Favourite fiction about British History

Published on: 08 May 2024

At BookTrust, we know how vital it is for children to see themselves and their family and friends in stories. We asked author Jasbinder Bilan to recommend some novels that focus on diverse parts of British history, so that today's readers can see their families' histories on the page.

One of the incredible things about reading fiction is its ability to transport the reader into a completely new world and see things from a different point of view. When you add history into this mix, stories have the power to bring it to life in vivid technicolour.  

Brave historical fiction has always given the reader the opportunity to uncover a thrilling adventure as well as learning about important periods in history. I’m thinking of books such as Diver’s Daughter by Patrice Lawrence, and Journey to Jo’berg by Beverley Naidoo, which expose the legacy of unjust systems such as slavery and apartheid. 

If children are to make sense of the past, it’s hugely important to tackle it and to have a wide selection of stories to help them. We need to acknowledge that Britain has always been a place of diversity and we desperately need more historical fiction which reflects that fact.  

The role of the British Empire is something which has been swept under the carpet for a long time. But now schools are taking steps to address this, and there are some wonderful inclusive books to fire the imagination.   

Here is a small selection of my favourite historical books with British history at their core. What they all do is to correct the landscape by painting in unseen characters and their stories. Books like these complete the picture so readers get to adventure with all the people from the past. 

First is the touching Windrush Child by the national treasure Benjamin Zephaniah. Told from the point of view of Leonard, who came to Britain as part of the Windrush generation, it is a vivid re-telling of his life in Jamaica before he emigrated as well as what happens when he arrives. The story faces uncomfortable truths about racism, as well as the 2018 scandal when Leonard, having lived in the UK since after the Second World War, is denied citizenship  

Meanwhile Back on Earth by Oliver Jeffers takes a look at conflict from a very child-friendly perspective. Growing up in Belfast during the troubles of Northern Ireland inspired Jeffers to writethis book. It is a great way to begin uncovering key moments in history and open the conversation with children from a young age. 

In his book Cane WarriorsAlex Wheatle takes us back to Tacky’s War, a real episode from 1790s Jamaica. It’s an empowering story of the human spirit, heroism and the brutality of the slave trade. 

Although not a work of fiction,Sathnam Sanghera’s Stolen History is a superb handbook to navigate the facts of Britain’s colonial past. It’s jam-packed with information and neatly explains the long connections between India and Britain. What I particularly like about it is its nuanced approach to this complex history. 

Sita Brahmachari is one of our best storytellers. In When Secrets Set Sail she uncovers the heart-breaking story of the ayahs who worked as nannies for British families in India but were abandoned in Britain during the 1800s.The story skilfully moves between the past and the present, with plenty of opportunity for readers to follow up with their own research. 

My final choice is Sarah Crossan’s stunning Where the Heart Should Be. It’s a story in verse about love and about people being torn apart during the Great Hunger of Ireland and is set in 1846. The fact that at that time Ireland was ruled from Westminster will perhaps surprise young readers. It shows us that Britain’s colonial past includes places near and far. 

Nush and the Stolen Emerald by Jasbinder Bilan is out now. 

Topics: Features


Bookbuzz is a reading programme from BookTrust that aims to help schools inspire a love of reading in 11 to 13-year-olds. Participating schools give their students the opportunity to choose their own book to take home and keep from a list of 16 titles.

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