My new series, Taylor & Rose Secret Agents, is set in 1911-1912 and as such, takes us out of the Edwardian era proper and into the pre-First World War period. But before saying farewell to all things Edwardian, I realised I’d never written anything here about one of the most important influences on the Sinclair’s Mysteries – some of my favourite Edwardian era-set children’s books.
Here are ten of my favourites. Some of these were actually written in the Edwardian era itself – which although a relatively short time period was a golden age for children’s literature, in which the likes of Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows and The Tale of Peter Rabbit all first appeared. Others were written more recently but are set in the 1900s and speak to that tradition. There are lots more I could mention but these ten are the books that had the biggest influence on the Sinclair’s Mysteries and that sum up the Edwardian ‘feel’ I wanted to evoke.
One thing I should say about all of these books is that almost without exception they focus on the experience of white middle class (or upper class) characters. It’s also worth bearing in mind that those written in the 1900s often demonstrate attitudes to gender, class, disability and especially race that will not sit well with contemporary readers. Without wanting to suggest there’s any sort of ‘easy fix’, it’s for this reason that I wanted to depict a wider range of characters in the Sinclair’s Mysteries – from the working class half-Chinese Lim family to mixed race housemaid Tilly and disabled aristocrat Leo – and in doing so represent a broader spectrum of Edwardian society than we might typically encounter in these books. How successfully I’ve done this I’m not sure (perhaps unsurprisingly there are fewer accounts of mixed race Edwardian children in the East End to draw on than there are of those living in comfortable middle-class suburbs!) but I hope the Sinclair’s Mysteries therefore reflects some of the diversity of 1900s London.
Edith Nesbit always seems to me to be the ultimate Edwardian children’s author. From her unconventional family life to her hand-rolled cigarettes and Fabian politics she was very much a radical – and yet her books have a particularly cosy quality. The Railway Children is probably the most famous (perhaps in part because of the classic film version) and follows Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis as they are forced to leave behind their comfortable middle-class home in the London suburbs for a new life with their mother in a country cottage after their father suddenly disappears one night. In their new home they soon become involved in all the doings of the nearby railway station – but meanwhile, what has happened to father? It’s peak Edwardiana, from the iconic red flannel petticoats to the toes of Phyllis’s (usually untied) boots. There are so many delightful scenes – the moving house picnic with marmalade and sardines! Bobbie’s birthday tea! All the handkerchiefs waving from the train! – but it’s the final chapter of the book and especially the last lines that bring me to tears every time.
It may not be as well known as some of her other books, but to my mind this is one of Nesbit’s most brilliant. This is the story of the Bastable children who set out with the ambition of ‘restoring the fallen fortunes of the house of Bastable’. From their home on the Lewisham Road, and with a bit of help/hindrance from Albert Next Door (and occasionally Albert Next Door’s Uncle) they try various inventive schemes for making money – from publishing their own newspaper to digging for treasure to becoming highwaymen. Needless to say most of them go disastrously wrong. It’s funnier than The Railway Children but there is plenty of pathos here too. The first few pages are a masterclass in narrative voice and perfectly demonstrate the qualities that make Nesbit such an exceptional children’s writer.
There are plenty of downtrodden yet plucky orphans in Edwardian children’s fiction, but Sara Crewe is one of the stand-outs. At the start of this story she leads a life of luxury as the heiress to diamond mines and the star pupil at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. She has a fabulous wardrobe of rose-pink dancing frocks, gorgeous and glamorous dolls, and all the sponge cakes she can eat. But when her beloved father dies and her fortune vanishes overnight, she soon finds herself having to work as a maid for the deeply unpleasant Miss Minchin. Sara will need all her strength and powers of imagination if she is to continue to behave like ‘a little princess’. Although it may be highly sentimental, this is a truly delightful read and contains one of the most magical scenes in children’s literature (if you’ve read it, you know).
My other Frances Hodgson Burnett pick is one of my all-time favourite children’s books. Interestingly at the time it was Little Lord Fauntleroy which was Hodgson Burnett‘s most popular book (of which more later) whereas today it’s probably The Secret Garden which is the most beloved – by me at any rate. Here, another orphan, the sulky and sour Mary Lennox, is sent from India to live with her unknown uncle at his Yorkshire home, Misselthwaite Manor. There she discovers long-buried secrets, including a forgotten garden that she sets about bringing back to life. A tribute to the transformative power and magic of nature, it’s a glorious book – and again the final pages are guaranteed to move me to tears, no matter how many times I have read them.
This one is a bit of a cheat as it’s strictly speaking not a children’s book at all, though read by many children both in the 1900s and today. But I couldn’t write about the Edwardian books that influenced the Sinclair’s Mysteries without giving a nod to the quintessential Edwardian detective story: Holmes and Watson might not have a great deal in common with Sophie and Lil, but there’s certainly an important connection. I always enjoy the smoggy, murky atmosphere of Sherlock Holmes’s London and as with Conan Doyle’s stories, I was keen for the Sinclair’s Mysteries to show the reader some of the different faces of the city – from the grimy East End to the ritzy and glitzy world of the Edwardian upper classes.
Noel Streatfeild is well-known for Ballet Shoes and her other (wonderful) books set in the world of theatre and dance, but this story is a little different, being closely based on her own childhood in the 1900s. Growing up in a vicarage, Vicky is the ‘difficult’ middle child sandwiched in between her pretty and talented older sister Isobel and spoilt younger sister Louise. Out of place and often in trouble both at school and at home, only her cousin John seems to really understand her. Full of intriguing period detail, this is a moving and compelling story which paints a vivid picture of Edwardian girlhood – it’s an absolute must for Streatfeild fans but fascinating for anyone interested in ‘ordinary’ life in the 1900s.
Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfeild
When she is sent to live at a miserable orphanage, spirited Margaret Thursday soon befriends the shabby but genteel Beresford family – Lavinia, Peter and Horatio, who have lost their mother and fallen on hard times. Lavinia is sent to become a scullery maid at a local Manor house, while Peter and Horatio join Margaret at the orphanage – but soon, the three of them decide to run away. There is unexpected help from a canal bargeman and his family and before long they’ve found employment as ‘leggers’ on a barge – before taking to the stage in a travelling production of Little Lord Fauntleroy where Margaret quickly becomes a star turn. But can Lavinia track them down and let them know about the unexpected and dramatic change in their fortunes? A clear tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett, this is one of Streatfeild’s less well-known books (and looks to be currently out of print) but is thoroughly enjoyable, with all the elements of a rags-to-riches Edwardian story – from plucky orphans to long-lost relations to pleasingly unpleasant villains.
There’s more shades of Hodgson Burnett in this utterly gorgeous book from one of my favourite children’s authors, Eva Ibbotson. Orphan Maya is excited when she is sent away from her ordinary life at school in England to live in South America with some unknown relatives – but her new life soon proves fraught with challenges. Yet the lush Amazonian jungle offers unexpected consolations – and before long, a wild adventure beckons. A touring play of Little Lord Fauntleroy once again makes an appearance here, alongside another brave orphan heroine, some vile villains, and a particularly wonderful governess in Miss Minton. A truly joyous read.
There’s another orphan/heiress at the centre of this story for older readers, which is the first in a trilogy. Christina is sent to an impoverished country house, Flambards, where she is to live with her tyrannical, brutish uncle and her cousins Mark and Will. Life at Flambards is tough and sometimes unpleasant, but Christina soon discovers a passion for horses and hunting she never imagined. But while Mark shares her love of hunting, it’s Will – who hates riding and instead dreams of flying aeroplanes – with whom Christina strikes up a close relationship. Far from a cosy country-house novel, this is a powerful young adult book, tackling the subject of class as well as the challenges of adolescence. There are two sequels which follow Christina and Flambards into the First World War and beyond.
C.S. Lewis knew exactly what he was doing when he set this, my favourite of the Narnia books, at the time when ‘Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road’. In doing so he immediately evokes the spirit of Edwardian children’s literature – and Edwardian London. The story follows Polly and Digory who live next-door to each other in terraced houses with interconnecting attics. An encounter with Digory’s rather sinister Uncle Andrew whisks them away via a magic ring to the mysterious Wood Between the Worlds – and then to the land of Narnia where they encounter Queen Jadis. The influence of Christianity (and here, in particular, the story of Genesis) on Lewis’s writing is well known but I think it’s interesting to note that E Nesbit is also a clear inspiration for Lewis. In particular The Magician’s Nephew has a lot in common with Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet which also features magic jewellery and a powerful ancient queen transported to 1900s London.
And one final book I want to mention which is absolutely not a children’s book at all…
Adults who are interested in the history of Edwardian children’s literature should absolutely read this captivating and completely engrossing novel by AS Byatt which won the Booker Prize. An extraordinary portrait of the period from the end of the 19th century until the First World War, it’s rich with references to everything from the suffragettes to the Arts and Crafts movement. At its centre is the children’s writer Olive Wellwood (loosely inspired by E Nesbit) and many real writers including JM Barrie and Kenneth Graeme also appear in its pages. Amongst many other things, Byatt’s novel is a powerful exploration of Edwardian childhood and what it might mean to write for and about children – including the darker sides of fairy-tale and children’s fiction.
What are your favourite Edwardian-set children’s books? If you have any recommendations please do let me know in the comments. And you can find out more about the real Edwardian history behind the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series here.
Peril in Paris has already been out in the world for a whole month, and I’m only now getting round to writing about it! That’s because it’s been a super-busy few weeks – not only have I recently moved house, I’ve also been enjoying lots of fun celebrations to welcome the first book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series.
Several exciting things happened in the run up to publication. First of all, with the help of Arcus Studios, publisher Egmont created this incredible animated trailer for the book using Karl’s illustrations, which perfectly evokes what the book is all about. (Make sure you’ve got your sound on – the music is a treat!)
As soon as the book hit shops at the beginning of August, I went out and about on a little tour of London to sign lots of copies, including visits to Waterstones branches at Finchley Road, Islington Green, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly and Kings Road. I also made this ‘shelfie’ video for Waterstones in which I recommend some of my favourite children’s books which, like Peril in Paris, have female friendships firmly at their heart.
To celebrate the new book, I met up with my brilliant agent and editor for some delicious French treats at Maison Bertaux – magnifique!
Next, in what may have been one of my most unapologetically ‘extra’ book launch celebrations to date, I headed off to Paris for a celebratory day-trip with my friends Katie, Nina and Claire. We had a truly superbe day enjoying the Paris shops, strolling past the sights, and taking a boat trip along the Seine – as well as eating some tasty French food and taking about a million photos. What a treat – thanks guys, I honestly can’t think of a better way to welcome Peril in Paris into the world!
Next up was a trip to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one of my very favourite book festivals and always a highlight of the year! I teamed up with Robin for an event as part of the festival Schools Programme, and then with Natasha Farrant for an event about thrilling adventures, also featuring her book The Children of Castle Rock. I got to read from Peril in Paris for the very first time; signed lots of books for the readers who came along; and Natasha and I even had a dog join us on stage – I think that’s definitely a first!
Another exciting happening at this year’s EIBF was getting to meet the brilliant Chelsea Clinton (see above). Chelsea was in Edinburgh to talk about her new children’s book She Persisted Around the World, and was kind enough to join us for a special recording of Down the Rabbit Hole, where she spoke to me and to her fellow guest Katherine Webber about her book, as well as her favourite children’s books. Have a listen here.
Finally, another amazing thing that happened was this – a Peril in Paris themed milkshake! I’m thrilled that SBlended have created the brilliantly-named ‘Moo La La’, inspired by the book – look out for them in their shops. They’re running a competition too, find out more here. (I certainly never could have imagined that one of my books would inspire its very own milkshake – and I can’t wait to try one!)
There have been lots of lovely responses to Peril in Paris already: if you’ve read it, do let me know what you think of Sophie and Lil’s latest adventure. If you haven’t read it yet, you can of course get a copy from Waterstones, The Hive or Amazon. It’s also currently available as part of a promotion in both Waterstones and WH Smith Travel stores, so do look out for it there!
And if you fancy finding out a bit more about the book then check out my Peril in Paris Pinterest board, and stay tuned for some more posts about the historical background, coming up shortly!
It’s that time of year again! September is here and the new term is almost upon us. I know not everyone feels the same way but I love this time of year: picking blackberries, the first crunchy autumn leaves, getting to wrap up in cosy jumpers… and of course buying new stationery for those ‘back to school’ vibes.
Of those of you who are actually going ‘back to school’ in the next week or two – teachers, you can now find a brand new masterclass for my books on Authorfy – Mystery & History with Katherine Woodfine.
The Peril in Paris masterclass is ideal for KS2 pupils who would enjoy reading about spies, mysteries, daring-do in 1900s Paris, an intrepid sausage dog, and lots of cake! There’s also a KS1 masterclass inspired by Rose’s Dress of Dreams, which we filmed in the gorgeous surroundings of the Victoria and Albert Museum as you can see above. Each masterclass includes videos, extracts and a detailed scheme of work. Find out more here.
There are also lots more free resources on my website that you can access here – including a 3 week lesson plan for The Clockwork Sparrow, posters and activity sheets to download for my books, and much more.
And if you’re interested in booking in a school visit for the new school year, you’re welcome to get in touch: my calendar is currently booked up until May 2019, but please do feel free to contact me here regarding events for the summer term onwards.
To celebrate the publication of Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris, I wanted to share a few more children’s books with a Parisian setting. If you’re planning a trip to the City of Lights – or simply want to imagine yourself there, here are some recommended reads:
As a baby, Sophie was discoveed floating in a cello case after a shipwreck on the English Channel. She finds a home in London with her eccentric guardian Charles – but when a child welfare agency threaten to send her to an orphanage instead, the two of them set off to Paris on a quest to find her lost mother. From an attic window, Sophie soon begins exploring the rooftops of Paris with a boy called Matteo and his friends, who have adventures above the busy city streets. Can they help Sophie find her mother before she is caught and sent back to London? This enchanting children’s story is absolutely charming – a deserving winner of the Blue Peter Book Award.
The Eiffel Tower decides to cut loose and fly over the night-time rooftops of Paris in this gorgeous and whimsical illustrated book. Through a series of delicate paper-cuts, Helene Druvert captures all the sights of the city, from the Seine to the Opera to Notre Dame. There’s something about this book which perfectly evokes the feeling of Paris, making it a really lovely introduction to the city for younger children.
One of my favourite young adult romances, this is the tale of American girl Anna, who is not at all happy about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris by her parents. But when she meets the charismatic Étienne St Clair, and everything changes. This is a truly delightful love story that will make you fall in love with both Paris and Étienne along with Anna, and will leave you yearning to stroll around the city streets.
I’m a huge fan of Catherine Johnson’s historical fiction for children and young adults, and her two books featuring young surgeon Ezra McAdam (the first is Sawbones) are some of my absolute favourites. In this story, Ezra must hasten to Paris to rescue his friend Loveday and her charge Mahmoud, who have been caught up in the Revolution. On his journey, Ezra travels through the battlefields of Northern France, putting his surgical skills to work – but when he finally arrives in Paris, he realises that finding Loveday and Mahmoud will not be easy…
Another gripping novel for young adults which is set during the French Revolution, this is an enthralling fantasy with an intriguing cast of characters. Yann is a boy with amazing magical abilities: a brief meeting with Sido, a lonely, shy young heiress will change his life forever. After crossing the sinister Count Kalliovski, Grand Master of a secret society, he finds himself in danger, and must escape to London. But before long he returns to Paris to find out Kalliovski’s darkest deeds – and save Sido from the guillotine…
Inspired by Pushkin’s novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, this verse novel is definitely one for older young adult readers. A chance meeting aboard the Paris Metro reunites Tatiana and Eugene 10 years after their summer when they were 14 and 17, stirring up all kinds of emotions. What really happened that summer? Could they ever be together after everything that has passed? Beautifully translated from French by Sam Taylor, this is a wonderful, nostalgic and wistful Parisian love story.
‘In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…’ No list of children’s books set in Paris would be complete without the classic Madeline series of picture books, which are now over 80 years old. Full of charm, the glorious illustrations perfectly evoke a delightfully old-fashioned Paris.
Amongst the tummult of Paris in 1871, 16-year-old Zephyrine is lured by the ideals of the city’s new government, and the prospect of freedom, hope and equality. Young musician Anatole is soon swept up with her – but his friends are not too sure. Opera-singer Marie and photographer Jules are uncertain about what life under the Paris Commune will mean for them. Soon all four must the reality – and dangers – of life during a revolution. In this historical novel for young adults, Lydia Syson paints a vivid picture of the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune.
William the detective cat sets out to Paris — ‘the city of art and cheese’ — to solve the mystery of a stolen painting in this delightful picture book. The quirky and colourful artwork is perfect for this hilarious riff on the classic detective tale, featuring mysterious clues, a sinister villain, lots of silly cheese-based puns, and a dramatic final reveal. But as well as being a fun story for children and adults to enjoy together, it’s also a lovely portrait of Paris — complete with art galleries, noisy traffic, stylish fashions and long lunches.
This is my second pick from the brilliant French author Clementine Beauvais, and it’s not even really set in Paris, but I couldn’t resist including it as I adored this book. After being voted the three ugliest girls in school by their classmates, the three ‘Piglettes’ – Mireille, Astrid and Hakima – climb aboard their bikes and set off on a summer roadtrip to Paris, with fame and adventure in store. Witty, irreverent and joyful, it’s an absolute treat.
Although my list of ten is complete, I want to finish by mentioning some books of my own! Rose’s Dress of Dreams, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst, is my story inspired by Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dress-maker who is often considered to be the world’s first fashion designer. Young Rose dreams of sewing stunning dresses for the women of Paris, but when a chance encounter with royalty changes her life, Rose must draw on all her skills to create the most breathtaking dress of them all…
And finally, there’s Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris which sees young detectives Sophie and Lil setting out on a mission amongst the boulevards and grand hotels of Paris in 1911. But danger lurks beneatht the bright lights of the city – and intrigue and murder lie in store. As aeroplanes soar in the skies overhead, our heroines will need to put all their spy skills to the test to face the peril that awaits them…
Do you have a favourite children’s book set in Paris? Let me know in the comments below…!
Edit: if you enjoyed this list then do also check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists:
A few early copies have already been sent out to reviewers, bloggers and authors (looking very gorgeous indeed in wrapping paper using Karl James Mountford’s beautiful illustrations) and it’s been very exciting to hear that people are reading and enjoying this brand new adventure for Sophie and Lil.
If you’d like to preorder a copy, you can do so now from Waterstones, The Hive or Amazon (though I’d always encourage you to buy from Waterstones, The Hive or another high street bookshop if you can – in doing so you’ll help support our wonderful bookshops!)
For anyone attending YALC this weekend, you’ll also find early copies available in the Waterstones bookshop. I’ll be there to sign copies on Friday morning from 11am. I’m also chairing a panel with brilliant YA authors Sara Barnard, Sally Green and Non Pratt at 3pm. If you’re there, make sure you come and say hello (or should that be ‘bonjour’?)
Look out on Twitter and Instagram for all the details of how to win a copy of the book (plus lots of other goodies) from Egmont – and make sure you’re signed up for my author newsletter. The next edition will be hitting your inbox very shortly, and will also you the chance to win the book – as well as a special one-off prize.