7 historical books that transport us to the past, chosen by Hilary McKay
Published on: 30 June 2021
A good historical fiction book can make you feel like you're travelling through time. The Swallows' Flight author Hilary McKay shares seven of her favourite children's books set in the past.
Author Hilary McKay and the cover of The Swallows' Flight
For me, the best historical fiction comes pretty close to time travel. So often, lost in the pages of wonderful books, I’ve heard wind in the rigging of a sailing ship, or the rattle of a chariot wheel. Sometimes the creak of ice, others, a whisper of silk.
It was hard to choose, but here are a few of the many books that have transported me.
Secrets of a Sun King by Emma Carroll
The adventure begins in 1920s London. Tutankhamun’s tomb has just been opened. WW1 is over, although the echoes are everywhere. And 12 year old Lil has found a package on a doorstep.
It’s a story of friendships, both new and 3000 years old, and of a quest that leads from London to the sun dazzling, secret-shadowed Valley of the Kings. Emma Carroll’s conjuring of ancient Egypt is particularly great. You can smell the baking bread. You can feel the gathering storm. You can, in Arthur Ransome style detail, learn how to embalm your friend. It’s a glorious book.
Illustration: from the cover of Secrets of a Sun King by Emma Carroll
Race to the Frozen North by Catherine Johnson
Books about Polar exploration have always fascinated me. This one is the account of Matthew Henson, who for 20 years travelled the arctic icecap, built cabins and sledges, navigated and studied, made friends with the Inuits and learned their language, and on his final expedition, in 1909, became the first American to reach the North Pole.
Because he was black, it was years before his achievements were acknowledged. Race to the Frozen North, told in wonderful accessible detail for young readers, is long overdue.
Gatty’s Tale by Kevin Crossley-Holland
This is Medieval history, a pilgrimage across Europe to Jerusalem with Gatty, the 15 year old heroine and her travelling companions. Kevin Crossley-Holland told me once that he was a little bit in love with Gatty, and so am I. To get the absolute best from this superlative book you will need to first read the Arthurian trilogy that begins with The Seeing Stone. This is no hardship, because it is sublime.
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr
This WW2 story of evacuees and Welsh valley communities has an immediate feel of familiarity. The characterisation is so warm, the setting so real, it could be Philippa Pearce, or Nina Bawden, but instead it’s Lesley Parr and a brand new instant classic.
Illustration: from the cover of Viper's Daughter by Michelle Paver
Viper’s Daughter by Michelle Paver
Deep history here, back 6000 years to the Stone Age and the series that began with Wolf Brother. Viper’s Daughter is the story of Torak, Renn and Wolf and their quest to the end of the world. It is all told in such exquisite detail that I think Michelle really has managed time travel and just whizzes forward to the 21st century to publish her books.
There are maps too. What more could you ask?
The House of Serendipity by Lucy Ivison
I put this in because it’s fun. A 1920s fairy tale, Cinderella with a lot of luck and a touch of Nancy Mitford. Lots of very well cut frocks, excellent sandwiches, and cheerfulness.
The cover of Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah
Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah
It’s 1958 when Leon, aged 10, leaves the sunshine and fruit trees and humming birds of Jamaica for a new life in England. ‘Lions always roar,’ his Grandma tells him, but it’s hard to roar when no one’s listening. This is an unflinchingly honest story of hard work and hard times. It’s a vital story too; everyone should read it because it has a message for us all: ‘History starts now. It starts with me and you.’
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