I’ve been working on this list of historical fiction books for kids for a long time. You might even say it’s an historical endeavor. (Oh, sigh.) I considered breaking it up into time periods but decided instead to make it gigantic. I’ve arranged these historical fiction novels in chronological order. I’ve tried something new, too, and have listed a few extra books where appropriate, but without mini reviews. Some of these books are on other lists, but others are new titles. Frankly, I was just too overwhelmed to write blurbs on all of them! I also realize this is heavily weighted towards North America and Europe, and I’m working on that and will continue to update the list this year! (Leave me your recommendations for other parts of the world, so I can put them on my reading list!)
I occasionally get requests to be more forthcoming with age recommendations for books. I tend to resist that a little bit but I will say that many of these books deal with difficult subjects and parents may want to look at the books closely if they have concerns. These books are all classified as “middle grade books“, which suggests that the intended audience is for ages 8 and up, but I would start with age 9 or 10 for most of them. You will have to decide what is best for you and your family. I have an 11 year old and I would allow him to read all of these historical fiction books with the caveat that he discuss any difficult topics with me.
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Historical Fiction Books for Kids
Catherine, Called Birdy. In the 13th century, 14-year-old Catherine, the daughter of a landed knight, has a little more gumption than a girl in her times is supposed to have. Her father is trying to marry her off to enrich his coffers but she would rather run around with the peasants on the manor and thwart his efforts. This short novel is told in a diary format and does not sugar-coat life in Medieval England.
Other medieval/Elizabethan historical fiction novels by Karen Cushman I love:
All the World’s a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts is a historical novel where the great Shakespeare himself plays a role. Twelve-year-old Kit gets caught pickpocketing in the audience during a performance and instead of sending him off to prison, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decide he will work for them instead. During the course of his employment, Kit becomes enamored with theater life and when the company is threatened with eviction, Kit helps them steal the theater (you will have to read it to see what I mean!) to build The Globe. Lots of fun, especially for Shakespeare fans. This would be great to read in conjunction with learning about The Bard.
Blue Birds is a lovely book, written in verse, about a friendship between two 12 year old girls in late 16th century Roanoke. What happened to the Roanoke colony remains a mystery to this day. Alis, an English settler meets Kimi, a member of the Roanoke tribe and the two form a strong bond, despite their lack of a common language. During heightened tensions between the settlers and two different Native American communities Alis and Kimi decide go against their communities and risk everything to help each other. Caroline Starr Rose also wrote, May B. a historical fiction novel in verse set in frontier America. I can’t wait for her next book.
Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra de Winter and Bram Broen by Eve Yohalem. I just finished reading this historical fiction novel. In 17th Century Holland, Petra runs away from her abusive father and accidentally ends up as a stowaway on a merchant vessel headed towards the Dutch Indies. A mulatto boy, Bram, helps her to disguise herself as a boy and Petra uses her healing knowledge to help the ship’s surgeon. She gains the trust of the crew but when they discover she is a girl at the same time a mutiny takes hold, both she and Bram find themselves in grave danger. This is an extremely suspenseful novel with vivid descriptions of life on a 17th century ship. (Let’s just say, I’m really appreciating my tiny apartment right about now.)
Chains and Forge. Chains is a fascinating view of slavery in New York, where books about slavery are most often set in the South. During the American Revolution a 13 year old slave belonging to a ruthless Loyalist family, Isabel, yearns for freedom. She meets Curzon who encourages her to spy for the Rebels. Forge is told from escaped slave Curzon’s point of view. The third book is expected in 2016.
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War is a novel in verse, told in the alternating voices of two twelve year olds. Anikwa is a member of the Miami tribe, and James is the son of Anglo traders in the nearby Fort Wayne in the Indiana territory. It is 1812, and tensions are rising between the two groups. Salt becomes crucial when James’ father refuses to trade salt with the Miami, but James attempts to smuggle it to his friend. One of the most interesting aspects of Frost’s verse is that she writes James’s poems in long parallel lines, which represent the stripes of the American flag. In contrast, the verse lines of Anikwa’s story mirror Miami ribbon work. I think verse novels are a great way to hook kids who might balk at a long, dense historical novel because the action moves along quickly.
There are several more historical fiction books for kids written in verse on my list of chapter books written in verse.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Set in 1832, this Newbery Honor book tells the absolutely riveting story of Charlotte, who sets out on a sea voyage from England to Rhode Island. Instead of being chaperoned by other families on the journey, she unexpectedly finds herself alone with the crew and a cruel captain, and becomes entangled in a nail-biting and dangerous adventure. Charlotte has lived her whole life under the instruction of how to behave properly, and to give due respect to authority, but those rules may not be the right ones to follow during a mutiny, or when she is put on trial for murder. Recommended for ages 11/12 and up.
Heart of a Samurai. I started reading this book but it was snatched from my hands by my son who gives it a big thumbs up. It is an adventure story, inspired by historical events. In 1841, 14 year old Manjiro and 3 other men are stranded on an island off Japan during a fishing trip. Eventually they are rescued by an American whaling vessel but instead of returning to Japan, Manjiro travels with the Captain, attends school in America – dealing with the prejudice that comes with being an outsider – and heads to California during the gold rush. At the time, Japan was cut off from the world, and no one was allowed back into the country after leaving, but Manjiro risks his life to return.
Like a River: A Civil War Novel. Two lives intersect during the American Civil War. When his older brother suffers a terrible accident, 15 year old Leander runs away to join the army. He ends up in a Southern hospital where he befriends a soldier named Paul, who is caring for his father. Paul, however, turns out to be a girl, Polly. When Polly’s father dies she joins the army, still in disguise and ends up in Andersonville prison where another soldier takes care of her so that her secret stays safe. At the end of the war she is sent home on the infamous Sultana steamboat, and narrowly escapes its destruction. Author Kathy Cannon Wiechman does not gloss over the harsh reality of war time life and prison. The first half of the book is told from Leander’s point of view. The second half belongs to Polly. I recommend it for ages 11 and up.
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. I am a big fan of Karen Cushman’s books. (See above!!) In 1849, Lucy’s widowed mother decides to move her family from Boston to try their luck in California during the gold rush. Lucy is not a fan of this plan and she does everything she can to earn her way back to Boston. Cushman is skilled at creating humorous, spunky narrators and her books move along at a fast pace, making them especially good for kids who may not want to pick up a huge novel. Also read: Rodzina
More 19th century books can be found on my list of books to read if you like Little House on the Prairie.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. In 1899, Calpurnia loathes the expectations set for 12 year old girls; she’d much rather read Darwin’s The Origin of Species and catch and study wildlife with her naturalist Granddaddy. I loved this tale of a girl coming of age at a time when natural science and engineering discoveries were changing the world. There is now a sequel, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate.
The Tortoise and the Soldier: A Story of Courage and Friendship in World War I. My son enjoyed this book so much he read it twice. It has gorgeous illustrations and is not a very long read, so use it to entice so-called “reluctant readers”. Parents should know that since it is a war story there is difficult, though age-appropriate, material. It is based on the true story of Henry Friston, who served in the British Navy during World War I. While rescuing others at Gallipoli, he finds a tortoise, who becomes his companion for the rest of the war. Henry relates is story to a young boy and inspiring journalist.
Letters from Rifka. Rifka’s family is escaping the anti-semitic policies and violence of Russia. During their escape and travels through Poland, they suffer illness, humiliation and hardship. When Rifka is denied passage due to a contagious skin infection, she must stay behind until she is well. She stays with a kind family in Belgium, learning how to be independent and growing in confidence, skills which serve her well when she is finally able to board a ship to Ellis Island, where she faces futher hurdles. Hesse writes the book in epistolary form and it is a relatively short, but utterly engaging book.
Kare Hesse is a go-to author for historical fiction. More books I love:
Esperanza Rising. I have been reading a lot of books by Pam Muñoz Ryan, lately. I don’t know why it took me so long to start reading her novels, but boy are they good. In the 1930s, Esperanza and her family live on a ranch in Mexico. When tragedy strikes, she and her mother make a risky escape to Southern California, where they become farm workers. Although Muñoz Ryan explores historical topics like the Depression, farm worker’s rights and labor organization, minority status this is ultimately a story about how a girl from a privileged background grows in maturity and understanding.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose. I absolutely loved this book set in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Sasha has been wanting to become a loyal member of the Soviet Young Pioneers for as long he can remember. He sees Comrade Stalin as the great father of the Soviets, he knows all the laws of the SYP. His father works for the great Comrade Stalin, until… one day he doesn’t. When Sasha accidentally breaks off the nose from a statue, fear sets in and Sasha struggles to make sense of what is happening around him as he slowly comes to understand that some of what he thought to be true isn’t. This book is both subtly funny and sophisticatedly heartbreaking. Younger kids may miss much of the subtext of Sasha’s story but middle grade readers will have much to think about, and hopefully talk about with their parents who grew up before the break up of the USSR. (I listened to this on audiobook.)
Judith Kerr based When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit on her own experiences leaving Nazi Germany and living in Switzerland and France, before finally heading towards England. As a young Jewish girl, Anna is aware that something unsettling is happening in her home country, and her father’s livelihood is threatened, but she doesn’t quite understand the thread posed by Hitler. While in Zurich and Paris, young Anna must learn how to navigate new schools and cultures, make new friends and accept that her family life is irrevocably changed. Through it all, Anna hangs on to the idea that as long as their family is together, that is all that matters. Although it is inevitable that any book set in Europe during WWII will involve some discussion of the horrific fate of the Jewish population, this book is appropriate for parents whose children are not ready to discuss those horrors in detail.
Paper Wishes is a story that addresses a too-often overlooked and shameful period in American history: the Japanese internment camps. I still find it shocking that the government forcibly relocated people of Japanese decent (and citizens, no less!) to the remote camps. Disgraceful. But independent from my soap box pronouncements, this is a wonderful book. 10 year old Manami and her family live on Bainbridge Island in Washington state when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The U. S. government transports her family and others to a camp in the desert. When an attempt to smuggle her dog, Yujiin, under her coat fails, Manami stops talking. At the camp, she holds onto the hope that she will see Yujiin again one day. Her teacher at the camp helps her cope by giving her drawing paper so she can paint her feelings. A moving and powerful book.
Hero on a Bicycle. I didn’t make the connection that Shirley Hughes is also the author of the beloved Dogger books until after I finished reading this book! Set in 1944 Florence, Italy, this story is about how thirteen-year- old Paolo, his sister and mother aid the resistance. Paolo’s anti-fascist father has fled the city and Paolo takes nighttime rides on his bicycle, which bring him in contact with the Italian resistance. Paolo’s mother is pressured to hide two resistance fighters and Paolo must assist in getting the two men to their next destination. The tension in the book is palpable and there is a considerable amount of suspense. It is a great book for kids who like adventure stories.
There are a lot of WWII historical fiction books to love, including:
- Number the Stars
- The Diary of Anne Frank (not fiction, of course!!)
- The War that Saved My Life
- Adam and Thomas
- Lily’s Crossing
Susan Marcus Bends the Rules. I chose to feature this book, because I feel it is a good book about Jim Crow laws that is more gentle than a lot novels. Parents with younger or more sensitive children can read this book together to start the conversation about racism in America, past and present. In 1943, Susan and her family move from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri. Susan encounters racial prejudice against blacks, Asian-Americans and Jews. She doesn’t understand why she is not supposed to befriend Loretta, an African-American girl. When she and her friends discover that the segregation laws do not apply to busses, they form a plan to “bend the rules.”
I have many more books on my other lists that address historical racism against African-Americans. Some of my favorites include:
- Stella by Starlight (1930s)
- Night on Fire (1960s)
- Lions of Little Rock (1950s)
- Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (1930s)
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham (1960s) (and other books by Christopher Paul Curtis)
- Witness (1920s)
See more on my list of chapter books for Black History Month
Day of the Pelican. This is the only book on the list about events I remember hearing about on the evening news. In the 1990s, the war in Kosovo upends the life of 12 year old Meli Llesh and her family, who are ethnic Albanians. The war comes literally to their front door and the Llesh family flee the Serbian forces, walking all the way to a NATO refugee camp in Macedonia. At the camp, the family awaits news that they will be permitted to immigrate to America. This is a fantastic book, and will provide insight into events in recent history, but I recommend it for kids ages 12 and up. There are a lot of references to ethnic violence, and some references to violence against women.
Other books by Katherine Paterson I love:
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A few other lists to check out:
- Australian historical fiction for kids
- Early North American historical books for kids
- 12 books for 12 year olds
- Holocaust books for kids
- 6th grade reading list for globally conscious kids
- Historical fiction book recommendations from Imagination Soup
- Historical fiction book recommendations from Pragmatic Mom