Wednesday 6 March 2013

From Anne Frank to War Horse: children's historical books sell! - Katherine Roberts

I’ve reached that stage between projects when I don’t quite know what I’ll publish next. I’ve got several files of half-worked ideas, including two novels not yet contracted, mostly historical fantasy for younger readers since that’s where my passion lies. But what of the editor who told me bluntly a few years ago that “historical fiction for children does not sell”? I have ambitions the same as the next author, and certainly don't want to waste everyone's time, including my own, writing something that has no hope of selling because of its subject matter.

So here's the million-dollar question: is it possible to write historical fiction for younger readers that hits the Top 100? (Which I assume is what the editor really meant by "sell".)

In the interests of research, let's analyse the best-seller lists. I began with the Kindle best-sellers, since I can do that lying in bed with no danger of heavy-historical-tome-reader’s-RSI.

Sadly, there 's only one historical novel on the list when I look*, in at number 20: Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. It’s not a children’s book, at least I don't think so. Even more sadly, it’s one of those 20p-is-that-all-our-work-is-worth? promotional efforts on behalf of its publisher. In fact, looking at the Kindle bestsellers, I decide this list is flawed because it’s clearly driven by price and not much else, with only two of the ebooks in the Top 20 costing more than £1. Besides, apparently only about 20% of readers – and even fewer younger readers – actually own a Kindle at present, so there obviously isn’t much point me looking there for inspiration... at least not for another few years.

All right, let’s take a peek at best-sellers in (adult) historical fiction.

Wolf Hall & Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
Dominion by CJ Sansom (interestingly, not Winter in Madrid…)
Pillars of the Earth & World Without End by Ken Follett
HhHH by Laurent Binet and Sam Taylor
The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVee
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Some of  the above would interest me an adult reader, but none really count as children’s books, even though I can imagine teenagers and young adults enjoying them for the adventure. In fact you have to scroll down to number 143 on the historical list to find The Once and Future King by TH White, which also happens to be one of my all-time favourites from when I was a teenager.

one of my favourite books as a teenager

This is quite encouraging, since my Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur’s daughter is a similar legend-based fantasy for children set in an Arthurian world - and I'm happy to report that the third book in my series Crown of Dreams overtook "The Once and Future King" on amazon last month, so the Arthurian legend still looks promising if you're considering it. But since authors start work on a book a couple of years ahead of publication, I need to get started on a new project even while my publishers are busy bringing out my last one (this is the reason authors sometimes forget the plots of their own books when they are on publicity tours... their head is already starting to spin with the next idea!)

So let’s get a bit more specific and find out what does sell to a younger readership.The current best-selling children’s books in fiction come up as:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (series) by Jeff Kinney
Beautiful Creatures series (film tie-in) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl)
The Hunger Games (trilogy) by Suzanne Collins
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom (picture books) by Julia Donaldson
Harry Potter (series) by JK Rowling
Holes by Louis Sachar
Wonder by R J Palacio

A mixed bag here, covering all ages from picture books to YA. I loved Holes (if you haven’t read this yet, it’s one of those wonderful crossover titles that appeal to a wide readership). And I was blown away in a slightly envious "damn, why didn't I write that?" way by The Hunger Games - what self-respecting SF/F/H fan wouldn’t be? But only two on this list can really be counted as historical, and I suspect both of those are on a curriculum somewhere as required reading, since neither seem to me the sort of book a child would seek out for fun - and Diary of A Young Girl of course isn't  fiction. Although diaries do seem to have an edge, so maybe I'm wrong? Does the diary format make historical subjects more appealing to a child reader?

Ah ha, perhaps the problem for younger readers lies with the actual reading, not the subject matter. So how about the most popular movies of last year?

8th most popular movie of 2012

The top 10 movies of 2012 (according to box office takings) were:

1. The Avengers
2. The Dark Knight Rises
3. The Hunger Games
4. Skyfall (James Bond)
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
6. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn
7. The Amazing Spider Man
8. Brave
9. Ted
10. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

This is encouraging. Science fiction and fantasy settings dominate, as do films aimed at younger audiences, with "Brave" keeping up the historical side by winning Best Animated Film at the recent Oscars. I noted in a previous post on this blog how these three genres have a lot in common, and Brave's heroine is very similar in character to my heroine Rhianna Pendragon, so I'm on target there. But WAIT - this is last year’s movie list, and I was just reading on a famous literary agent’s blog how “dystopia” is now a rude word in publishing circles, when not that long ago it appeared to be all publishers were looking for following the success of the Hunger Games. So this list might work for books already written, but is pretty pointless for the one I haven't started yet.

Right then, let's get to the nitty-gritty and look at the top 10 in children’s historical fiction. Rather tellingly (and surprisingly, because I'd rather assumed it would be there), amazon doesn’t list “historical” in its subcategories under children’s fiction. The closest is “myth/legends”, which is heavily skewed towards fantasy titles such as my Pendragon books, followed by "westerns", which includes fellow History Girl Caroline Lawrence's Western Mysteries in the top 100.

I'd love to have done this list a few years ago, when historical fantasy such as Susan Price's fabulous tale of the border reivers The Sterkarm Handshake won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award, and Celia Rees' Witch Child wowed the world. But these classic titles seem to have slipped out of the lists in favour of Michael Morpurgo's backlist currently riding high on the success of War Horse. Failing to pull up anything sensible by typing "children's historical fiction" into amazon's search box, I call up the list of bestsellers in children's books (general), and work through it by hand looking for historical themes. Given that I'm not a computer algorithm, this is what I came up with:

No. 1 bestselling children's historical title

Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Time Riders by Alex Scarrow
Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Heroes by Robert Cormier
Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan
War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
Gladiator: Son of Spartacus by Simon Scarrow

The top-selling title on this list comes in at number 313 in the total books chart, and the final one at number 1,850. Not at all bad, when you consider how many books are listed on amazon's site. And the subcategory 'children's historical fiction' might not (yet) be there for readers, but it is for publishers when you list a book in the Kindle store. My backlist historical novel "I am the Great Horse" (reissued as an ebook last month) made it into the top 100 of the children’s historical fiction subcategory in the US in its first week... and no, it wasn't 20p at the time!

Climb on my back, if you dare...

From which I can only conclude that the editor was wrong when she told me that children don't read historical books, because the ones listed above obviously do sell, and I'd guess from looking at their rankings that they are not only selling, but selling enough copies to make their publishers a profit... although from the current children's historical list above, I suspect it helps if you are (a) male and/or (b) writing about a World War.

For a bit of fun, I'll leave you with some History Girl strategies to consider if you write historical fiction for young readers but the big sales are not happening for you yet:

1. Have a sex change (bit drastic maybe).
2. Use a male pseudonym - or better still, initials to keep everyone guessing.
3. Write about a horse (already done that!) in one of the World Wars (ah...)
4. Get on the adult Top 10 historical list first and then write a children's book (talk about making life difficult for yourself.)
5. Forget all of the above, and just write a damn good story!

*Top 10 book and Kindle lists courtesy of, correct as of 24th February 2013

I’m away at the moment on tour for my publisher Templar (I do still remember the plots of my Pendragon books, I do, I do...) So if you have any thoughts on the above, please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you at the weekend when I return.

Meanwhile, happy historical bestseller browsing!

Katherine Roberts is an award-winning children's author.

Her Pendragon Legacy series about King Arthur's daughter is published by Templar:
Book 4 GRAIL OF STARS  (coming October 2013) 

More about her books at
Her unicorn muse blogs at
Twitter: @AuthorKatherine and @PendragonGirl


Unknown said...

Can I be slightly crabbit? I disagree strongly with the choice to refer to Anne Frank's Diary as 'historical fiction' in the title of the post.

I realise, as will anyone who reads the post, that this is in response to what Amazon's search algorithm supplies for 'children's historical fiction', but to include Anne Frank on the edited list presented on the blog (and in the title) seems a bit careless.

adele said...

The reasons why books do well are shrouded in mystery and we who seek to unravel that are on a hiding to nothing. I reckon Kath has got it right with Number 5! Write a damn good story. That is a start but no guarantee whatsoever. Have a good time on your tour, Kath and I hope the Pendragon series ends up selling loads.

And I have to say, I agree about the 'Anne Frank' and fiction thing..Amazon's bad, I reckon.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Thanks for a most interesting blog, Katherine. All I can say is that I'm delighted to be a writer of historical fiction and pleased to say that Run Rabbit Run (WW2/pubished 2011) has won several awards when in competition with other genres of fiction. More importantly the awards were given as a results of children's votes. Though Michael Morpurgo may be riding high, I did manage to beat him to the winning post for the Young Quills Award given by the Historical Association. Road to London (Tudors, published 2012)is also coming along in the nomination stakes in spite of competition from fantasy,dystopia etc.
All this puffing out of chest is just to say that writing historical fiction most certainly has appeal to children, bringing history alive and hopefully sowing the seeds for a life-long love of the subject.
I believe children's historical fiction will be the next big thing. Fingers crossed!

Katherine Langrish said...

Dear Ashley,
As Katherine Roberts is away, I'm responding in her absence as a History Girls' admin: the suggestion that Anne Frank's Diary might be 'fiction' was an unfortunate and unintentional error, and it's now been corrected. Thankyou very much for pointing it out! What a good think we have sharp-eyed readers...

Katherine Langrish said...

'thing' - not 'think' - dang it.

Katherine Langrish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stroppy Author said...

Another Amazon bad - Of Mice and Men is not really historical fiction either. It was pubilshed in 1937 and is about the author's experiences inthe 1920s, so no more historical than if I published a book now that was set in 2002.

Unfortunately, looking at historical bestseller lists tells you nothing anyway as it doesn't show how many books are sold and there will always be bestsellers in a category, even if that category does really badly. If War Horse sold two copies, but everything else sold only one, it would still be the bestseller in the category.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the analysis should also consider who buys children and YA books. I suspect many purchases are made by the adults in their lives - which could skew the results. Just a thought.

Unknown said...

I'd like to thank you for responding quickly to my quibble with the title and text- I see that it has been altered accordingly.

Sue Bursztynski said...

My day job is as a teacher librarian. I find that historical FANTASY works, but historical fiction depends on the cover. For example, a few years ago, there was a sudden interest in Rosemary Sutcliff, based on the snazzy new cover of Mark Of The Horse Lord. I had only some old, battered(hence loved at one time) copies of her other books, but had to go hunting for the Eagle series, which had, I suspect, only been reprinted because of the movie. But the kids at my school do go for Holocaust era fiction, such as Morris Gleitzman's wonderful series. Not sure why, in particular, as none of them has ever met anyone Jewish except me. But that's what they ask for, bless them. I think it's right to say adults do the buying, but in a library it's up to the kids. They do enjoy true history, if it's quirky.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Great piece, Katherine! And thanks for mentioning my Western Mysteries, now re-branded the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries!

Sue, I agree with you: the cover is so important. One fab historical fiction YA book is Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter. It has a superb cover of which I am very jealous! :-)

Anonymous said...

A few thoughts based on my experience as a primary school librarian:

I find the My Story series by Scholastic is very popular. These are technically fiction but almost always filed as NF since they are marketed to support the curriculum - they are, however, well written and an excellent bridge into what you might term "pure" historical fiction. The ones with a military background are particularly useful for introducing boys to what is often perceived as a very feminine genre.

Caroline Lawrence et al are introducing the form of the crime series to historical fiction - I find that the Lady Grace Cavendish series based in the Elizabethan Court has a very enthusiastic following.

Like anything in the children's fiction market these days, a direct link to the curriculum provides lift, this being particularly true of Tudor books. The Victorians are also rising in popularity - I was surprised to find many children asking for Bernie Doherty's "Street Child".

I make a point of including fiction in the topic collections I make up for classes, and as a result I have a hardcore group of Y5/6 children who almost snatch new historical titles out of my hands when they appear.

Incidentally, has anyone noticed Jacqueline Wilson's increasing tendency towards historical fiction (though I bet it isn't labelled as such). As well as the Hetty Feather trilogy, her latest "Queenie" is set in 1953.

Annis said...

There's quite a bit of evidence emerging which iindicates that there's a sizeable market for young adult books among middle-aged women :) Responding to this trend is a rise in books categorised "new adult" (godawful twee label imo and used in the past for authors like Stephanie Plowman). The aim is to attract older teenage readers through to just plain older readers - what we've always though of as cross-over fiction.

One point worth considering is that while girls will happily read books with either a male or female protagonist, boys generally relate much better to stories with a male hero. May not suit current gender ideology, but that's just the way it is. Vive la différence and all that...

Katherine Roberts said...

What a lot of interesting comments to find on my return! Thank you everyone for contributing to the discussion, and thanks also to Katherine Langrish for using her admin powers to change the "fiction" part of my post title... although now I'm back from my tour, I am tempted to defend my choice of the word.

I think there is a blurred line between fiction and fact in historical books, and that any attempt to dramatise history brings it under the fiction umbrella, even if only under the edge of it. For example, pretty much anything religious falls into this blurred area - I wonder how many people would count the Bible as pure fact these days? Yet calling the Bible fiction would certainly provoke attack from some quarters.

Ashley's comment made me think, though. With such blurred boundaries between fiction and fact, I wonder how many of the children who read Anne Frank are aware of the difference between that one and the purely fictional diaries out there, such as the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (that one counts as fiction, presumably?!) In a similar vein, I've just been talking about the Arthurian legends in schools, and most of the children at that age (Years 6 and 7) seem to think that the well-known tales of King Arthur are real history, rather than stories based loosely on history.

This is obviously where a good school librarian or children's bookseller triumphs over amazon's algorithms - and I'm really pleased to hear Years 5/6 are snatching historical fiction out of your hands, mefinx! Hmmm, I'd better get on with that new project...

Katherine Roberts said...

PS Yes, Anne R, I did think Mice and Men was stretching the historical slightly... but that's another interesting blurred line between historical and contemporary fiction. I know many people these days consider the 1970's (when I was growing up) to be history, so if I set a book in my childhood it would presumably count as historical fiction to them? That does make me feel old!

Unknown said...
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