Best Books for Kids » Ages 9-12

The Best Historical Fiction for 8-12 Year Olds

recommended by Catherine Johnson

Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story by Catherine Johnson

Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story
by Catherine Johnson


There is some fabulous historical fiction out there for 8-12 year olds, some of it old, some of it new. British novelist Catherine Johnson, author of a number of historical novels for kids and young adults, recommends some of the best—from short stories to epics and from straight historical novels to those with a strong dose of fantasy and magic.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story by Catherine Johnson

Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story
by Catherine Johnson

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Why should 8-12 year olds read historical fiction? What is the appeal?

I don’t think it’s a should: people should read what they enjoy. It would be nice if children read all sorts of things, and if they are prodigious readers they probably do. The most important thing and what all fiction does—whether it’s for adults or children—is it’s telling the truth with lies. Even when it’s fantasy there are truths in there.

I write historical fiction because I am interested in people, in the extremes. It’s akin to science fiction. The stakes are so high, it’s life or death.

A big part of my becoming interested in books was television. I liked the dressing up. When I was young, we would play what we’d seen on the telly. We would play Doctor Who, we would play the Leon Garfield adaptation. Both Leon Garfield and Nina Bawden I first encountered through television.

On that note, let’s turn to the first historical novel for 8-12 year olds you’ve picked, Leon Garfield’s The Apprentices.

I love this book. I also love Smith by Leon Garfield. I can remember, when I was in primary school, a teacher saying, ‘You’d like these.’ I didn’t read them because I didn’t like the covers of those editions, but I read them later.

The Apprentices is all linked short stories. There’s a story in it called “The Lamplighter’s Funeral,” which is so evocative. But the one that really I love is called “The Valentine.” It’s the equivalent of a girl being in love with a boy band: the unattainable romance. She’s in love with a corpse. He’s a very good-looking corpse, and her father is the undertaker.

Garfield does 18th century. Not many writers do this period. I read a lot of nonfiction but I think fiction is a really good way of seeing the time, so I found his stories really useful. His language is so good. His storytelling is so good.

What age of reader would you say it is for?

When I was a child it was definitely being read in primary schools, but it was written in the 1960s so whether it would be for the same age of readership now I do not know.

When I first came across it, I was reading The Moomins, and Gemma by Noel Streatfeild. I remember buying Gemma because the 1972 edition had a cover with a girl who had a miniskirt and white boots and the lettering was 1970s curly.

For a similar age of readers, there were also Rosemary Sutcliff with more scholarly books, Penelope Lively, and Nina Bawden, who we will get to in a minute. If you’re used to modern storytelling, Leon Garfield is old-fashioned but I think his books are fantastic.

You mentioned that not many authors write about the 18th century, but three of your book picks are set then, and several of them take place in London. Are that time and place close to your heart?

I love it. I love the language, I love the clothes. It’s a very fertile space for me. Also, London has always been a world city. There have been German parts, there have been Italian parts, French parts… In the 18th century, there was a massive Black population, because of how the Empire worked and because of how industrial slavery worked. There was a Black population all over the country, if you look at paintings in the big houses. That slowed down at the beginning of the 19th century, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished.

I grew up in London, and London of 60 years ago was very different. You didn’t expect to see people like me in historical dramas. When I read nonfiction books and found that, actually, there have been non-white people in the UK for 2,000 if not more years, I thought, ‘This is exciting, I can go and write the fiction that I would have liked to read’—books that have people like me in.

Let’s move on to your next pick of historical novels for 8-12 year olds, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden.

Nina Bawden is a classic 1970s British author. Carrie’s War was a bit of an exception for her, because it was a fictionalised version of her own experience of being evacuated from London in World War Two. I think she’s brilliant. Because of where she lived in London, she included a lot of stories with working-class kids in, set in Mile End or Islington. Islington is posh now, but in the 1970s it wasn’t. Her stories are very working class, even though she is a middle-class writer.

I identified with her London. It was shabby, there was poverty in a different way to now. Although my parents read, it was mostly newspapers. My mother’s first language was Welsh. They didn’t know about modern children’s books, so I got them from the library and television. I owe a lot of my storytelling tropes to television. Carrie’s War was on the telly, and it was set in Wales. It was seeing that kind of working-class Wales and chapel; we used to go to a Welsh chapel in London. I identified with the storytelling.

It’s a lovely book. It’s very moving. It’s been reprinted countless times, I think partly because it’s set in World War Two, and so many historical fiction books are published every year set in World War Two and World War One. Too many, perhaps, but I do love Carrie’s War. And I do love Goodnight Mister Tom, which is another war novel. Phil Earle does it very well, too.

Your third pick of historical novels for 8-12 year olds is Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin.

I picked this book because it’s so influential in historical children’s literature. It’s very good. It’s such a big book, and there are lots of kids who love a meaty book like that. Different books for different kids; some will like a little book of short stories like The Apprentices, whereas Coram Boy is an epic. It’s also set in the 18th century, and it’s important British history. There’s information about Thomas Coram and baby farming.

What children love, I think, is that righteous indignation. A lot of the best children’s books are powered by that, by the feeling that it’s not fair, because children are never in positions of power. They can feel like the world is against them because they are children. The thought that babies would be killed willy-nilly! Coram Boy does so many things really, really well. It’s a classic already.

“The thing about British history, especially in the 19th century, is that it was such a lot of the globe”

It was the first children’s book that I can think of for this age group with a protagonist of colour. For years, we hadn’t featured in children’s books, even when it was a subject that might have logically included different sorts of people.

All writers have a responsibility to tell a really involving, engaging story above all. Even if you’ve got an agenda, that’s not how you set out to write the book, you set out to write the book because you want people to think that this story is amazing. A lot of those books don’t get out there, whereas Coram Boy did.

I found this very evocative historical fiction, but it made me glad I wasn’t there in 18th century England. I would say that readers need quite a strong stomach for this book.

We tend to bowdlerise children’s fiction a lot. I wrote a book called Race to the Frozen North partly because I got into reading about Arctic exploration when I was a kid. And that was because my brother had a book with a picture of frostbite, which got me reading about Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic, where they all died and were frozen. Yes, children must be protected, but they do like a bit of ick.

More than ick factor, Coram Boy features human trafficking, infanticide and corruption. What age would you say it is for?

You’re not going to pick up that book unless you’re ready for it. It’s a big book. It’s probably for readers age 10 or 11 and up. Some kids will read anything. My youngest was reading Watership Down when she was five or six. I’d forgotten what was in it, and thought it was like The Animals of Farthing Wood. She liked it. What is for you will not pass you by.

Let’s talk about your next pick of historical novels for 8-12 year olds, The Elemental Detectives by Patrice Lawrence.

The Elemental Detectives came out last year. It’s a very good example of what’s happening now with books. It’s a very commercial adventure fantasy series, not a straight history. There is magic, and Patrice is happy to say that it’s sort of a riff on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series which is set now but has all this fantastical stuff of London’s past.

It’s a joy because even five years ago you would never have seen a book like this, which crosses historical and fantasy, with Black characters. She has planted her flag in the genre and said, ‘We’ve got historical fiction, now we can have myths. We can have legends of this place which we are a part of.’ It’s another step to belonging. You want to feel like you belong, which—still, these days—is a thing for kids who maybe look like they don’t belong. There’s an idea of Englishness. This book encompasses all these legends and myths about London, about England, and puts two Black kids in. I love that. What Patrice does by saying, ‘Here you go, you can be part of this, too; this is part of your heritage, our heritage’ is really important. Now we’ve got things like Fablehouse coming out with fantasy and magic. Previously, you would never have got publishers thinking they could sell it.

She’s an excellent writer. There’s a driving ‘Let’s solve the puzzle’ element to the mystery, which some kids will like. And there are the mythical monsters. I think you’ll get kids who maybe would not read historical fiction who might read this because it’s an adventure, and there are dragons.

I agree that it will have broad appeal to middle grade readers. Personally, I really enjoyed her Diver’s Daughter, which is more traditional historical fiction. With The Elemental Detectives, I like how it includes a character who is based on someone we know existed but we don’t know a lot about. Like Coram Boy, it is set in the 18th century, and features many of the same themes.

Yes, and you could imagine children reading this and then reading Coram Boy.

We have come to your final pick of historical novels for 8-12 year olds, City of Stolen Magic by Nazneen Ahmed Pathak, which was published very recently.

City of Stolen Magic is set in the middle of the 19th century. Magic exists but it’s not as whizz-bang as in The Elemental Detectives. The baddies are the East India Company. It’s anti-colonialism. The story starts off in India and comes to London. It’s a debut, she’s a new writer.

One of the lovely things when you read a book is when you’re there with a character from another background, who knows things that you don’t know but you can relate to. There’s a lot readers will get out of this. It’s another facet to British history. The thing about British history, especially in the 19th century, is that it was such a lot of the globe. A quarter? A third? To see it from different perspectives is very important for young people. Apart from being a good story, you’re getting a different view of something. It’s important that we’re aware how things got to be as they are today.

The story is set in both the city of Dacca and rural areas of Bengal, as well as Victorian London. Does it include any particular historical events, such as the 1857 uprising?

It’s about the East India Company which is suppressing magic, and there’s the righteous indignation that magic has been stifled. We’ve got a young protagonist, Chompa, who is taken to London to be used by the Company. But she is going to fight back. With her character Chompa, Nazneen shows that magic is for everybody, in a historical context.

Is there anything you want to add about the books, or about historical fiction for middle grade readers?

People read for so many reasons. What would it be like if…? How would I cope with great danger and risk? Would I be able to say loudly, ‘It’s not fair!’ and do something about it? That’s what a lot of the characters in all these books are doing, they are being indignant and finding things out and taking action, having agency.

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I think the best stories are really just about love. I don’t mean romantic love, I mean familial love, I mean interpersonal love about finding one’s place and belonging in the world, how we make friends. I think good fiction, whether it’s historical or not, shows us that and that’s what people want to know about.

There are other historical novels for this age group I would like to have chosen as well. The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner is set in the French Revolution. She writes phenomenal children’s books, phenomenal history. She is one of my all-time favourites. Elizabeth Laird is brilliant. She’s a beautiful writer and deserves to be read. And Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk is a brilliant historical novel. She has written a sequel for older readers, Wild Song, published this year.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

June 28, 2023

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Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson is an award-wining writer, including of historical fiction for children and young adults.

Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson

Catherine Johnson is an award-wining writer, including of historical fiction for children and young adults.