Saturday 25 February 2023

World Book Day special - The Time Tunnellers step into the shoes of a favourite character

Happy World Book Day everyone!

We’ve got some great news. We’re thrilled to be able to announce that we have a new member of the team!

Author Matt Wainwright in a flat cap
Author Matt Wainwright

Matt Wainwright, a previous guest poster for the Time Tunnellers is joining us to help dig for the stories in history – and share his love of reading and writing historical fiction for young people.

Matt is the author of the fantastic adventure, Out of the Smoke (Wakeman Trust), which tells the story of young Billy the chimney sweep who, when he finds himself plunged into the criminal underworld of Victorian London, must battle to survive against notorious gang leader, Archie Miller and his friends. Help, when it arrives, comes from a very unexpected source in the shape of the famous educational reformer, Lord Shaftesbury –  the ‘Poor Man’s Earl’. But will Billy’s pride let him accept the offer? And if he turns on Archie, will it mean freedom or certain death?

Book cover of Out of the Smoke by Matt Wainwright. The book is blue and shows a boy leaping between the rooftops in London

What’s it like to be joining our merry band, Matt?

'It's an honour! From the first time I saw the Time Tunnellers assemble I was struck by how enthusiastic and knowledgeable you all are. It's a fantastic initiative, sharing your love for history and the stories it contains, and I feel privileged to be a part of it. I'm also excited to share some of the things I've learned - there is so much to discover in the past, and leading children (and adults!) down some of those paths, exploring the nooks and crannies, will be a real joy. Thank you for inviting me into the team!'

Our pleasure!  We’re really looking forward to having you on board too!

In this week’s blog we’re celebrating World Book Day – and Matt’s arrival on the team – by stepping into the shoes of a favourite character in a great historical fiction read for young people. 

Ally Sherrick holding a copy of The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Ally Sherrick: Boy in The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
(Published by Chicken House Books)

I studied medieval history at university so it was brilliant to have the chance to travel back to those times again in the company of Murdock’s plucky underdog hero, ‘Boy’. When the story opens it is the year 1350 and Boy is looking after the goats that belonged to the lady of the manor before she was carried off by the plague. Boy is different from other people. He can talk with the animals and birds. But he is also taunted and called ‘Monster’ by his fellow villagers because of the hump on his back. So when a mysterious pilgrim stranger – Secundus – arrives in the village and offers Boy the chance to join him on a quest for seven priceless relics – ‘rib tooth thumb shin dust skull tomb’ – he decides to take the risk and join him.

I loved accompanying Boy as he experienced all the incredible sights, sounds and smells of the places he and his new master encountered on their long journey through France and across the sea to the tomb of St Peter in Rome.  And listening in on the conversations he has with the animals and birds he meets on the way. But it is the special secret he keeps hidden from others and which finally brings him the freedom and happiness he craves which enthralled me the most.

A great read for anyone who enjoys historical stories with a twist of magic realism.

Barbara Henderson: Moss in The Executioner's Daughter by Jane Hardstaff
(Published by Egmont)
I credit two books with sealing my love of historical fiction: Mary Hoffman's Troubadour and this, The Executioner's Daughter

The reign of Henry VIII is famous for its many executions - but what if your father is the one whose job it is to do the deed, again and again? Meet Moss. Growing up in the infamous Tower of London with only her taciturn dad for company, she longs to escape. The river flows past, carrying everything away with it - could Moss leave it all behind and find freedom? 

I loved the vivid descriptions of Tudor London, the dangers and secrets Moss has to navigate, and her reluctant friendship with streetwise Salter who survives by thieving. I was with Moss every step of the way, particularly when she realises that there are stranger, deeper powers at work beneath the surface of the Thames. 
My favourite chapter by a country mile was the one about the Frost Fair when the Thames froze over entirely - something that really happened! Moss encounters terrible danger, but so much beauty too. One of those books that stayed with me from the moment I read it almost a decade ago. 

Catherine Randall holding a copy of The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding

Catherine Randall: ‘Cat’ in The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding (Egmont)

This thrilling adventure story set in and around the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London is narrated by one of the most engaging fictional characters I’ve ever come across. Cat Royal is an orphan who has lived backstage in the theatre ever since she was rescued as a baby by the famous playwright and theatre owner, Mr Sheridan.

As soon as you open the book, you are in Cat’s shoes and completely immersed in the world of late 18th century London. Cat thinks that she is simply guarding a diamond for Mr Sheridan, hidden somewhere in the theatre, but then she becomes friends with the mysterious new Prompt and a talented young African violinist – the new sensation at Drury Lane. It soon becomes clear that much more is at stake than a mere jewel. You experience the sights, smells and characters of Covent Garden market, the backstage of the Theatre Royal and the drawing rooms of Grosvenor Square as if you were there, while Cat and her friends – a wonderful mixture of boys from street gangs and refined young aristocrats – battle to save the ‘diamond’ who is really hiding at the theatre, not to mention their own skins.
This novel is a heady combination of vivid, engaging characters with authentic historical and geographical detail.  

I think Cat is one of the great heroines of modern children’s literature. I couldn't put the book down.

Book cover of The Secrets Act by Alison Weatherby

Jeannie Waudby: Ellen in The Secrets Act by Alison Weatherby (Chicken House)

It would be scary but also interesting and exciting to time-travel back to the Second World War in Ellen’s shoes. She is one of two teenage main characters in The Secrets Act. The story begins with her journey to the codebreaking HQ, Bletchley Park, where she is going to become a codebreaker. I once met a 90-year-old lady on a train and she told me she had worked there during the war. When I asked her what she did, she looked at me and said: ‘It was secret.’

I felt the sheer strangeness of this situation through Ellen’s eyes, travelling from Wales on her own, arriving in the pitch dark of the blackout. Everything is strange and even asking questions feels forbidden and dangerous. This is a tense and exciting story – Ellen meets new people; so many of them young. But always there is the question: who can you trust? This story doesn’t glamourize Bletchley Park; in fact in many ways it feels like a hostile environment with threats and dangers lurking round every corner – including the danger of accidentally committing treason. But it’s also a story of true friendship. 

I recommend this book as a thought-provoking journey into a time of war.

The bookcover of Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

Matt Wainwright: Stepping into the shoes of … Sig Andersson in Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

Part of me wouldn’t actually enjoy stepping into Sig’s shoes. Throughout most of the book Revolver, Sig is threatened, bullied and held hostage in his family’s remote Alaskan cabin by the enigmatic and seemingly unstoppable Wolff - which would not make for a particularly pleasant experience!

However, Sedgwick wrote the book so well that you can’t help but feel that you’re right there in the scene with the characters. He conjures up the vast frozen wilderness of the far north of turn-of-the-century America in vivid, startling detail: the crack of ice, the buffeting of the wind, the crunch of freshly-fallen snow. You can see every clouded breath, smell the pungent odours of oil and gunpowder and fur, feel the creeping fingers of perpetual winter worming their way through every crevice … It’s a masterclass of description!

And in the end, of course (no spoilers!) Sig learns how to grow beyond his fear and find a way to stage a near-impossible escape. He’s the kind of character I love: one who starts the story as a person we recognise but wouldn’t necessarily want to be, but who gradually becomes someone we can admire. Which just goes to show that, no matter what era they are from, people throughout history are like us in many ways, with so much for us to learn.

Author Susan Brownrigg with My Friend the Octopus book by Lindsay Galvin

Susan Brownrigg: My Friend the Octopus by Lindsay Galvin
(published by Chicken House)

There is something very calming about wandering around an aquarium - the low light, the gentle movement of the fish and it is the perfect place for 12-year-old Vinnie Fyfe to find solace when she is abruptly sent away by her milliner mother to live with her aunt.

Vinnie loves to draw, and she is soon enchanted by the beauty of the aquatic life around her and especially a fascinating new arrival - an octopus! She quickly realises she has a special connection with the cephalopod and that they can communicate using colour.

I was enchanted by the gorgeous descriptions of how the octopus moves and learned lots about these intelligent, powerful creatures.

This wonderful adventure story is set in Victorian Brighton and the aquarium there - the world's oldest - still exists with it's beautiful period arcade having been lovingly restored. 

I loved exploring the aquarium with Vinnie and meeting her new friends - Charlie and Temitayo - who team up to solve a mystery which opens their eyes to cruelty close to home.

This book is so gripping you will think you have been grabbed by a tentacle or eight!

On this week's You Tube video the Time Tunnellers and our guest authors share their recommended historical reads for World Book Day - to watch CLICK HERE!


Tuesday 14 February 2023

The Victorian Can-Do Spirit


What a can-do bunch the Victorians were!

Queen Victoria

I decided to return to the Victorian age in my latest book Rivet Boy for a whole lot of reasons. It was the age of reason, of invention, of engineering, of science and arguably, the age of the novel, too. Imagine a world without Dickens or Darwin, Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Gustave Eiffel, The Bronte sisters, Florence Nightingale, Ada Lovelace, Alexander Graham Bell…. And that’s just off the top off my head.

I have been privileged to indulge my love of all things Victorian in my latest book, Rivet Boy. As the daughter of an engineer, I have been around machinery all my life. While my father never worked in construction, I am well used to asking myself the questions: how does that work? How did they do that? We visited the iconic Forth Bridge when I was a child in the early eighties.

Barbara with her sister, brother-in-law and mother, visiting the Forth Bridge as a child. 

While browsing through a photography book of Victorian Scotland, I came across a chapter on the building of the iconic Forth Bridge. I was staggered by the images. How did that work? How did they do that? I was interested in the architects and engineers who built the structure, yes – but I was even more interested in the blurred faces of the people who worked on the site, day in and day out. I looked for a book on the subject (my usual go-to next step if something captures my interest) and bingo! The Briggers, written by Elspeth Wills with a team of South Queensferry-based researchers features details and often even images of the long-forgotten workers who helped to achieve one of the greatest engineering feats in history. These jobs were dangerous!

 For many years the figure of deaths quoted was 57 nameless casualties. However, more recent research has revealed the figure to be considerably greater: 73 confirmed – with more than 30 other related deaths. Not exactly a cheering basis for a children’s book. And then I struck gold: A newspaper article:

Here was a 12-year-old boy who survived.

He was to form the basis for my main character. With the help of local researchers I was able to find out where he lived – around the corner of the brand-new Carnegie Library in Dunfermline – the very first in the world. How could I not include it as a setting to contrast with the noise and danger of the building site. In my book, John is a rivet boy, heating and throwing rivets which his team will insert and hammer into place on the giant steel structure. It was skilled and dangerous work, often at great height and without much safety equipment.

A Forth Bridge rivet, with my hand for scale. It's HEAVY!

John may have been one of thousands of ‘Briggers’, but in my book he takes centre stage, alongside his friend Cora, who longs to become an engineer herself. John is at best ambivalent, and often terrified of the structure, but when the Crown Prince’s life is in danger he does not hesitate: knowing the structure like the back of his hand enables him to overcome his fear at the very moment when courage is needed most.

The Victorians loved engineering, and they were exceedingly good at it. William Arrol, in charge of the Forth Bridge construction, went on to build Tower Bridge in London – as far as they were concerned, the sky was the limit. In my opinion, there are not nearly enough books celebrating science and engineering.

We’d do well to channel our inner Victorians, don’t you think?

You can buy Rivet Boy at

Saturday 11 February 2023

Children At War by Vanessa Harbour

With history we often talk about silent voices – those who have no voice and who had no chance to tell their story. Children could be perceived like that. The period I am passionate about is the Second World War and children play quite a role in it. Many of those roles were all about humanity and freedom.

The reason I am interested in the Second World War is because I was brought up on stories about it. My parents were teenagers at the beginning of the war. My father lied about his age so he could join up early. He drove tanks initially before becoming an officer in the Parachute Regiment.

My mother joined the WRNS and led quite a life, which she loved telling me about.
The perception of children in the UK during the Second World War was that they were evacuated. And yes, over a million children were evacuated with their schools from towns and cities to the safety of the countryside. Most went by train and were settled with foster parents. For some who’d never been outside their cities it was an adventure; for others they were desperately homesick. It was hard to adjust to being separated from family and friends. One of my favourite books about evacuees is Good Night Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.

However, for those who stayed in the cities things might have been very different. During the Battle of Britain, they might have watched the planes of the RAF and Luftwaffe in dog fights above them. During the Blitz itself, 7,736 children were killed and 7,622 were seriously wounded. The Blitz meant many children were orphaned or a sibling might have been killed during the bombing.

Their education was also disrupted as schools were damaged. Often, they might have to leave their classrooms when there were air raids. Many children pulled their weight. During the war, children left school at the age of fourteen and would be in full-time work, maybe agriculture, offices or major industries. Those over sixteen, including Girl Guides and Scouts assisted with Air Raid Precautions during an air raid. They’d take messages, be fire watchers or work with the voluntary services. Boys received their call up papers at eighteen, and soon girls were also conscripted, so would receive call up papers too. Check out Phil Earle’s book, When the Sky Falls. It deals with a lot of the issues that children had to face.

It wasn’t just the teenagers; younger children did their bit too. They’d salvage scrap metal, paper, glass and waste food for recycling. Also ‘digging for victory’. They still got a chance to be children though. They might have homemade toys. Books and comics were very popular. Children would happily play on bombsites and sometimes go to the cinema.

Children in Britain at least did not have to face the threat of persecution – unlike those in Europe. In both my books, Flight and Safe, the main characters Jakob and Kizzy constantly face the threat of persecution as one is a Jew and the other has a Romani background. In Safe, I also introduced the idea of 'Lost Children’ or Found Children as I called them. These were children that moved around Europe in packs at the end of the Second World War having lost all their relatives so they only had each other. Can you imagine how resourceful they had to be to keep themselves safe and alive?

Nazis had a tendency to pick on children. They would target them for racial reasons, or because they looked disabled, or if they had a suspicion they were linked to political activities/the Resistance. 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered by the Nazis – thousands of Jewish children were saved by being hidden away. The Nazis also murdered tens of thousands of Romani children, and 5000-7000 physically and/or mentally disabled children were also murdered. The Nazis were very cruel - this was all driven by Hitler’s desire to have a ‘perfect race’.

This is a child’s shoe found at Auschwitz, displayed at Peace Museum, Caen, France.
As well as the concentration camps, Nazis created ghettos. Within the ghettos, Nazis considered the younger children to be unproductive because they couldn’t work so were named ‘useless eaters.’ Children in ghettos often died of starvation, disease, lack of clothing and shelter. If you want to know more about this time, Morris Gleitzman’s Once and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword are powerful books based on true stories.

Children didn’t accept their countries being invaded or their friends being humiliated. They stood up to the Nazis in their own way whether it was in France, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, or Czechoslovakia. All over Europe children stood with their parents in the Resistance to fight the anti-Nazi cause. Some maybe wanted adventure, some were desperate.

The resistance might take a childish form such as burping in soldiers’ faces or singing patriotic songs. Sometimes they would co-ordinate coughing fits when they were supposed to be watching Nazi propaganda films.

Their innocence could be of benefit though. No one would question a little girl pushing her doll’s pram, not realizing there were books hidden inside, taken from school to stop them being burnt, or a message maybe, or even a gun. The children might be used to hide or escort a shot down pilot or escaped prisoners of war. The danger was constant. A sixteen-year-old girl, whose parents had died, successfully hid thirteen Jews in her house to keep them safe, while looking after her younger sister. Check out Tom Palmer’s book Resist which is based on Audrey Hepburn’s war time experiences, getting information and passing messages to the resistance, while living in the Netherlands.

I want to keep remembering how brave these children were and I know in many wars all over the world there are many children being equally as brave.


Vanessa Harbour is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester. Previously she ran her own PR & Management consultancy. Also, she used to work as an editor and Academic and Business Consultant at the Golden Egg Academy, and now writes online courses. She’s written for The Bookseller on being a disabled author. Flight, Vanessa’s first novel, is a World War II middle-grade thriller selected for Empathy LabUK’s Read for Empathy Collection 2020. Safe is Jakob and Kizzy’s second adventure, set against the last days of the War, involving horses and this time some ‘lost children’.
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Wednesday 1 February 2023

Girl power, gladiator-style by Ally Sherrick

One of my favourite movies of all time is Gladiator. The multi Oscar-winning film, directed by Ridley Scott, stars Russell Crowe as wronged army commander turned gladiator-slave, Maximus Decimus Meridius who – spoiler alert! – seeks vengeance for the murder of his wife and child by his bitter enemy and rival, Emperor-in-waiting, Commodus.

Poster from the movie 'Gladiator'

It features all the classic ingredients of a great ‘swords and sandals’ epic – bravery, heroism and self-sacrifice plus a liberal dose of blood, sweat and the brutality of gladiatorial combat.

When I set out to write my latest book, Vita and the Gladiator a story of my own set in that world, I wanted to make it about a hero who, like Maximus Decimus, finds themselves pitched into the arena against their will and forced to use their wits and courage to fight back.

But while the film depicts a pretty much all-male world, the original inspiration for my story was sparked by a more unusual pair of gladiatorial fighters. These are Amazon and Achillia – two female gladiators (or gladiatrices as they are now known) whose memory is preserved in a stone relief from the ancient town of Halicarnassus (modern day Turkey) now housed in the British Museum.

Stone relief showing female gladiators Amazon and Achillia

Stone relief of female gladiators, Amazon and Achillia

Female gladiators were a rarity. In Roman society, women were expected to conform to the ideal of the Roman matron – to be decent, beautiful and devoted to their husband and family. The notion that they might want to fight in the arena was shocking. Nevertheless, there is both documentary and archaeological evidence – like the stone relief – that they did and that they drew the crowds too.

This discovery got my story whiskers twitching. Then, as I delved further into the world of the Roman arena, I discovered that women are recorded as having taken part in beast-hunts too. Known as venatores, beast-hunters were pitched against wild animals – both exotic ones like lions, tigers and even crocodiles – or, as was most likely the case in Roman Britain where my book is set, the more home-grown sort, like wild boar, bulls and bears.  

Mosaic depicting a beast-hunter

Mosaic depicting a beast-hunter (Photo credit: Catherine Randall)

Slowly, surely an idea began to take shape of a young girl – Vita – daughter of a retired military commander, now a magistrate in Roman London – who when the story opens is living a life of comparative luxury. She harbours an ambition to write poetry and plays but is reconciled to the fact she will soon be married off, like all girls of her age. Then, on the night of her fourteenth birthday celebrations, something terrible happens to her family and everything changes. She escapes with her life – only to end up a slave sharing a cell with a fierce gladiator, Brea and her wolf.

Brea and Col, from an illustration by artist, Nan Lawson

Brea and Col - Illustration by Nan Lawson

In truth, Brea, a native Briton, is a female beast-hunter (or venatrix) with her own dark back-story. At first Vita is terrified of the pair, but gradually, as she comes to trust Brea (known as Lupa or ‘the She-Wolf’ in the arena), she discovers they have a common enemy – one they must stand against together in the name of truth and justice. 

Mosaic showing a pair of gladiators fighting

Mosaic showing a pair of gladiators (Photo credit: Catherine Randall)

The world of the gladiator is an alien one to us – barbaric and cruel-seeming. But at the time, the arena was the place where imperial justice was seen to be served and a sense of order reinforced – a reminder of the power of the Emperor in Rome and the meaning and worth of Roman citizenship. As such, it was a world with its own rules. But Vita has never been permitted to watch a gladiatorial games by her parents – women were in the minority in the audience as well as out in the ring. And one of the great things about writing the book was to have my hero – and the reader – discover these rules as the story unfolds.

For example Vita soon learns that most gladiators are either prisoners-of-war sold by their captors to fight in the arena, criminals sentenced to die by the sword or else condemned to the games, or slaves considered too unruly by their masters to keep. Though as she discovers, there are also the foolhardy types who volunteer for gladiator-school too.

Illustration of the arena in Roman London

Also that gladiators have to swear an oath – the sacramentum gladiatorum - agreeing to be ‘burnt by fire, bound in chains, beaten and killed by the sword’ as their master (the lanista) commands. And that fighters are only permitted to use wooden weapons during training for fear they might stage a revolt.
Vita – and Brea’s – survival depends on understanding how this strange and dangerous world works. But also on knowing when and how they can break the rules, as you’ll find if you read the book ...

Cover of the book 'Vita and the Gladiator' written by author, Ally Sherrick. Cover illustration by artist, Nan Lawson

Writing Challenge

Imagine that like Vita, you find yourself in a grand arena in front of crowds of baying spectators with little or no training. As you look around you, what do you see; hear; smell? Who is your opponent and how are they armed? What chance do you think you have of beating them and how does that make you feel? Die or survive to fight another day? It’s down to you!

Photo of author, Ally Sherrick

Ally Sherrick is the award-winning author of stories full of history, mystery and adventure. You can find out more about her by visiting her website. Ally’s latest book, just published with Chicken House Books, is Vita and the Gladiator, the story of a young girl’s fight for justice in the high-stakes world of London’s gladiatorial arena.

You can watch Ally's video on Roman Gladiators here.

Ally's books are widely available in high street bookshops and online.

For more information visit Ally's website

Your sister, brother, mother and grandmother have confessed to witchcraft - and you must give evidence against them! That's what happene...