Ten terrific historical novels

Published on: 04 September 2023

Author and school librarian Judith Eagle picks some historical fiction, old and new, that will enthral readers aged 8 and upwards.

I have always loved reading historical fiction. As a child I leapt enthusiastically from period to period – learning about displacement in Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit; the last days of Imperial Russia in Mara Kaye’s Masha books, and imagining what life would’ve been like as a Suffragette in Geraldine Symons’ Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges. History was one of my favourite subjects at school, but it was historical fiction that brought those history lessons to life. These thrilling stories added flesh to the bones, catapulting me back in time so that I could see, hear and smell the past.  

I still read a lot of historical fiction, and I like writing it too. History is a treasure trove for the writer, full of amazing all-true stories and ideas.

Some of my favourites are:

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia

New York, 1968. Sisters Vonetta, Fern and Delphine are on their way to Oakland, California to spend the summer with their estranged mother Cecile. But Cecile doesn’t seem that happy to see them. She’s more interested in writing her poetry, and the girls are packed off to a Black Panther run summer camp. The girls’ grandmother has drummed it into them to be good, be compliant, not stand out, but suddenly the girls are plunged into a more questioning world. A funny, wonderful, thought-provoking book about respect, revolution and family.

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

I love all of Eva Ibbotson’s books, and this is one of my favourites. Set in Vienna in 1908, Annika works as a maid for three professors. She can bake and ice a three-tiered cake; polish a parquet floor until it gleams; and bring a roast to the table. But she can also dream. And what she dreams for most of all, is to be rescued by the mother who abandoned her – in a church, on a hillside – when she was a tiny baby. Be careful what you wish for, Annika! A gripping tale full of secrets, lies and terrible danger.

Smith by Leon Garfield

There are echoes of Oliver Twist in this story about Smith, a ragamuffin pickpocket, who, when he steals a mysterious ‘dockiment’ from an elderly gentleman, gets caught up in a murderous plot that puts both his and his sisters’ lives in terrible danger. If only Smith could read, he might be able to work out why the document is so important. Mysterious men in brown, the threat of Newgate Gaol and the descriptions of eighteenth-century London make this an exciting, vivid read.

The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay

Set before and during the First World War, this is my favourite kind of book – a family saga for all ages that reminded me of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles and Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings. McKay is a wonderful writer, especially about family, and here she is brilliant at zooming out so you can see the wider world, and then right back in, shining a light on individual lives. I loved all the characters in this book, but especially Clarry, who is kind and clever, but has to fight to be seen, to be heard, and to learn – in what was very much a man’s world.

Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfeild

When Margaret Thursday was a tiny baby, she was left in a basket, on the steps of the vicarage, with ‘three of everything and all of the very best quality’. Every year, money arrives to pay for Margaret’s keep. But on her eleventh birthday there is only a note saying ‘no more money for Margaret’. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, this is just the start of Margaret’s adventures, which includes a stint at a terribly cruel orphanage, an escape via a canal, and a starring role with a travelling theatre company. A joy to read – I defy anyone not to fall in love with proud, brave, wonderful Margaret whose spirit will never, ever be crushed.

We are Wolves by Katrina Nannestad

Set in East Prussia, Liesl, Otto and Mia Wolf become separated from their family when fleeing the invading Russian army at the end of the Second World War. Based on real-life accounts of the ‘Wolfskinder’ or ‘wolf children’ (German orphans living homeless in the forests of East Prussia), this is a tale of hardship and survival. The Wolf siblings are determined to stay together. Both heart-warming and heart-rending, Nannestad brings to life one of the many untold stories taking place at a chaotic time in history.

Friends and Traitors by Helen Peters

I really enjoy boarding school tales and ‘upstairs, downstairs’ type stories and this book contains both! Set in the Second World War, Sidney’s posh school is evacuated to a stately home, where Nancy works as a servant. But all is not as it seems. The Earl is hiding something in the stables; the walls conceal secret passages; and there are covert meetings in the middle of the night. Can Nancy and Sidney combine their wits to thwart a Nazi plot to take over the British Government? This is a thrilling read packed with secrets, sabotage and some brilliant sleuthing.

The Fire Cats of London by Anna Fargher

When wildcats Asta and Ash are captured and taken to a mysterious apothecary in London, they are locked in cages by a sinister man called Rathder who plans to harvest their blood and whiskers to use as ingredients for his medicines. While Ash falls under the spell of Rathder’s cat Beauty, Asta is determined to escape. But it is 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging. An evocative, exciting tale that plunges the reader into the hurly burly of seventeenth-century London.

Mysteries at Sea: Peril on the Atlantic by AM Howell

Setting sail for New York in 1936 on the glamorous Queen Mary, Alice is bitterly disappointed when her Staff Captain father forbids her from exploring the rest of the ship. But when she witnesses a crime, how can she be expected to stay in her room? Especially when she has made two friends, Miriam and Sonny, who are just as determined as she is to crack the plot. A page-turning read full of twists and turns, the mysteries keep coming in this expertly plotted book.

Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll

It’s 1946 and Rosa, a child of the kindertransport, longs to be reunited with her family. But although the war in Europe is over, danger has a long reach, stretching deep into the heart of the Amazon rainforest where Rosa has embarked on an expedition with the young scientist Dr Yara Fielding. Inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s classic novel Journey to the River Sea, Emma Carroll has taken the spirit of the original and sprinkled it with her own unique magic. I really love prequels, sequels and companion novels, and this did not disappoint!

The Stolen Songbird by Judith Eagle is out now.

Topics: Historical, Features

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