The best children’s books to bring history to life

The Books I Picked & Why

The King Must Die

By Mary Renault

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why this book?

I first read this when I was twelve, and it was a reading experience that has really stayed with me. I was totally drawn into the story of Theseus and the Bronze Age world  – I had read a lot of mythology but this was the first time that I had seen mythological characters come to life as real people. When I started writing about the Aegean Bronze Age myself, I realized what a huge debt I owed to Mary Renault for this mixing of archaeological evidence with ancient myths. In fact, for fear of being overly influenced, I was afraid to reread The King Must Die until after I’d finished writing my book, which in many ways was truly inspired by this work.

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The Eagle of the Ninth

By Rosemary Sutcliffe

Book cover of The Eagle of the Ninth

Why this book?

This was the book that made me want to write historical fiction. I cared so desperately about the characters that I wanted to be there with them, wishing I could do something to help; they are still very clear in my mind. We were living near the USAF Academy at the time, and I convinced my mother to drive me out to their library where I pored over and made copious notes on Roman military history so that I could write my own story about the missing Ninth Legion. (I still have the notes!) 

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On the Banks of Plum Creek

By Laura Ingalls Wilder, Garth Williams

Book cover of On the Banks of Plum Creek

Why this book?

I still smile when I think of all the Little House on the Prairie books, though this was my favorite. The dramas may be small, but they feel real, and the wealth of small, skillfully woven details brings the characters and their world to life so that we can still relate to them, no matter how different our present-day world may be. 

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Town Is by the Sea

By Joanne Schwartz, Sydney Smith

Book cover of Town Is by the Sea

Why this book?

This is a picture book, but not for very young children. The quiet, almost understated text and art add to the power of the story: a small boy’s experience of coal mining in Nova Scotia in the 1950s. (Though it wasn’t written till 2017). Reading it as an adult, and despite having lived in Nova Scotia as a teenager, I was completely rocked and almost disorientated as I began to grasp the reality of it. I’m not sure which aspect I found more disturbing – imagining the men in the long dark tunnels under the sea, or the boy’s complete acceptance that he would follow this way of life in his turn.  

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Pagan's Crusdade

By Catherine Jinks

Book cover of Pagan's Crusdade

Why this book?

I fell in love with the irrepressible Pagan as soon as I read this book. It’s difficult to imagine that life with the Knights Templar at the time of the Crusades was highly amusing – but despite the wealth of knowledge and detail that informs this book, it is wry and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Who wouldn’t love Pagan’s favorite curse: "Christ in a cream cheese sauce’?" 

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