Seven historical fiction books to transport you back to the past, chosen by Emma Carroll

Published on: 21 September 2021

Emma Carroll's newest book, The Week At World's End, is set in England during the 1960s, when the Cuban Missile Crisis shook the world. Here, Emma shares some of her favourite books which whisk their readers away into history...

Author Emma Carroll and the cover of her novel, The Week At World's End

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner

This was one of those stories that convinced me to write historical fiction for children. It’s a brilliant, pacy adventure set in 1640s London, about a girl ( the titular Coriander) whose life is turned upside down when her mother dies and her father remarries. There’s plenty of lavish period detail, magic, high drama and wonderfully named characters such as Maud Leggs and Arise Fell.

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Nightfall in New York by Katherine Woodfine

I’m a huge fan of Katherine’s stories, and this, the finale of her second series featuring Sophie and Lil, is stunning. When one of their dearest friends is threatened by a secret organisation, the team set off for New York on a mission to save him- and the fate of humanity while they’re at it. The descriptions of New York and Coney Island are particularly evocative. The story is set in 1912, when potentially world-changing developments were being made in travel, women’s rights, and, with a nod to the near future, weapons of mass destruction.

The Fire Eaters by David Almond

The cover of The Fire-Eaters by David AlmondThe Fire-Eaters by David Almond

Hard though it is to pick a favourite David Almond book, The Fire Eaters is probably mine. I read it after writing the first draft of The Week At World’s End, as its set in the same period, focusing on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Almond’s story is told through the eyes of Bobby, a boy worried about school, his dad, his friendships, and the threat of nuclear war. Life takes an unexpected turn when he meets a mysterious fire eater. This is such a beautiful, heart-warming tale. I’d go as far to say it’s one of my favourite children’s books of all time.

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How High The Moon by Karyn Parsons

A brilliant, tragic story told through the eyes of three friends who witness the terrible injustices of racist America during the 1940s. When a local boy is arrested for the murder of two white girls, Ella, Henry and Myrna find their lives are changed forever. This is a book about friendship, family and hoping for a better world, and was inspired by the true story of George Stinney, the youngest ever American to be executed, aged just 14. 

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We Played With Fire by Catherine Barter

The cover of We Played With Fire by Catherine BarterWe Played With Fire by Catherine Barter

This is a fictionalised account of the famous Fox sisters, who performed seances to audiences in America in the nineteenth century. Much has been written about their ‘fakery’ but this story presents them as young girls, troubled by life and coerced into making money by their family. It’s brilliantly written- poetic, haunting, disturbing- and allows you to imagine the vastness and newness of America at that time. I read it with great admiration and more than a little envy: it’s a book I’d love to have written.

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Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay

When I finished reading Bone Talk the first time, I had to read again straight away in case I’d missed something- yes, it’s that brilliant. The book was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Carnegie Medal and for very good reason. It’s a funny, exciting, reflective story about friendship and how we deal with personal and cultural change. Set in the Philippines in 1899, our narrator is Samkad, a boy living in a small mountain village, who is desperate to grow up and become a warrior. His best friend, a girl called Luki, wants the same thing, but tradition dictates only boys can be fighters. Samkad is a wonderful main character- flawed and, at times, hilarious. There’s also a terrific dog.

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The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay

The cover of The Swallows' Flight by Hilary McKayThe Swallows' Flight by Hilary McKay

One of the best books I’ve read this year, this is the companion story to the incredible The Skylarks’ War, which won the Costa Prize in 2018. Set in World War Two, we meet some of the children from the previous book- now adults- as well as a fabulous cast of new characters. The action switches from England to Berlin, where two young Germans Erik and Hans are reluctantly drawn into fighting a war they don’t really believe in. There’s so much to love in this book- every page is a joy. What I enjoyed most was how the children see things the adults entirely miss. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming, peace-striving story.

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Topics: Historical, Features

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