WRITING Historical fiction for children


As Shelley Jones embarks on writing a new novel set in Tudor times, she'll be studying the market for Words & Pictures' new series on writing historical fiction for children.


When a recent acquaintance mistakenly assumed that I wrote historical fiction for children, this gave me pause for thought. With my love of both reading and creating children’s literature, and my enduring obsession with the Tudor court, why wasn’t I writing a novel for children set among the much-loved world of Henry VIII, his ruthless court, and his infamous wives? With my first two novels complete and at various stages of editing, the seed of an idea for a middle-grade Tudor novel was taking root; was this the sign I needed to get drafting? Yes, I told myself, get on with it.


So, you find me as I set out on the exciting journey of planning a shiny new story, but as exhilarating as this stage is, I have the familiar mix of excitement and uncertainty. As an unpublished author, I admit to yearning for long lunches with a fabulous agent, a four-way auction for my book, a Netflix adaptation and awards by the armful. While these are fun daydreams, I have the nagging thought that they might be (slightly) more attainable if I was writing one of the hot genres in publishing, namely cosy crime, romance, thriller or YA romantasy — but how commercial is a middle-grade historical novel?


From post-it to hard back


As excited as I am about my new project (which is still in the post-it notes everywhere stage), I’ve already had moments of worry that I’m writing into the abyss. While the adult historical fiction market is leviathan, the children’s equivalent can feel like small fry, engulfed by the hugely popular magic, adventure and contemporary genres. In a bookshop or library offering Katharine Rundell’s otherworldly Impossible Creatures, or Katie Kirby’s hilarious Lottie Brooks series, what would today’s middle-grade reader make of a book about a Tudor princess? Can children brought up with access to smartphones and I-pads from babyhood, be able to relate to the lives of their ancestors and, furthermore, will they want to read about them?


To answer this, I looked at my own book-reading habits. My favourite genres have always been historical (late medieval through to the Restoration), dystopia and high fantasy. I love Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, Margaret Atwood’s Gilead duology, and Robin Hobb’s Farseer series equally, and I believe the reason is that all offer pure escapism. While historical novels are rooted in actual events, they are so far from our own lived experiences that they provide as much escapism as the archetypal fantasy or dystopian tropes.


The fine line between historical setting and fantasy


I remind myself of this when I worry that there is no market for a 16th century story. Today’s child has a bigger disconnect from the children of the past than ever before. You don’t have to time travel back very far, before the lives of our forebears seem intrinsically different. There are centenarians alive today who grew up in a world without electricity or running water; whose childhoods would seem so alien to Gen Alpha that they may as well be the stuff of fantasy. I therefore take comfort in the thought that to take a child back 500 years to the Tudor court places them in a setting so fantastical that there should be huge scope to fire the imagination and spirit them away to another world.


In this series of articles, I will examine the historical genre in depth, while I draft my own novel. What are the bestselling historical novels in the children’s and YA market, and what makes them work? How does an author bring history to life with a lightness of touch that keeps the young reader interested and entertained? And perhaps most importantly, how do we show history through the modern lens to ensure the children of today can connect with those of the past?


If our stories can entice children away from TikTok and YouTube and into a book, then surely that is a goal worth striving for and one perhaps more fulfilling than awards and accolades. So, until we meet again, I will be researching, plotting, and immersing myself in a world that has enchanted me since the first time I read a novel set in the Tudor court — because the most meaningful reason to create historical fiction for children is to spark a lifelong passion for history itself.


*Header image: Ell Rose





Shelley Jones is a student of English Social and Local History at Oxford University. After a career in retail buying, her second act is focusing on writing novels, both for adults and children. Shelley has written a contemporary middle-grade children’s novel, supported by the brilliant folks at WriteMentor. In 2022 she was selected for Curtis Brown Creative’s Writing Your Novel course, during which she completed her full length historical novel set in Oxfordshire in the 16th century. Follow her on Instagram: @shelljones_writes

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