Last weekend, I was in London, walking beside the Thames in the sunshine and enjoying – despite all the new buildings - the city’s enigmatic sense of the past. History exist as a half-concealed code in so many place names: London Bridge, The Clink, Potter’s Field, Southwark itself, all with their own myths and stories, and there as glimpses along the way: old stonework, an architectural flourish, a memorial, all reminding me that all the old maps of London lie beneath the modern sprawl.
London and the Thames are often there within my writing. especially within the work-in-progress that I’m picking up after a long break. It was the city of my childhood, of my early self’s wanderings, and won’t easily release its hold in my imagination. The weekend, for many reasons was inspiring, and I have come back ready to revisit my fictional London and those grey, ever-moving river tides.
However, for me, writing needs good sleep and good words, so I have begun on some comfort re-reading. Last night I finished Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. and this morning, in bed, I started Black Hearts in Battersea, the second adventure in her trilogy set in the fictitious reign of James III.
“On a fine warm evening in late summer, over a hundred years ago, a boy might have been seen leading a donkey across Southwark Bridge in the City of London . . . Halfway across the bridge, the boy paused, took and extra turn of the donkey’s halter round his wrist, and pulled out of his pouch a grubby and much handled letter. . . “
The letter, from his friend & artist Dr Gabriel Field, tells fifteen year-old Simon to come to Rose Alley, Southwark, where he has taken two rooms for them at the top floor of a house, which belongs to Mr and Mrs Twite and their brood:
“They are an unattractive family but I see little enough of them. Moreover, the windows command a handsome view of the river and St Paul’s. “
When Simon eventually discovers the house, there is nobody at home, other than:
“A shrewish looking little creature of perhaps eight or nine, with sharp eyes of a washed-out blue and no eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of. Her straw coloured hair was stringy and sticky with jam and she wore a dirty satin dress two sizes too small for her.”
This, friends, is Dido Twite, Aiken’s bold young heroine, created well before feisty was an essential publishing term. All Dido wants is a ride on the donkey. Simon, however, is far more concerned by the fact that the two rooms are empty and Dr Field- and all his belongings and artist materials – have totally disappeared, and so the quest begins. Set in an early, alternative nineteenth century, Black Hearts in Battersea presents an alternative historical world where two factions are still at odds over who is ruling Britain - it is fiction – and trouble is afoot in deepest London.
With Aiken’s work at my bedside, I thought about other historical fiction for children and young people set in London. Then, like Simon, I asked around and here, therefore, is a list of favourite London titles, many almost historical in themselves, that might interest you. Some are perfectly fine for nine year olds, while others offer stronger content, harsher settings and bigger reading experiences. You might, like Simon, check things out first – or is that a well-worn rule about London?
Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin, inspired by Thomas Coram's Foundling Museum as well as the links between Britain and the riches of India.
Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: the first in his exciting Sally Lockhart series, as shown on television.
I, Coriander by Sally Gardner: historical reality overlaid by the magic of the fairy world and beautifully written.
The Raven Master's Boy by Mary Hoffman – a strong Tudor novel for teens while younger readers might enjoy Raven Boy by Pippa Goodhart. Same birds, different books.
Slightly Jones and the Case of the London Dragon by Joan Lennon:
A lively girl detective discovers a fossil problem just as Queen Victoria is due to visit the Natural History Museum.
The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding, set in the world of the London theatre and music halls.
Nest of Vipers, set close by Newgate prison by Catherine Johnson, and Freedom, her novel about slavery.
The Shadow Web by Nicky Matthews Browne: definitely alt-history, where two identical girls somehow swap not-identical parallel lives.
The Mourning Emporium by Michelle Lovric, which begins in Bankside in 1902. A supernatural Venetian villain arrives in London to wreak havoc on a country mourning the loss of its Queen, and on the watery city that declared him a traitor.
The Armourer's House and The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliffe, both still in print. Unfortunately, “Ring Out Bow Bells” and “The Load of Unicorn” by Cynthia Harnett only exist as rare second-hand copies.
The Historical House books, written by Adele Geras, Linda Newbery and Ann Turnbull, re-issued as the “6 Chelsea Walk” series: Girls with a Vote – Polly’s Walk; Girls with a Voice - Mary Anne and Miss Mozart and Girls Behind the Camera: Cecily’s Portrait.All three titles are set at a different time within the same house.
Wartime London appears at the start of several evacuee books, including Michelle Magorian’s Good Night Mr Tom; Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carrol and Jimmy’s War by Lynne Benton for slightly younger readers.
There is also River Of Ink by Helen Dennis: the first of a new, time-travelling thriller series for middle-grade readers.
I have just heard about a time-slip novel that features the iconic Alexandra Palace:
The Pearl in the Attic by Karen McCombie. It must go on my list because where else did one go on a North London Sunday afternoon?
And, finally, two true London favourites of mine:
Smith: The Story of A Pickpocket by Leon Garfield, for the wonderful intensity of his characters, his sense of place and ear for language and dialogue.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens drawn from his own childhood memories of the London streets.
Have you any London-based historical novels for young readers or teens that you’d recommend? (Or any that, like Livi Michael’s The Whispering Road, celebrate another particular city and if so which?)
Author of A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)