Althistories, Uchronias or What Ifs.
You know the sort of thing. Robert Harris, Fatherland. The Plot Against America, Phillip Roth.
Less common in children and teenage fictions than you might think, given the popularity of both historical fiction and dystopias on the teen bookshelves. Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willoughby Chase series are probably (and deservedly) the best known. I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts in Battersea as a child but wasn't aware of the others (and many of them weren't written) until I was a Grown Up. Which is a shame because, the first two are good, but the sheer inventive brilliance and humour of Aiken's writing, I think, only took flight with the resurrection (almost literally-Aiken had planned to kill her off in BHiB) of one of literature's true heroines, Miss Dido Twite.
Dido really only comes to life, in the sense of walking off the page, in the third book: Night Birds on Nantucket which also features a put-upon child named Dutiful Penitence, a sailor's quest for a mythical pink whale and a plot to blow up England by firing a long range missile from Nantucket. The alt history part comes with the premise that 'those unfortunate Stuarts' as J.M. Barrie referred to them in Peter Pan succeed in keeping the throne from the grasp of the Hanoverians, giving Aiken leave to invent a series of increasingly dotty Scottish monarchs. Oh, and there's a Channel Tunnel. And Wolves are not hunted into extinction but roam in packs, blood-thirsty man-eaters who conveniently dispose of several unsavoury characters including Dido's old Pa.
So far so nutty, you might think but Aiken declared in interviews that her aim was to get children to think about history and she does this brilliantly. The distinguished Hugh Cunningham has written extensively on the history of childhood, and reading his books for my MA at Birkbeck has brought home just how miserable and desperate 'childhood' was for poor children and children missing one or both parents.
In Dido and Pa, Dido rescues a horribly abused waif called Is (short for Isabet) who turns out to be her step-sister, and aids the street children. They are wonderfully drawn with their songs, games and secret societies while their cruel treatment and lack of protection are described without sparing the reader.
From the 18th century the idea that children should be protected from the street and usefully put to work took hold. The children who had families were a useful source of income, abandoned children could ask for nothing better than an apprenticeship or a place in service.
Blake in 'Songs of Experience' a hundred years before his time,
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song!
Can it be a song of joy? And so many children poor,
It is a land of poverty!
And there were thousands of street-children on the streets of London for whom work was seen as a boon rather than a hardship. It took another century, and another writer, Charles Dickens to bring attention to the misery brought by the 1834 Poor Law (which tied relief to the workhouses) and the condition of child workers. In 'Is' Dido's little sister sets off to rescue children abducted to work in a Northern Mining Town under a foul Industrialist figure who (naturally) comes to a fitting end.
The most wonderful thing about Dido and Is is that not only are they working-class cockney waifs, orphans or as good as (Pa is an extremely nasty individual) rare enough in the middle-class world of children's fiction, but they are waifs with agency. Waifs with the spirit of Pippi Longstocking combined with the good sense of Lizzie Bennett. And extremely bad luck. One evil character after another threatens them, though in the very last book, The Witch of Clatteringshaw, we do get a possible glimpse of future happiness for Dido.
So 'alt' it may be but the books in their inventive, funny, crazy, positively carnivalesque way give voice to the thousands of silenced voices who lived an existence that we can barely imagine now. And teach you history-the important bits. As well as the Kings and Queens Stuarts and Hanoverians stuff (which I must admit I had to get straight in my head via Wikipedia)
Of course there are still street children in most of the rest of the world. There are wonderful books being written about modern-day street children and poverty in childhood. I think it was Arvind Adiga who said recently that India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with millions of poor and destitute children, desperately needs its Dickens. And perhaps Aiken's levity would not have been acceptable at the time. But however zany the humour, however far-fetched the adventures, the voice of children rings out true and clear from her writing.