Historical fiction picture books can be a gateway into the past for kids, inspiring them to dig deeper into a specific historical event or period. I found it challenging to make this list because I could easily have included 100 books! However, I wanted to keep it manageable for you as well as share books that address a variety of historical periods.
Even though I wanted to include books spanning a diverse selection of locales, this list ended up skewed to the West and specifically towards American history as that was primarily what is available to me here at my library. However, I looked to include books about less well travelled periods in history as much as I could.
The list is organized roughly in historical order. Because historical fiction picture books are often used in school curricula, I've included the publisher or reviewers recommended grade level. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Do you need a printable copy of this book list? You can get one at the bottom of this post.
A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road by Bonnie Christensen. Mei's father travels the silk road but Mei must stay behind to look after the silk worms. She gives her father a jade pebble to take with him and the story continues as we watch the pebble get passed from person to person on a grand adventure. Grades 1-4
Chanticleer and the Fox. Barbara Cooney adapted "Nun's Priest's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for a young audience. A widow and her daughters take care of their farm in medieval England. A rather arrogant rooster spends his day strutting and showing off. A wily fox uses the age-old strategy of flattery to trick the rooster into crowing. Only the Chanticleer's quick thinking saves him and the farmyard brood. This is a rather long book, but that also makes it a great picture book to read aloud to older kids, who may also be better positioned to understand the lesson in humility. Grades 1-4.
The Boy, The Bear, The Baron, The Bard is a wordless, energetic adventure! A boy chases a runaway soccer ball backstage only to find himself transported to the world of Shakespeare and onstage at The Globe! Shakespeare himself begins to chase the boy off the stage and they embark on a chaotic journey around Elizabethan London, picking up a bear, an imprisoned baron, and leaping onto a barge inhabited by Elizabeth, herself. Grades K-2.
Will's Quill by Don Freeman. This is a cute story about Willoughby the Goose who heads to London. He wanders around seeing the sights in the bustling lanes and businesses of Elizabethan England. He crosses paths with William Shakespeare and history is made! Grade K-3.
17th Century China
Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu by Emily Arnold Mccully. Jingyong's father rejects the notion that his daughter must be raised to be a lady-in-waiting. Instead, he educates her and trains her in the martial arts. Later, she (now renamed Wu Mei) mentors another girl, the impoverished Mingyi, who wants to escape an arranged marriage to a bandit. This is a great book about discovering one's inner strength. Grades K-3.
19th Century Korea
The Firekeeper's Son By Linda Sue Park. In 19th century Korea, Sang-hee, is the son of the village firekeeper. The firekeeper is an important position because if the fire goes out, the king will assume there is trouble. One night Sang-hee's father falls ill and the task falls to him; he struggles with his desire to see the soldiers and the responsibility of making sure the signal fire is lit. Grades K-3.
19th Century America
Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. A moving story set in pre-Civil War Mississippi in which a Chocktaw girl befriends an enslaved boy and ultimately helps his family to freedom. There is an intense humanity to the characters in this book—while reading I felt strongly that the characters were fully-imagined individuals, something that can be rare while reading picture books. Grades 2-7.
Apples to Oregon: Being the (Slightly) True Narrative of How a Brave Pioneer Father Brought Apples, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Grapes, and Cherries (and Children) Across the Plains by Deborah Hopkinson. You might not think of historical fiction picture books as always being "great fun!" Here's your chance to find out otherwise. Delicious narrates the adventure that overtakes her family when they decide to move from Iowa to Oregon to plant an apple orchard. Grades K-3.
Early 20th Century Innovation
The Tweedles Go Online and The Tweedles Go Electric by Monica Kulling. In the first book, (Electric) the Tweedles decide to ditch the horse and buggy for a car. But not all the family members are enthusiastic about the new horseless carriage. In the second book about the Tweedles, the family enters the world of technology by getting a telephone! In both books family members have different reactions to innovation. Some love it, some worry it will interfere with family life, and others would rather just focus other inventions! The comparison and contrast between "going electric" and "going online" in 1904 and now is fun as well as insightful. Grades 1-3.
Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnell. It's 1914 and Charlotte May Pierstorf doesn't have enough money for a train ticket to visit her grandmother. So what does her father do? He uses the US Postal service! This is a fun book to read because modern kids will be amazed to discover this was a real thing you could do! Grades K-3.
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart. When Lydia's parents are out of work in 1935 she goes to the city to live with her uncle, a baker. In letters home, Lydia narrates her new life and her attempts to brighten up her environment through gardening. Lydia's plants gradually transform her new home and even lift the spirits of her grumpy uncle. Grades 1-4.
19th and 20th Century Immigration
When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest. 13 year old orphan, Jessie, leaves her grandmother in the impoverished Eastern European village in order to travel to America. The village rabbi gives her a ticket and once in America, Jessie sews lace in order to earn money to send back to her grandmother. She eventually starts to sew bridal gowns. This is a wonderful, thoughtful immigrant tale. Grades 1-6
Silent Movie by Avi. This is a cool book to read because it is framed and written in a silent movie format. The narration and "moving" pictures tell the tale of Gustave and his Swedish family's migration in 1909, their rags to riches story and even includes a typical silent movie villain! Grades 2-6.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings by Tanya Simon and Richard Simon. A Jewish boy arrives in New York after living through Kristallnacht. It is the 7th night of Hanukkah as well as Christmas Eve and he must walk 100 blocks to find his aunt. Along the way he encounters people who show him kindness, sees the holiday sights of the city and passes landmarks which inspire him to reflect on his circumstances. Grades 1-4.
World War I
Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story. This story reminded me how my brother and I both made little cross-stitch ornaments and worked on the weaving loom when we were kids. Sewing and knitting are not just for girls! Based on an actual 1918 "Knit-In" in Central Park, this book is also a fun role reversal on the Rosie Riviter phenomenon. When Mikey's dad heads off to fight in The Great War, Mikey wants to do something to help on the home front. His teacher suggests that he and his friends participate in the "Knit-In". Initially, Mikey and his boy pals reject it as something only girls would do. The clever girls, however, turn it into a challenge that the boys can't resist. This book is a great read aloud on many levels. There's the historical aspect, the encouragement for kids to help others and try something new, and that looking beyond conventions can bring great rewards. An author's note gives additional information. Grades K-3.
The Eleventh Hour by Jacques Goldstyn. Parents, get ready to have a tissue handy, this book does not have a happy ending, and neither does war, frankly. Jim and Jules were born were born on the same day in the same village. They grew up together, the best of friends, despite their different personalities. When the draft hits, they march off to war together, but unfortunately, they do not return together. The narrative is straight forward, but it fits the subject matter and much of the emotional content is conveyed through the illustrations. The timing of Jim's death was rather shocking to me, and hits home the cruelty of war. This may seem like too serious for kids, but it is an exceedingly good book. Grades 4 to infinity.
World War II
The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren. This is a fictionalized version of a true story, and of course there are many other similar real life stories of good Samaritans risking their lives to help Jews during World War II. In 1943 Nazi-occupied Denmark, Anett and her parents risk hide a Jewish mother and her son and as the danger increases and the soldiers' presence becomes more menacing, Anett comes up with a plan to help smuggle Carl and his mother to safety in Sweden. Grades 3-7.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee. During World War II, the United States government imprisoned people of Japanese descent in internment camps. Shorty and his father build a baseball diamond in the dusty field of the camp. Shorty uses the game to build his self-confidence and channel his anger at the guards. Be sure to discuss this book critically with kids: Did baseball actually save the boys? Was using their anger a productive way to approach their situation? Should assimilation actually be the real goal? Grades 1-6.
MORE: Historical and fiction picture books about baseball
The Great Migration and Civil Rights Era
This Is the Rope by Jacqueline Woodson. Using a rope her grandmother found as a girl underneath a tree in South Carolina, a girl in New York City narrates the story of her family's journey from the South to the North during the time of The Great Migration, when thousands of African-American families fled the terrorism of life in the South. Grades K-3.
Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwen Strauss, illustrated by Floyd Cooper From 1936-1964, “The Green Book” was a travel guide for African-Americans that included a listing of service stations that would serve them. Ruth and her family are en route from Chicago to Alabama to visit grandma. Ruth learns about Jim Crow laws for the first time and makes it her job to help navigate with the help of The Green Book. Grades 1-5.
Mid 20th Century Cuba
The Road to Santiago by D. H. Figueredo. This story is based on a real life incident that happened to the author in his childhood. During the Christmas holiday a family in makes its annual trip into the city to visit relatives. But this year, because the Cuban government is fighting the rebels, the trains are not running. The narration focuses on the son, Alfredito, as he describes the various methods they use to get to the city. When they finally arrive, the family is waiting and the celebration begins. Grades 1-4.
20th Century Canada
Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard. I got a little teary eyed when reading this book. (That happens to me more often than you think!) A happy young girl is home from school. She walks with her grandfather and asks him if he can tell her the Cree word for “grandfather.” Her grandfather becomes sad and tells her he does not know and then tells her about how, when he was a boy, he was taken to a white school where he wasn’t allowed to speak his Cree language. The next day the girl brings home an Introduction to Cree book and presents it to her grandfather who starts to remember the stolen words. in spite of the somewhat sweet ending, we must remind children that it doesn’t remove the crimes of what the boarding school did to the grandfather. Grades 1-4.
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson. Family history and the story-quilt making tradition begins with the narrator's great-grandmother, born enslaved and working on a plantation. The historical narrative travels through emancipation, segregation and the civil rights era and emphasizes the strength of the women enduring the paths they walk. This historical fiction picture book would also be a great tool for children to begin their own family history project. Grades 1-5.
More history books for kids:
- Diverse Historical Middle Grade Fiction
- African-American History Books - picture and chapter book selections
- Read around the world in picture books
- Picture books about the American presidents