Starters for 10 and more

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
Deborah Maby rounds up historical fictionto complement days out. Like most parents I embark on every summer holiday full of good intentions, planning a succession of unforgettable trips to Roman villas, ruined castles, museums and mock Victorian schools. Luckily, there are a mass of new books to whet the appetite - or serve as a substitute should my plans come to naught, as they so often do.

Sparks historical fiction (Franklin Watts, Pounds 6.99 each) comprises three series-within-series describing what life was like for "ordinary Roman, Tudor and Victorian folk". The four books in each series chronicle the life of a child of the time. They are somewhat formulaic, with historical detail carefully woven into the plot in every second sentence, but the storyline is always strong and the hero or heroine suitably engaging.

In the four tales of "Rowdy Romans", Livia has gone to live at her Uncle Titus's villa in Italy. A trip to her snooty cousins in Ostia encompasses a visit to the baths and their apartment in the exclusive Garden House Insula. We glean much about trade, religion and the growing fashion for astrology.

In the tales of a "Tudor Tearaway", Arthur Knucklebone joins Francis Drake as a cabin boy on his voyage around the world in 1577. In the succeeding book Arthur is installed at Lockstock Manor, where everyone is preparing for a visit by Elizabeth I and her entourage. Both stories provide detail on dress and appearance, as well as the intrigues of the Queen's court and the emnity between England and Spain.

All three series are human and funny, if a little cartoon-like in their simplicity, and there is much prosaic detail on plumbing and how to stop your teeth from rotting, guaranteed to excite the interest of the under-10s.

The books in the Flashbacks series (AC Black, Pounds 6.99 each), aimed as they are at slightly older children, are longer and more novel-like. Concentrating on a single event and not limited by the need to lay on the historical detail in such a thick wodge, they give a fuller flavour of the life of the era. Julie and the Queen of Tonga by Rachel Anderson relates the death of George VI and the Coronation as seen through the eyes of Julie, her parents, the lodgers at their boarding-house, her best friend Joyce, and their class teacher, Miss Rosen.

"History's everybody's. It belongs to the whole nation, whoever we are, high or low," Julie tells her housemates firmly as she collects money to decorate the house in red, white and blue crepe paper from Woolworths. Julie's mum is unstoppably cheerful ("Beggars can't be choosers, so I might as well keep chirping") and the local butcher arranges a string of sausages into a regal crown in his shop window afresh every morning.

This is a lively story, completely successful in its brief to be informative and exciting at the same time. By the end you quite want to hug Julie in her grey jumper and skirt, the only clothes, we are told in order that the austerity of the times should not be lost on us, that she possesses other than her pyjamas.

Also aimed at the older primary-school child are Historical Storybooks from Macdonald Young Books (Pounds 4.50 paperback). Elizabeth Fry and the Forger's Daughter by Roy Apps is not a pretty tale, with foul scenes in Newgate Jail, a hanging and descriptions of the brutality of the Bow Street Runners. Instead of Newgate or "the drop", Hannah Gunn and her daughter Eliza are banished to Van Diemen's Land, courtesy of that "do-gooding toff Mrs Meddling Fry".

Mrs Fry turns out to be a good egg after all, of course, securing better conditions for the convicts and teaching them to read and sew in order to prepare them to make their way in the New World.

Like Julie and Matty, Eliza is plucky, spirited and determined. So even if you don't manage that trip to the Ragged Trouser School in the East End or to go scouring for evidence of convict ships in Deptford Creek, here at least are some very inspiring role models to lure any young girl away from the Four Marys for an hour or so.

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