Ever since Terry Deary's Horrible History series for Scholastic delighted children of seven and up by concentrating on the gruesome, gory aspects of the Romans, Tudors, Victorians and so on, children's publishers have become aware that history books, whether factual or fictional, are more popular than ever.
Deary's series, which cunningly imparts a good deal of fact alongside the entertainment, is irresistibly subversive, but this approach has its limitations, especially for children of seven to 11 studying the National Curriculum. This requires a surprisingly thorough grounding of knowledge about the Vikings, Romans, Greeks, Tudors, Victorians and the Second World War. Parents over 35 may have fond memories of the Ladybird series of history books, and all lament the problems still besetting Dorling Kindersley, whose large, clear books were models of their kind. However, the Who Was? series from Short Books is well worth hunting down.
Short Books was launched in 2001 by Rebecca Nicolson and Aurea Carpenter. "Having started with narrative non-fiction for adults, we were keen to continue with modern versions of history books we'd enjoyed, such as the Ladybird books," Nicolson says. "The ones available seemed very fact-orientated, trying to drum the subject in, or else the utterly brilliant Horrible Histories, which we didn't want to copy like so many publishers. History is about stories, and we thought that if we got leading journalists to write them they'd be totally different, but a pleasure."
Though visually unappealing and in need of good illustrations, the Who Was? biographies (£4.99 each) are written in clear, vigorous prose and bring a refreshing sense of drama to their subjects. Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare and more excitingly obscure figures such as Ada Lovelace (Byron's mathematician daughter), Madame Tussaud and Philip Astley (inventor of the circus) spring to life. Any child already hooked on history will lap them up, but younger ones need more visual help.
This is where Oxford's acquisition of Stephen Biesty, king of Dorling Kindersley's beloved cross-sections books, is a complete triumph. His first book for them, Rome (£12.99), takes the madly detailed technique of Where's Wally and tells the story of Titus Cotta Maximus and his father as they spend a festival day together in the Rome of AD128. The drawings buzz with life: the effect is like looking into a beehive as Titus's family get up, slaves bustle about cooking, thieves attack pedestrians and thousands of Romans use the public baths or watch the games at the Colosseum. As Ben Dupre, Biesty's editor at Oxford, says: "It works at more levels because of the illustrations. Beauty is something pretty rare in this kind of book." Like other publishers, he was intrigued by the success of the Horrible Historiesbut his reservation is that "History books shouldn't depend on sugaring the pill with jokes. If history is anything, it's a wonderful collection of fantastic stories."
The Biesty books, which take a year to do, were Dupre's idea and seem an inherently more interesting approach to schoolwork than the ones published by Usborne and promoted by the National Curriculum, which tend to analyse minute data at the expense of the bigger picture. Leading Oxford historians are consulted as to every detail, but what children will probably enjoy most is spotting Biesty's wicked little pictures of people sitting on the toilet. One on Egypt is planned for 2005, with Athens to follow. Younger children will also enjoy Richard Brassey's Brilliant Brits series (Orion £3.99). They include Henry Vlll, Boudicca, the Beatles and David Beckham. Brassey also illustrated Geraldine McCaughrean's brilliant 20 Stories from British History series (Orion, £4.99 each), which no bright child should be without, and his colourful cartoons are perfect for the eight to 12 range.
A more novelistic approach comes from Scholastic's My Story series (£5.99 each), which read like a superior version of the kind of essays secondary school children often get asked to write. Imaginary characters tell the story of the Civil War, the Battle of Trafalgar, the Trenches and The Blitz. All of these will appeal to boys, but the women's history angle is not neglected, with Sue Reid's Diary of a Mill Girl, and Pamela Oldfield's The Great Plague being particularly good, packed with feeling as well as historical detail. Unlike Hodder's Who? What? When? Series (£4.99 each) covering the First and Second World Wars, the Victorians and the Tudors, they have a grasp of what makes history fun.
Alice Leader's Power and Stone (Puffin £4.99) is set by Hadrian's Wall and concerns the growing friendship between Marcus, son of a Roman commander, and Bran, child of the Brigantes. Romance and rebellion brew up a complex plot that takes too long to catch fire, but Leader's blend of the supernatural with historical detail is excellent (ages 9-12). Caroline Lawrence's The Roman Mysteries series (Orion, £4.99 each) feature four children who solve a new mystery in each of the six books. Packed with adventure and effortlessly deployed detail culled from Pliny and Juvenal, they are enjoyable entertainment for the same age-range.
There remains a big gap in historical fiction for children and teachers desperate to flesh out Key Stage 2 of the National Curriculum. The Victorians are pretty well covered, thanks to Philip Pullman's thrilling Sally Lockhart trilogy, but where are the successors to Geoffrey Trease? His marvellous adventure, Cue for Treason (Puffin £4.99), concerning a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I, remains hard to better. Catherine Fisher's The Snow Walker's Son trilogy (Red Fox £4.99) illuminates the Vikings, but where is the next Robert Westall? Why is nobody doing for the Tudors what Rosemary Sutcliffe did for the Romans? With so many great adult novelists turning to history for inspiration, it can only be a matter of time before publishers realise that this is an area that needs further investigation.