen the introduction of a cheeky irreverence to the genre. There may be a loss in terms of literary quality but there has undoubtedly been a gain in humour and instant readability.

The Tudor and the Victorian periods seem, in particular, to lend themselves to this new lighthearted approach.

Kaye Umansky in The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow constructs a quasi-Victorian world to serve as setting for a "foundling". Here, the child in question is Solomon Snow, growing up in the belief that he is the child of Mr and Mrs Scubbins, who earn a living by taking in washing.

When he learns of his foundling status, the search for his true identity involves a journey to town and provides Umansky with the opportunity to parade in front of us a wonderfully rich range of grotesque characters, drawn from both high and low life, each endowed with an extremely idiosyncratic speech pattern. There are some terrific jokes, verbal and visual, and an ending which few readers will foresee. This is one of those books which must have been as much fun to write as it is to read.

There is a great deal of fun also in Bowering Sivers' Jammy Dodgers on the Run, another foray into the Victorian underworld of thieves, rogues and child-snatchers. Jem, Ned and Billy, the "jammy" Persinski brothers of the title, stray into the murky slums of Seven Dials and encounter one of the most sinister figures of the age, Jim Rippen, known also as the Terror.

While some of the details of their escapades are very gruesome, the overall tone of the story is lightened by some brilliantly executed set pieces.

With Diane Redmond's Joshua Cross and the Queen's Conjuror, we move to a time-slip adventure set largely in Tudor times. The "conjuror" is Dr John Dee, a true Renaissance man gripped by an obsessive desire to find the philosopher's stone. Joshua, our young 21st-century hero, on the run from Leirtod, his father's long-time enemy, is swept with his friend Dido into the shadowy world of the Elizabethan court, its spies, necromancers and religious zealots. Redmond's colourful and exciting novel conveys a convincing sense of intrigue and has a stunningly successful episode involving Christopher Marlowe and the first performance of Dr Faustus.

For Elizabethan plotting and intrigue on a rather more serious level we turn to Kate Pennington's Tread Softly, which focuses on the relationship between Walter Raleigh and a young seamstress called Mary Devereux.

Employed by Raleigh's uncle and his wife in their grand Devon country house, Mary is able to observe the vanity, hypocrisy and treachery of those who would consider themselves her social betters. It is an eye-opening education for her and a source of potential danger, all dominated by the figure of Raleigh, his easy flirtatious charm and his aspirations to royal patronage - and more. There are some moments where Pennington's insistence on period detail seems rather laboured but, in the main, her book is an entertaining blend of the historical and the fictional.

A recent arrival in the My Story series, Alison Prince's Anne Boleyn and Me presents in diary format the reactions of Elinor Valjean, a young Spanish woman, to Henry VIII's rejection of Catherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn and, in turn, his embrace of Jane Seymour. Elinor, never totally at ease in her royal surroundings, watches in awe and amazement as Henry moves, as she sees it, from "great outrageous, theatrical monarch" to "tight-mouthed tyrant"; the complex nature of her fluctuating sympathies is subtly probed by Prince and recorded with considerable elegance.

Robert Dunbar is a senior lecturer at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

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