The end of Daylight Savings Time is like a little tiny taste of time travel. Poof! Here you are, with one extra hour in the day (though of course you’ll find yourself missing an hour in the spring). But that may be the closest I ever get to time travel at a rate other than the standard 1 second per second, so I try to get my fix through time travel stories. Whether driven by historical curiosity, scientific innovation, optimism about the future, or regrets about the past, time travel stories seem to confirm Dostoyevsky’s remark that there are only two stories: someone goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town. In these stories, people go on journeys where they become strangers, a fish out of water. Familiar places become unfamiliar through the lens of time.
Today’s collection of time travel stories is for kids—mostly middle grade readers, though I have a couple for even younger kids (arranged roughly in age order). Some are intended to be more educational in nature, and some are just for fun. The one thing I’ve noticed is that time travel for kids doesn’t always involve very detailed explanations of how the travel itself actually works—though some authors try harder than others. Let’s turn back (or forward) the clock and see where we end up!
A time traveler heads back to prehistoric times and finds himself in the unfortunate situation of meeting two T. Rexes who are looking for a meal. Sniffing around, they decide that there must be food inside the time machine … and find themselves far, far in the future (aka the present day). They’re thrilled to find themselves in a world where food is everywhere, but when the cops show up, they make a hasty retreat.
Okay, so the time travel here is just done through a shiny contraption without any real details about how it works, but I’m not expecting too much realism from a picture book that has talking T. Rexes looking for donuts. Still, it’s an amusing way to get dinosaurs into the present day, scientific accuracy aside.
The story behind this picture book is as intriguing as the story itself, which involves a mysterious “ghost” who lives in Queen Mary’s Dollhouse. The dollhouse was built in the 1920s and was incredibly detailed, filled with things like working lights, actual plumbing (both hot and cold water), and even miniature cars with engines that ran. Within this dollhouse was a library, and in that library were actual printed books from a range of the leading authors of the time. Among them was Vita Sackville-West, whose story had never been published before aside from the tiny version for the library.
The book itself describes the dollhouse briefly, and then a woman who lives in the house, enjoying its fine amenities and causing a lot of confusion among the caretakers of the house, who would often find things in disarray when they prepared the house for visitors. The woman is described as having heard Scheherazade’s tales, seen Cinderella off to her ball, and hearing the famed Nightingale in the Chinese imperial court. She had “that particular genius for being in the right place and in the right company at the right moment…” which, it seems, includes a bit of time travel. This book is a little self-referential joke that ends by saying that if anyone wants to ruin their eyes reading this tiny book in the library, they’d understand why sometimes things weren’t all put in their correct places.
The illustrations by Kate Baylay are done in an Art Nouveau style (to fit the 1920s period in which the book was written) and they’re lovely, capturing the beauty of the dollhouse and the chameleon-like costume changes of the time-traveling woman. The time travel is never really explained at all, but I thought it was a cute book, and a fun story about the story, too.
This easy chapter book is part of a whole Pigsticks and Harold series, though I haven’t read any of the others. It seems, though, that Pigsticks (a pig) is the one who comes up with various schemes, while his best friend Harold (a hamster) tends to get dragged along for the ride. This time, that ride takes them through time itself. Pigsticks is trying to figure out how to build a spaceship for the upcoming science fair, and just wishes he could be like his great-aunt Ada Lovepig, whose workshop he has inherited.
But what should he find but an odd contraption labeled the “Lovepig Time Machine”: Pigsticks’ brilliant idea is to travel to the future to learn how to build a working spaceship, which will guarantee his success in the science fair. Of course, the best laid plans of pig and hamster go a bit awry when the control lever breaks off, and the two find themselves hurtling through random ages: in the time of dinosaurs (or dinopigs), meeting Cleopigtra in ancient Egypt, and even some strangely familiar-looking Vikings.
The time travel in Pigsticks and Harold is pretty goofy—and there are plenty of pig-related puns scattered throughout the story, so again we’re not striving for accuracy here so much as entertainment value.
Time Twisters: Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler and Abigail Adams, Pirate of the Caribbean by Steve Sheinkin, illustrations by Neil Swaab
These are the first two titles in the Time Twisters series, which features time-traveling historical figures. Doc and Abby are step-siblings who don’t really care for history, and aren’t afraid to say so. But it turns out those people in history can hear them, and have finally gotten fed up with them. So one day in history class when Doc’s reading about Abraham Lincoln in his history textbook, Lincoln does … nothing. He just sits and reads his newspaper.
Eventually, he actually shows up at Abby and Doc’s school, and decides that he’s actually more interested in becoming a pro wrestler than going back to his “boring” role in history. But he’s about to be elected president—what will happen to the country if Lincoln doesn’t get back to his own time? In the second book, Abigail Adams is tired of the fact that all kids know about her is that she hung up laundry in the East Room of the White House. So she decides to become a pirate instead, joining “Calico Jack” Rackham’s crew.
In both books, Abby and Doc spend some time with the historical figures (we also meet Mary Todd Lincoln, John Adams, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read)—some in the present day, and some in the past. While there are some actual historical facts included, they’re mixed in with a lot of silliness, too. A lot of that is explained in the author’s notes, which spell out the things that actually happened and introduce some other fun facts.
The method of time travel in Time Twisters appears to be diving into containers. There’s a tall storage box in the school library that Doc and Abby use to get back in time (and which Lincoln appears in when he arrives in theirs), but in the second book they end up diving into other things as well to travel around. There are also some weird synchronicities going on—like the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s decision to be boring would just turn up in the textbook as Doc is reading it (when the history teacher remembers it saying something different before), but this time travel is fairly loosey-goosey. The driving point of the books is that history isn’t as boring as Abby and Doc initially thought, and Sheinkin wants to convince his readers of the same thing. It looks like we can expect another volume next spring, Neil Armstrong and Nat Love, Space Cowboys.
Nolan and his sister Olive are just trying to stay out of Mom’s way when a mysterious package shows up on their doorstep. They find an old-looking crystal radio with an engraved plate that says “Property of H.H.” Upon turning it on, they tune in and hear some platitudes and … things get a bit wobbly, and they find Benjamin Franklin standing there in their kitchen. (Yes, he does eventually go to their bathroom, too, making the title of the book accurate.) Old Ben is, as you may imagine, quite intrigued by the modern world, and young Olive is all too happy to take him exploring, despite Nolan’s insistence that they need to get him back home before Mom finds out.
Ben Franklin is delighted to see working electric lights, visit the public library and the fire station, and go swimming—all things that he had some connection to. At times, he breaks into a story, which is illustrated as a comic book section to depict how vividly he describes things. Meanwhile, Nolan is just frustrated with both Ben and Olive, and things take a turn for the worse when nosy Tommy Tuttle begins to suspect who Franklin really is.
There’s a lot of humor in the book, mostly in the way that Franklin is so eager to explore the modern world (and also a running gag about Abraham Lincoln), but this one also contains a good deal of historical facts. The stories that Franklin tells are all grounded in fact—his experiments with electricity, his love of swimming, starting the first library, and so on. But the book also focuses on Nolan and Olive, particularly Nolan’s struggles with his complicated feelings about his dad, who has recently left the family. The book ends with some explanations of the facts behind the stories that Franklin tells throughout the book.
The time travel in this book is tied to the mysterious radio. We never do find out who “H.H.” is, nor why the radio was addressed to Nolan, but I take it we’ll probably get more clues as the series continues. The second book, Eleanor Roosevelt’s in My Garage, was just published this fall, though I haven’t gotten to read it myself yet.
The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Rome: A Handbook for Time Travelers by Jonathan W. Stokes, illustrated by David Sossella
This book about ancient Rome is presented as a tourist guide for time travelers, published in the year 2163 and left behind in our time by a careless time traveler. As the explanation goes, time machines became household appliances by the year 2149, which caused a lot of problems when everyone started winning the lottery, nailing their job interviews, throwing the perfect game-winning touchdowns, and so on. Everyone became incredibly wealthy, which led to inflation, which led to economic collapse, which is when Time Corp was able to buy up most of America in a hostile takeover, and now has a monopoly on the time travel business. But you can still book a trip to ancient Rome, and Time Corp is happy to direct you to all the exciting events you don’t want to miss, and provide you with tips for keeping your head attached to your neck.
The book itself presents a pretty accurate picture of ancient Rome: ways that you’re likely to die there, what fashion was like, entertainment in the Colosseum, and, of course, the life of Julius Caesar. By framing it as a travel guide, though, it really helps the reader imagine themselves in ancient Rome, not just reading about long-dead people in a long-ago time. There are Yelp-like reviews of various locations (Flavian Amphitheater: 1-star food, deafening noise level, not wheelchair accessible, doesn’t accept credit cards) and really funny footnotes scattered throughout. Major historical events are introduced as events that you could visit in your time machine. I knew some Roman history already, but I learned a lot of fun (or gruesome) facts while reading The Thrifty Guide, and I really enjoyed the book.
There are also a couple of “friendly messages” from Finn Greenquill, the CEO of Time Corp, who is basically a despicable human being who just wants to brag about himself and make sure that you keep spending money on Time Corp’s various services and guidebooks. These, of course, are pretty light on facts about ancient Rome, but add to the time travel story and help flesh out the world of 2163.
I also have a copy of the second volume, The Thrifty Guide to the American Revolution, but I haven’t started it yet, and I see that there’s also The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Greece published this fall. I was impressed by the first one, though, and would highly recommend it as a way of getting young readers interested in history in a fun, engaging way. The time machines aren’t explained in detail, but it appears that Time Corp tries not to make your presence in the past too obvious. They even encourage you to play pranks with the time machine—they’ll come around and set things right later. (Though what is “later” when time travel is involved, right?)
The latest book in the Greenglass House series is a prequel to The Left-Handed Fate, but also serves to link together many of Milford’s books. This is the story of when Lucy and Liao Bluecrowne move into the Greenglass House in Nagspeake. After an attack on the Left-Handed Fate, Captain Bluecrowne decides that the kids are safer on land rather than on the ship, despite Lucy’s protests, so he has built this house up on a hill near town.
Meanwhile, there are some unfriendly forces at work in Nagspeake. Foulk Trigemine walks through time and space to arrive in Nagspeake in 1810, meeting up with Ignis Blister, a loud-mouthed conflagrationeer. Trigemine is on a mission, and has been sent to track down a young conflagrationeer with Blister’s help—and it quickly becomes clear that things won’t be great for whomever he finds.
The reason this book is on the list is because Trigemine uses something called the kairos mechanism, which allows him to move through time. He uses a series of complex calculations to find out the ideal time and place for accomplishing a particular task, and that’s what brings him to Nagspeake. The workings of the device aren’t described in detail, though there is one sequence in which we get to see Trigemine doing some calculations, and it’s pretty fascinating. It’s all part of the magical realism of the worlds that Milford has built around the Greenglass House stories and the Arcane stories.
But aside from the time travel, which kicks off the book but isn’t always the focus, we really get to know Lucy and Liao a bit better, as well as Lady Xiaoming, who is Liao’s mother and Lucy’s stepmother. As with Milford’s other books, there are lots of other stories and legends woven into the book. The people in her books carry these stories with them and share them, and they tie into the plot in magical ways.
Although this book takes place almost completely on land, you still get a good sense of the nautical life through Lucy’s eyes—everything is set against her life aboard the Left-Handed Fate, and she struggles to be content while stuck ashore. You can feel the pull of the sea, and it makes you want to spend time on a ship (though life on board is clearly difficult and harsh, too).
I interviewed Kate Milford back in February, when the cover of Bluecrowne was revealed, so I was excited when the the book finally arrived. It looks gorgeous, and the story is beautifully written. If you’re a fan of the Greenglass House series, you’ll definitely want to dive into Bluecrowne. And if you haven’t read any of Milford’s delightful books, what are you waiting for?
My Current Stack
I’ve started a couple of other time-travel related books for middle grade or young adult readers, but honestly I’ve found them a little disappointing. Some weren’t well edited; more than one had really intelligent female characters whose brains nevertheless turned to mush when the dumb-but-cute guy got close, and I got pretty fed up with that aspect of the story. Kids narrating stories in voices that don’t sound like kids, explanations of time travel that tried to be scientific but just came across worse than if they were just mysterious and unexplained … I hate stopping a book that I’ve started, but these were seriously challenging to continue. At least two involved Leonardo da Vinci as a possible time traveler—but then descriptions of his work or theories had glaring errors that made me cringe a little.
I’ve also been making my way through some space-related books, and I just read a graphic novel about Nick Cave that was really fascinating and also a bit confusing. I suppose it probably would have made more sense if I actually knew more about Nick Cave and his music to begin with, but I think it’s one that his fans would enjoy.
I’ve missed a few Stack Overflow columns recently—without my own personal time machine, I discovered that I took on just a bit too much in October, so it’s taken a while to get back on track. We’ll see how November goes—of course things don’t usually slow down during this time of year, either!
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column.