WRITING FEATURE Investigating the Present with the Past


Kate Walker considers how historical middle grade settings can highlight modern-day issues.


Looking back in time has never seemed more relevant. Historical settings in children’s middle grade fiction are increasingly used to shine a light on the problems of today. Although the stories and characters differ, setting books in the past allows authors the freedom to comment on current societal issues and show children how we can overcome these difficulties together.


Social Divisions and Women’s Rights

The juxtaposition of two young girls on the opposite ends of the social spectrum in The House of Serendipity by Lucy Ivison exposes the inequality and limitations of female lives in the 1920s. This dual narrative with opposing experiences of a girl escaping destitution through employment as a servant, and her master’s daughter, Lady Sylvia, compares privilege and poverty living within the same stately home. Both experience numerous restrictions and expectations on their lives confined within their roles. While Myrtle the maid can walk freely in London on her days off, Lady Sylvia, as unmarried gentry, can’t go anywhere without a suitable chaperone. Additionally, Myrtle can’t go to the lavish debutante ball thrown inside her own residence, unless she’s holding a serving tray, and she must never step above her station and speak to the guests!


Lucy Ivison uses the freedom of one girl to depict the stifling rules of society and the class system facing females at opposing ends of the spectrum, from decorum to marriage and manners. Despite it all, these girls still manage to be friends in secret. It questions the roles of women, their rights and freedoms alongside class judgements, highlighting how penury and riches can trap women and still do today.


Homophobia and Racism

The Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens, set a decade later in the 1930s, uses this historical placement to explore the class system and women’s roles too, but it ventures further, into misogyny, racism and homophobia.


Hazel Wong travels all the way from Hong Kong to attend Deepdean boarding school. She is rich but she isn’t known in society, and she’s Chinese, which makes it tricky to fit in. Luckily, the honourable Daisy Wells has mastered all these skills well enough to teach Hazel how to play the game and to cover her own rule-flouting as they team up to investigate a murder.


This allows the author to unravel the expectations of the era to show modern readers how steeped in racism we once were and the detrimental impact it has on her characters. Hazel is the outsider, just like the reader, looking in on 1930’s well-heeled young women in Britain. Women who have fewer opportunities than their brothers. A totally different world from our own, or is it?


Sexuality is also explored as teenage crushes aren’t what’s expected and - spoiler alert, while both Daisy and her brother are gay, male homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time so the gender rules even in this respect are handled differently. This shows that the progress hard won should be revered and dearly protected because the characters show how awkward and difficult life can be if you deviate from what’s expected. How one false move can ruin your standing. Modern readers will be shocked and angry at the prejudice inflicted on characters of the time and that is deliberate, shining a light on the importance of inclusivity.



The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery mixes imaginary and real characters during the Blitz in the 1940s. On the long journey back to London to save his big sister from a bombing raid, evacuee Col encounters a German Jewish girl called Ruth. Col is wary of her initially, as in his mind all Germans are the enemy. He soon realises that Ruth’s life has been endangered by the Nazis even more so than his own. Ruth has been uprooted and sent to Britain; her life saved via the Kindertransport. Readers with the benefit of hindsight can see she has been rescued from the horrors of life in the ghettos and murder in the Death Camps’ gas chambers.


Like the British evacuees, Ruth is without her family and in a more difficult situation than Col, not welcomed by her new community. The author uses the wartime setting to highlight that children from different countries can suffer individual hardships and still find common ground and friendships to unite them: they are not defined by the government of the country they happened to be born in.


This speaks volumes about immigration issues and race identity that dog the media today. This book shows children that different and foreign is far from bad, in fact you can be fantastic friends and help each other.


Xenophobia and Nationalism

The fear of other is tackled superbly in The Monsters of Rookhaven by Padraig Kenny, where fantasy entwines around a village struggling to adjust after WWII.


An eclectic household of ‘monsters’ live shielded by magic called 'the Glamour', in a peace accord with a human village. The family inside Rookhaven don’t belong in the community and a minority of local people seed whispers of hatred against them.


The story contrasts appearances with the compassionate, Mirabelle, daughter of Rookhaven, who offers refuge to two children, fleeing from abuse and starvation. The man-eating plants and strange ways of Rookhaven are initially frightening, being so different from normal post-war life, but when the locals unite to storm Rookhaven and Mirabelle’s family of ‘horrors’, Padraig Kenny holds a mirror to humanity. With great emotion and empathy, the insidious, sinister forces that really make people monstrous are revealed. This is a powerful statement about judging people who are different and ‘not from round here.’ An artful lesson in kindness and acceptance.


Each of these children’s books uses the distance of history to focus a lens on issues that are, sadly, still problematic today. But the passage of time helps children to see a positive path towards creating a better future.


Header image: British Library



Kate Walker is a feature writer for Words & Pictures. She mainly writes MG fantasy as well as dabbling in picture books whenever a character grabs her imagination. Kate lives in Kent with her two children, who are addicted to stories just as much as she is. Twitter: @KatakusM

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