Recommended children's booklists sorted by age or topic

Home > Blog > Bringing history to life through children’s fiction – J.T. Williams on The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries

Bringing history to life through children’s fiction – J.T. Williams on The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Portraits and Poison is the second in a new historical mystery series by author and former primary teacher J.T. Williams. We are delighted to welcome J.T. Williams to the blog today, where she discusses the importance of representation in historical fiction and explains why the mystery genre is a helpful means for young readers to dig deeper into the past…
historical fiction blog

historical fiction blog

Guest Post: J.T. Williams 

Author of Lizzie and Belle

Bringing History to Life Through Fiction

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries centre two Black British heroines, based on real historical figures. Elizabeth Sancho and Dido Belle both lived in eighteenth-century London. Lizzie grew up at her family’s busy tea shop in the heart of Westminster, while Belle was raised as an aristocratic heiress at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath. In reality, their paths may or may not have crossed;  in my books I imagine them forging a fantastic friendship and solving intriguing mysteries.

Georgian London was a busy, chaotic, ever-growing city, bustling with people from all over the world. Different quarters of London were home to different communities; a myriad of languages were spoken in its taverns and coffee houses. But the shadow of Transatlantic Slavery loomed over that world. Alongside Lizzie and Belle, readers discover the Black communities of Georgian London and meet the anti-slavery activists who fought for their freedom.

Creating empathy through character

Recent events have revealed the need for a deeper understanding of our own past, of the imperial and colonial legacies that have shaped society today. As a former primary teacher, I was conscious of the need for more books, across more genres, to help us to explore these histories with young readers in thoughtful and engaging ways. Thankfully, there are more and more non-fiction books emerging now for young readers, their families and their educators, that shine a light on Black British history.

But empathy comes through personal connection. And personal connection is created by a compelling story, led by engaging characters. By creating two curious and courageous, bold and brilliant Black British heroines, I am inviting readers to investigate this history from the perspective of two young people also dealing with the everyday issues of family and friendship.

The power of representation

The Sanchos – Ignatius, Anne and their many children, the Sanchonets and Sanchonettas – were a large and loving Black family, running a thriving tea shop come literary salon in the heart of Westminster in the 1770s. As soon as I discovered them through my own research I knew I had to bring that family to life on the page, to show them in all their joyful exuberance. The Sanchos were keen theatre-goers, talented musicians, writers and publishers. The power of that representation was irresistible!

In Lizzie Sancho, I created a historical character with a contemporary voice. She refuses eighteenth-century etiquette: doesn’t wear dresses, won’t curtsey. She’s street-smart. Through Lizzie’s coolly observant narration of Drama and Danger, readers can experience the world of the eighteenth century with a witty slant.

Dido Belle was a mixed heritage heiress living in a mansion on Hampstead Heath, raised as an aristocratic gentlewoman. Her uncle, Lord Mansfield, made key decisions relating to slavery in Britain, no doubt influenced in part by his fondness for his Black niece. With her own library to hand at home, I imagined Belle as a bookworm, as someone whose mystery-solving power came from her reading and research instincts.

My books invite readers to join Lizzie and Belle on a journey of discovery via different cultural themes. In Drama and Danger, it is theatre and performance. In Portraits and Poison, it is the art world and the portrait.  How are we represented on the stage, or on canvas? How do people make sure that their own stories are told? These questions open up discussions about our sense of personal identity, our need to feel represented: these are universal themes and concerns, and we need to equip young readers with the language to address them. With books as their props, educators can create safe spaces in their classrooms for these conversations.

History as a mystery to be solved

The mystery genre is the perfect vehicle to explore this complex history. Throughout the books, I’ve used a variety of historical ‘sources’ for readers to explore. Letters, diaries, theatre posters and newspaper articles offer different perspectives on the story and open up a range of creative writing opportunities for readers.

Alongside Lizzie and Belle, readers must piece together clues about the history itself, to question the versions of events that different characters offer. What better way for young people to develop a sharp eye for the ways in which we learn about history,  and to learn to actively dig deep for answers to pressing questions about our past? The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries open up those conversations while offering adventure, family drama, and the intrigue of a thrilling mystery.


The first book in the series, Drama and Danger, is available here.

The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Portraits and Poison (Farshore Books) is the second in the historical mystery series and is out now.

We also have more children’s books about history on our booklists, for further ideas for historical stories.

Where next?
> Visit our Reading for Pleasure Hub
> Browse our Topic Booklists
> View our printable year group booklists.
> See our Books of the Month.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your Review

Stone Girl Bone Girl


Year group(s) the book is most suitable for:

Year group(s) the book is most suitable for:

Does the book contain anything that teachers would wish to know about before recommending in class (strong language, sensitive topics etc.)?

Does the book contain anything that teachers would wish to know about before recommending in class (strong language, sensitive topics etc.)?

Would you recommend the book for use in primary schools?


Curriculum links (if relevant)

Curriculum links (if relevant)

Any other comments

Any other comments