Putting the right historical fiction book in the hands of a middle grade reader is a exciting way to bring the past to life. Since I love historical fiction, I've read hundreds of books in this genre, and chosen my favorites for this list.
Titles are arranged in a loose timeline, starting with the Iron Age and finishing up in the 1990s. Some of these authors are well-known for their oeuvre of historical fiction, so looking their names up in the library catalog is a good way to continue the search for great middle grade historical fiction books!
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The Windeby Puzzle: History and Story by Lois Lowry
Lowry introduces her book with facts about the discovery of a 2,000-year-old bog body in Northern Germany which inspired her book. She gives historical, scientific and archaeological background to set the context for her two intersecting narratives. In the first narrative, Lowry imagines the life of an Iron-Age girl and how her life's journey may have led her to the same fate as the bog body. After the bog body was DNA tested and revealed to be a boy, Lowry wrote the second narrative from the disabled boy's perspective. A fascinating and unique reading experience. Lowry also includes photographs.
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
In 12th century Korea, Tree-Ear, an orphan, lives under the bridge with the disabled Crane-man. The two survive from day to day but Tree-Ear is fascinated by the local revered potter, Min. Circumstances collide and Tree-Ear becomes Min's apprentice. Tree-Ear must learn patience, an appreciation for hard work, as well as suffer through Min's bad temper. When Min sets about creating pottery to impress an emissary, Tree-Ear is determined to help him succeed and undergoes an important, life-changing journey. An utterly fantastic book.
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman (1994)
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 is 100% hilarious.
A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine
Taking place in the late 15th century, just before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Levine's intensely moving and suspenseful tale follows the adventures of Paloma as she grows up in a well-off Jewish family. Loma's grandfather is well-connected and famed for his ability to deal with Christians. Loma accompanies him on his travels around the country as religious and political tensions grow, facing dangers, prejudice and the constant threat of forced conversion. This is a page-turning book with an extremely strong girl at its heart.
All the World's a Stage: A Novel in Five Acts by Gretchen Woelfle.
Find it: Amazon
This 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.
Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris
This is a beautiful story! Walnut is visually impaired but the challenge to earn his adult name includes a test of accuracy with a bow and arrow. His mother teaches him how to see with his ears and his uncle gives him the challenge of seeing what can't be seen. Walnut learns more about what it means to be adult than just passing a challenge and he earns his new name, "Sees Behind Trees." Set in 16th century North America.
Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra de Winter and Bram Broen by Eve Yohalem
Find it: Amazon
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.
The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts (series) by Avi
It's 1724 and Oliver's father has disappeared off to London to find Oliver's sister. To top it off, the house is flooded and Oliver has no money. A series of events involving thieves, scoundrels, and very Dickensian characters sets Oliver on the road to London. The cliffhanger at the end of the first book will have your kids reaching desperately for the second. Both novels are fast paced, full of high suspense, and offer much food for thought.
Chains (series) by Laurie Halse Anderson
Anderson's books form a compelling trilogy of slavery in the North. 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. The second book, Forge, is told from Curzon's, point of view. in the final book, Ashes, Curzon and Isabel seek to free Isabel's sister, Ruth, who is enslaved in the South.
Show Me A Sign (series) by Ann Clare LeZotte
In 1805, Mary Lambert lives in a community where everyone speaks sign language and a quarter of the population is deaf. One day, a young man arrives in the village hoping to research the reason for the high rate of deafness. Mary narrates the story and her observations of the interactions between the English, Black, Irish, and Wampanoag peoples, as well as on racism, prejudice and ableism are perceptive and thought-provoking. The author's endnotes with historical background on the town of Chilmark and Martha's Vineyard are fascinating.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
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 becomes entangled in a nail-biting and dangerous adventure.
How I Became a Ghost (series) by Tim Tingle
Isaac, a Choctaw boy whose family is forced to walk the Trail of Tears narrates this remarkable book which intertwines historical events with the supernatural, while delving into the cultural identity of the Choctaw. From the beginning of the book, Isaac announces to the reader that he is a ghost, and he foresees the tragedy to come. Yet, Tingle uses humor in surprising and effective ways. I highly recommend reading it aloud or alongside with your child, as adults will enjoy it, and kids will surely have many insightful questions.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
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, faces 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.
Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson
In this enthralling story, twelve-year-old Homer escapes the plantation where he is enslaved with his mother and sister. Lost and alone in the swamp, he is rescued by Suleman and taken to the maroon community of Freewater in the Great Dismal Swamp. Although he finds connection with the others in Freewater and learns about survival in the difficult landscape, he is haunted by the need to return to the plantation and free his mother and sister.
Like a River: A Civil War Novel by Kathy Cannon Wiechman
Find it: Amazon
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. The first half of the book is told from Leander's point of view. The second half belongs to Polly.
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman
Find it: Amazon
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 at a fast pace, making them especially good for kids who may not want to pick up a huge novel.
More 19th century historical fiction can be found on my list of books to read if you like Little House on the Prairie.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (series) by Jacqueline Kelly
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.
Daring Darlene, Queen of the Screen by Anne Nesbet
In 1914, 12-year-old Darlene is a silent film star whose daring adventures have captivated screen audiences. A publicity stunt meant to revive her popularity has her inadvertently getting mixed up with the orphaned heiress, Victoria Berryman, who is the object of a kidnap plot. This book is wonderfully fast-paced and exceedingly charming.
The Tortoise and the Soldier: A Story of Courage and Friendship in World War I by Michael Foreman
Find it: Amazon
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 by Karen Hesse
Rifka's family is escaping the anti-semitic policies and pogrom 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 further hurdles. This is a short, epistolary novel.
Stella By Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
One night, Stella and her brother witness the KKK burning a cross and it becomes a catalyst for the action in this heartbreaking and compelling story set in Jim Crow South. As the narrator, Stella describes the terror her community lives every day, when walking down the street and looking at a white person could land them in jail, or how a white man can slap her with impunity any time he wants. The intelligent Stella is always questioning the way things are and strives to get her thoughts down on paper. She meets with kindness in small ways and makes connections in unexpected places.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
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.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Curtis is one my favorite middle grade authors. 10-year-old Buddy runs away from a series of unpleasant foster homes and sets out to find his father, whom he believes to be a jazz musician. Set in the depression, Curtis’ writing is filled with humor as well as serious truths. Ultimately, it’s an optimistic book, full of laughs and one cannot help but fall in love with Buddy.
Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin
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.
Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar
I could not stop turning the pages of this excellent epistolary novel. In 1938, Esther leaves her mother and brother in Poland and joins her father in Cuba. Esther tells her story in a series of letters to her sister. Making the journey by herself, as a Jewish refugee, Esther looks forward to her new home. Once in Cuba, she falls in love with the island and her neighbors. Her father has been working as a peddler, but Esther is a talented seamstress and finds success selling sought after dresses so that she and her father are finally able to send for the rest of the family. Behar based the book on the story of her grandmother and introduces readers to an incredibly diverse population.
Lizard's Tale by Weng Wai Chan
In 1940 Singapore, Lizard went to live with his Uncle Archie after his parents died. However, when Uncle Archie disappeared unexpectedly, Lizard finds his way to Chinatown in Singapore, surviving by doing odd jobs. One of those jobs involves stealing a mysterious teak box and delivering it to a mysterious individual. When things don't go according to plan, Lizard is left with the box. He and his friend try to understand the mystery of the box, which somehow connects to the war, secret codes and the disappearance of Uncle Archie.
MORE: Middle grade mysteries
We Are Wolves by Katrina Nannestad
Nannestad wrote one of my favorite read aloud books, When Mischief Came to Town, and even though this thrilling story of survival, inspired by the Wolfskinder ("wolf children") during World War II couldn't be more different, it is just as good. In 1944, Liesl, Otto, and Mia live in East Prussia when their father is called to serve in the German army. When their village is attacked by Russians in winter, the trio are separated from their mother. 11-year-old Liesl takes charge of her younger siblings, determined to survive against all odds.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
Kerr based this book on her own experience leaving Nazi Germany and living in Switzerland and France, before finally heading for 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 danger Hitler poses. 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.
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
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.
Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes
In 1944 Florence, Italy, 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.
Grenade by Alan Gratz
Hideki lives on Okinawa and in 1945, he is conscripted into the Japanese army. Just landed on the same island is Ray, an American soldier about to experience his first battle. Told in alternating points of view, this is a harrowing tale of two young men's foray into war, and the effect it has on individuals. Riveting.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
I could not put this book down! Nisha and her twin brother are half-Muslim, half-Hindu and live with their father in India just before the time of Partition. When word comes that their town is to become part of the new Pakistan state, Nisha, her brother, her Hindu father and grandmother must make the harrowing and dangerous journey to the Indian border. Each chapter is an entry in Nisha's diary as she leaves her comfortable life behind and struggles with her own questions of identity.
In the Tunnel by Julie Lee
When the Soviets enter North Korea after the Korean War, Myung-gi watches as the government begins to impose oppressive measures on its population. When his father is arrested for smuggling in Western books, Myung-gi's family dares an escape to South Korea. In hope of finding his father, Myung-gi joins the South Korean army but now he is trapped in a tunnel at the border. In this companion to Lee's novel, Brother's Keeper, the action is just as heart-pounding, emotional and gripping as her earlier book.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohat
In the 1950s, Katie and her family move from Iowa to Georgia, where there are very few other Japanese-American families. Katie's parents work horrible jobs in a chicken processing factory and when her sister Lynn becomes ill, things go downhill fast. Through the difficulties, Katie focuses on Lynn's ability to see "kira-kira", a word that means the sparkling, glittering moments of life.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhà Lai
This is the story of Hà, a 9-year-old girl living in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. Hà, her mother and three brothers escape the city on a ship as it falls to the communists. Rescued by the American navy, they eventually find their way to Alabama through the help of a sponsor. This story is suspenseful, touching and even quite funny in parts. Kids everywhere will relate to Hà's description of learning English and its spelling and grammar rules! It is a story of fitting in, the importance of family, and hope even in sorrow.
Orange for the Sunsets by Tina Athaide
1972 Uganda is not the typical setting for a children's novel, and yet, readers will draw many parallels between the shocking events in which the Ugandan government expelled ethnic Indians from the country, and present-day xenophobic tensions and arguments over national borders. The narration, which alternates between two friends–Indian Asha and Ungandan Yesofu–explores the nature of loyalty, nationality and allows the reader to view the country's chaos through two different lenses. Powerful and moving.
It Ain't So Awful Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
In 1970s California a young Iranian immigrant figures out how to be American without rejecting her heritage. This funny and moving novel is great for fans of Judy Blume, who will connect to Zomorod Yousefzadeh's (who now wants to be called "Cindy") attempts to fit in with her peers.
Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson
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.