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Alice Roberts' Top Historical Books for Children

Posted on 31st May 2024 by Mark Skinner

As one of the most familiar faces discussing archaeology onscreen, not to mention as the bestselling author of Ancestors, Buried and Crypt, Professor Alice Roberts is uniquely well-placed to embark on a children's fiction series set during prehistory. In this exclusive piece, Roberts introduces the enthralling Wolf Road, as well as picking her top children's historical stories.      

People then and now

I have spent a lot of time writing about pre-history and thinking about the kind of environment that people lived in. Archaeology can tell us a lot about what life was like so long ago, that there is nothing written down. Everything in Wolf Road, my first novel for children, is based on real archaeological discoveries – the tools my characters use, the journey they take and the people they meet. I think the people back then had feelings just like ours. Even though we’ve grown up with technology, resources and connections that that they didn’t have, their emotions and experiences will have been very similar. They made art, told stories, created music, and exchanged gifts. 

Wolf Road introduces Tuuli, a young girl travelling with her tribe through the seasons, looking for adventure. She finds a stray wolf cub and names her Lupa, and together they start to explore. Tuuli meets a strange boy, someone from another tribe, and their new friendship shows her that there is a wide world to explore, and that there are lots of different people out there to meet.  This friendship is fictional and their conversations are imagined, but they are all rooted in the evidence, objects and imprints of the past that we have collected from all over the world. History is a living thing, it teaches us about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It helps us to look at the connections between us and some of the very best historical stories for children allow us to walk in the shoes of those people from long ago. If you’re stuck at home on a cold, wet day, a good book can transport you to a hot and wild place, an ancient civilization, or a single moment in time that has the power to change the course of history. Here are some of my favourites:

Dogs of the Deadlands by Anthony McGowan

In 1986, there was a disaster at a Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. It was a devastating accident that resulted in the deaths of many people and meant that the area was uninhabitable and will be for many thousands of years. Dogs of the Deadlands, illustrated by the hugely talented Keith Robinson, who also illustrates Wolf Road, follows puppies Misha and Bratan who have to live in the wild now that all the humans have gone. It’s a heartbreaking and hopeful story of the power of the natural world to reset and survive throughout history. 

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Set in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Dogs of the Deadlands is a heartwrenching tale of the bond between humans and animals, and of escaping and being left behind, from the CILIP Carnegie Medal-winning author of The Truth of Things series.
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When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

Throughout history, people have had important connections with animals, whether wild or domestic. Animals give us a way to imagine the environment and settings of the past. Phil Earle’s brilliant novel is inspired by the true story of a young man during WWII, tasked with guarding the animals at Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester. There were many difficult choices to make in this terrible time, and the friendship that the protagonist Joseph strikes up with a silverback gorilla, explores the importance of love and hope in difficult times.

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As the Second World War escalates and bombs start to fall, Joseph is charged with protecting Adonis the gorilla in this nerve-shreddingly tense thriller based on a true story.
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Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series is a classic – it is set in the middle stone age, at the end of the Ice Age, and tells the story of twelve-year-old Torak, setting out on a perilous journey to rid his tribe of a demon hidden within the body of a ferocious bear. This brilliant adventure story explores many of the customs and beliefs that people of this time had. There was a deep respect for the the rhythm of the seasons and living things – animals were powerful and dangerous, but also a vital resource and Torak’s adventure shows us just how closely linked to the animal kingdom, human history really is.

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Evoking ancient superstition and folk myth, the first of Paver’s atmospheric fantasy saga pits an adolescent boy against a malevolent spirit cast in the form of a giant bear.
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The Little Match Girl Strikes Back by Emma Carroll and Lauren Child

Following Bridie, a young match seller in Victorian London, this exquisitely illustrated short novel documents the match girl’s strike of July 1888, which changed the story of workers’ rights forever. Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of The Little Match Girl, Bridie takes matters into her own hands, leading a protest to demand better conditions. It shows the power that one voice can have, even if it belongs to a child. 

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A blazingly brilliant and fearlessly feminist reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen's iconic fable from the master storyteller of Letters from the Lighthouse and Escape to the River Sea.
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Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

This wonderful journey through the Amazon rainforest celebrates the importance of exploration and discovery. My work has taken me all over the world, allowing me to discover the way of life for people in remote areas, both now and throughout history. In this novel, Maia, who has lived all her life in dreary England, finds herself in the ancient city of Manaus, and sets out on an adventure to learn more about the amazing new world she finds herself in. 

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One of the twenty-first century's most acclaimed children's novels, Ibbotson's immersive Amazon-set story abounds in rich description, unforgettable characters and perfect plotting.
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Song for a Dark Queen by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff conjures up the world of the ancient Britons with astonishing clarity - and brutality. Here we meet Boudicca, facing the horror of the Roman occupation of Britain, and resolving to revolt against the Empire. Written in 1978, this is definitely a book for older readers of 13+ and doesn’t shy away from the violence of the time. But when we often think of “what the Romans did for us” in a positive way, this book lets us see the other side, from the perspective of a woman whose birthright is taken away. 

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The doyenne of children's historical fiction brilliantly recreates the landscape of Ancient Britain in this stirring and exciting account of the rise and fall of Boudicca, as seen through the eyes of a young acolyte.
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