Imogen Russell Williams wrote last year that “for me the nonpareil of children’s historical fiction remains Rosemary Sutcliff”:
Historical fiction for adults ranges in stature from the Booker-winning to the bodice-ripping – scholarly rambles or gleeful romps through a past animated, elucidated, or (at worst) knocked together into an unconvincing stage set by the writer’s imagination. The label carries its own baggage, however; like “crime”, or “fantasy”, sticking “historical” before “fiction” might, for some snobbish and deluded readers, require an “only” to complete the description.
It’s my feeling that historical fiction for children suffers less from the snootiness sometimes attracted by grown-up writing in the genre, perhaps because the educational cachet outweighs the sense that a “made-up” book is less worthwhile than a collection of primary sources. Certainly the best historical fiction of my childhood has remained with me, frequently prompting me to investigate further, because of a beguiling combination of meticulously-researched period detail – good for trivia freaks! – and red-blooded characterisation. Also, there’s likely to be death, danger and grime under the nails in good kids’ historical fiction; and unusually, it appeals across the board to both girls and boys.
For me, the nonpareil of children’s historical fiction remains Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books about Bronze Age Britain (Warrior Scarlet, Sun Horse, Moon Horse) and Roman Britain, particularly The Eagle of the Ninth and The Lantern Bearers, were intensely memorable to me as a child and part of the reason I eventually chose to study classics at university. Recently, rereading Warrior Scarlet, I was amazed all over again by the restrained poetry of Sutcliff‘s intensely evocative writing – the story of Drem, a one-armed boy determined to win the right to wear scarlet as a warrior of his tribe, is infused with a breath of woodsmoke and animal blood that drifts subtly but irresistibly from the page. I hadn’t known, as a young reader, that Sutcliff was herself disabled – rereading the book in the light of that knowledge, it’s less surprising to me that she was able to create so vivid a sense of Drem’s frustration at the arm which “trails like a bird’s broken wing” as he darts through the forest with his throw-spear.