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Historical fiction recommendations for children: the best history books for kids

What are some of the best historical fiction books for children? The team behind BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra reveal some of their top picks...

A young girl reading a book. We recently asked our Twitter followers which historical fiction book inspired them as a child. (Photo by Terry Vine via Getty Images)

Which historical children’s books did you read when you were younger that sparked your interest in history?

Earlier this year, we asked our readers on Twitter this exact question – and the results ranged from the ladybird history books and the Horrible Histories series, to Anne Frank’s diary and Charles DickensOliver Twist.

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Inspired by the thread, some of the team behind BBC History Magazine, BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra were prompted to share their favourites. Check them out below and make sure to get involved with the conversation on Twitter @HistoryExtra – we’d love to know more examples of books that sparked your love of history in your youth…


When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) by Judith Kerr

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

I was an avid reader as a child, with weekly trips to the local library on a Saturday morning, armed with empty carrier bags, ready to transport whatever books had caught my interest. One of my all-time favourite books – a ‘comfort’ read, if you like – was Judith Kerr’s 1970s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I was probably of a similar age to the book’s protagonist, 9-year-old Anna, when I first read it, and I was immediately drawn into the terrifying world of Nazi Germany, during Hitler’s meteoric rise to power. As I read and re-read the book, I would always imagine myself fleeing persecution, moving from Berlin, to Zurich, to Paris, to London, always on the run from an invisible, yet tangible, threat. I’ve never forgotten the book and, in writing this entry, I’ve discovered that the book is in fact the first of a trilogy. Nine-year-old me is distraught that she didn’t realise this! The adult me is tempted to pop to the library and continue the story, though…

Chosen by Charlotte Hodgman, BBC History Revealed editor


Redwall (1986–2011) by Brian Jacques

Redwall

On the face of it, a tale of heroic mice and otters battling against marauding rats and weasels doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with history. But if you’re asking about the books that inspired a fascination with history as a kid, then Brian Jacques’ Redwall series has to be on the list. From brave warriors and epic battles to feasting and revelry inside a magnificent Abbey, Jacques’ woodland world is teeming with medieval inspirations. I won’t make any claims for Redwall’s historical accuracy, but its evocative world-building certainly sparked an interest in finding out more about the Middle Ages.

Chosen by Ellie Cawthorne, HistoryExtra podcast editor


The Lottie Project (1997) and Secrets (2002) by Jacqueline Wilson

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What might your life have been like if you’d been born in a different era? I’ve always been fascinated with this question – and Jacqueline Wilson’s The Lottie Project did a fairly good job of answering it when I was in primary school! The story follows 11-year-old Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Enright, who is bored with her school lessons and prefers to spend time hanging out with her friends (this was very relatable to child-me). Charlie’s world is soon turned upside down by the arrival of  new teacher Miss Beckworth, who tasks her class to complete a project on the Victorians. It all seems like a load of rubbish to the boisterous Charlie – until she stumbles across a photo of a Victorian girl who looks just like her. The unfolding story follows both Charlie and her Victorian doppelgänger, as they navigate similar difficulties in their home lives.

Secrets

Another Wilson book that sparked my love of history was Secrets. Much like The Lottie Project, I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as historical fiction per se, however the narrator of the story is a young girl called India who is utterly obsessed with the diary of Anne Frank (addressing her own diary as ‘Kitty’, much like the real Anne). The story climaxes with India hiding her a friend in the attic of her own house so that she can escape from an abusive relative. Although some might argue that the parallels between this fictional novel and the real history are a little gratuitous, the book did prompt an 11-year-old me to seek out the real Anne Frank’s diary. From there, I grew increasingly interested in first-hand accounts of the Second World War – and in 2018 I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Scott Kellner about his grandfather’s diary about life in Nazi Germany for the HistoryExtra podcast – you can give that a listen here.

Chosen by Rachel Dinning, HistoryExtra digital section editor


King of Shadows (1999) by Susan Cooper

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What would you do if you fell ill and woke up in the Elizabethan era? Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows is a fast-paced time-travelling tale that fired my interest in history as a 10-year-old. It tells the story of Nat, a 20th-century American boy who is travelling with a company of actors to perform a Shakespeare play at the rebuilt Globe theatre in London. But as a mysterious illness falls over the young actor, he slips through time to find himself living as his counterpart in 1599 – playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and acting side-by-side with history’s most famous playwright.

With a cast of historical characters that includes Richard Burbage, Will Kemp and ‘Gloriana’ herself, King of Shadows brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of Elizabethan London – including the unpleasant ones (watch out for a vivid bear-baiting scene, a popular pastime of the era). Cooper presents an introduction to Shakespeare that will be gripping for 10-12-year olds, a world of theatre and intrigue that’s in turn physically gruelling and thrilling, and not without a little tragedy, too.

Chosen by Elinor Evans, HistoryExtra acting digital editor


The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) and Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1977) by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Eagle of the Ninth

It was my older brother who first introduced me to the amazing writing of Rosemary Sutcliff. I started first with The Eagle of the Ninth – the first piece of Roman-themed historical fiction I’d ever read – and entered a world that seemed completely alien to me. At an age when your own parents appear ancient, the concept of Roman Britain, a lost legion of soldiers, and marauding tribes of the north who lived some 1,800 years ago was mind-boggling.

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Sutcliff’s descriptions of Roman Britain are wonderful and immensely atmospheric, but my all-time favourite book of hers has to be Sun Horse, Moon Horse, set in the Bronze Age and centring around the creation of the famous White Horse of Uffington in Oxfordshire – the graceful enigmatic figure, etched into the hillside, is still one of my favourite places to visit. In Sutcliff’s interpretation, the horse is created by Lubrin Dhu, third son of the chieftain of the Iceni, who ultimately sacrifices his own life for the freedom of his people. It’s definitely a book that leaves a lasting impression and one I still think of when I visit the white horse.

Chosen by Charlotte Hodgman, BBC History Revealed editor


Asterix (1959–present) by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Asterix

Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) and Alea iacta est (The die has been cast) – believed to have been said by Julius Caesar – were familiar expressions when I was at primary school. I remember reading Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield – from the French comic book series about Gaulish warriors, who have adventures and fight the Roman Republic during the era of aforementioned Roman emperor – and plunging further into this complex and entertaining world.

I emerged with an appetite for more Asterix books, and also for more Roman stories. The ancient world was fun, and along the way I became knowledgeable about the organisation of the Roman army and the multiple peoples of the Roman empire.

Years later, re-reading some of the books, I discovered another dimension to the series that I hadn’t fully appreciated as a child: word play, puns and satire, which often extends beyond words to the art. I remember a stunning version of Pieter Bruegel’s 1567 painting ‘The Peasant Wedding’ in Asterix in Belgium.

Some of the humour and stereotypes make me cringe today, but Asterix will always have a place in my heart.

Chosen by Susanne Frank, BBC History Magazine group art editor 

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Historical children’s books you recommend

We asked…

You replied…

I loved the Ladybird books on English monarchs – though I’m not sure the history was always sound… | @Tostig1066

Horrible Histories. If Terry Deary had illustrated the Irish curriculum’s texts on tenant farming in the 19th century, I probably wouldn’t have dropped the subject out of sheer boredom. @GrahamVincent91

Everything by Rosemary Sutcliff: the Arthurian legends; The Eagle of the Ninth series. She was prolific and wrote wonderful historical novels. @TessaArlen

Where do I start! Anne Frank’s Diary, Last Train from Kummersdorf, The Night Watch, Goodnight Mr Tom! |@emily_llou

At the local library I discovered a book about medieval Britain. It showed people emptying buckets into the street from windows and aspects of the Black Death. The carts piled up with corpses! Calligraphy! I loved it. @Carolin35224088

1066 and All That made history funny and appealing. It fired up a lifelong interest in myriad historical figures. | @locshar

Rosemary Sutcliff, Robert Westall, anything with Robin Hood in it, and of course the Ladybird Adventures from History series by the one and only L du Garde Peach! @Seb_Falk

Although they contain a few historical inaccuracies, the Asterix books made me curious about the Roman empire. @Ipeetea

Roald Dahl’s autobiographies Boy and Going Solo stuck with me for a long time, although I’m sure I’d view them differently if I were to read them now. | @_rebeccaandrew

My Friend Walter by Michael Morpurgo. I insisted on a visit to the Tower soon after, and have loved it ever since. My own children are now fans of it too! |@LadyWifeMe

What was your favourite history book as a child? Tweet us @historyextra