Historical fiction transports kids to another time and place, allowing them distance from events but giving them opportunities to connect the past with the present. These historical fiction books with strong female protagonists will appeal to all kids, not just girls! The stories range from medieval China to the 1980s. (Anyone else weirded out by the 80s being "historical"?)
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These titles are suitable for middle grade readers and I've listed them in chronological order. If you would like a printable version of the book list, you can grab one at the end of the post.
THE CRYSTAL RIBBON by Celeste Lim
In medieval China, Li Jing has a hard life. Her poor family sells her off to a family who intends to marry her to their toddler-son and she goes off to live with her new in-laws who turn out to be cruel and treat her as a slave. When she refuses to submit to them, they sell her off to a house for courtesans but she escapes and goes on a journey to find refuge. Li Jing is a fiercely strong girl character who increasingly gains confidence in herself and takes control of her own destiny. Ages 10 and up.
MORE: Books featuring Asians and Asian-Americans
THE MAD WOLF'S DAUGHTER (series) by Diane Magras
I quite enjoyed this 13th-century tale set in Scotland about a strong girl warrior learning about what sets her apart from her brothers and father, even as she embarks on a treacherous journey to rescue them. Along her journey she must make choices based on her code of honor but she learns not all is as it seems and she has to decide what her values are. Ages 8 and up.
THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE by Karen Cushman
In case you're new here, I love Cushman's books! Brat, who is a 13-ish year old orphaned, homeless girl is taken on as a midwife's apprentice. She proves to be a speedy learner and a hard worker but when she makes a mistake her embarrassment is such that she runs away. The resulting adventure and her eventual return is a page-turner that even kids who think they hate history will revel in. It is not a long novel and so is good for advanced readers and reluctant readers alike. Ages 10 and up.
A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS by Gail Carson Levine
Taking place 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 relatively 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 conversions. This is a page-turning book with an extremely strong girl at its heart and your kids won't want to put down. Ages 10 and up.
MORE: Middle Grade Books with Jewish Protagonists
TELL NO TALES: PIRATES OF THE SOUTHERN SEAS by Sam Maggs, illustrated by Kendra Wells
Tell No Tales is a swashbuckling graphic novel inspired by the legendary female pirate, Anne Bonny. Anne and her diverse crew make up an unconventional family as they bond over getting to know each other as they prepare for an encounter with the pirate-hunting villain, Woodes Rogers. Absolutely great fun. An author's note gives some background on the diverse cast of characters, their real-life counterparts and a (very) brief overview of piracy. Ages 8 and up.
SHOW ME A SIGN 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 endnote gives historical background on the town of Chilmark and Martha's Vineyard are fascinating. Ages 9 and up.
THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO by Shing Yin Khor
Mei is a Chinese-American girl living in the 19th-century Sierra Nevadas, where her father is a cook at a logging camp. She tells tales of Auntie Po, a Paul Bunyon-like folk tale figure. Anti-Chinese sentiment and disgruntlement among the loggers leads to conflict and although Mei's father's white boss is well-meaning and supportive, his words are less effective than action. Although the story addresses serious subject matter, the overall tone is hopeful. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: Diversity in Graphic Novels
SUGAR (series) by Jewell Parker Rhodes
In post-Civil War Mississippi, 10-year-old Sugar still lives on the plantation where she was born enslaved. She doesn't feel free and is eager to learn about the wider world. Chinese laborers arrive in the South and work alongside the formerly enslaved population. Sugar's new friendship with Master Liu, as well as her friendship with Billy, the plantation owner's sonn are catalysts for the action which contrasts the old way of things with the changing present. Ages 9 and up.
THE PORCUPINE YEAR (series) by Louise Erdrich
In 1852, 12-year-old Omakayas and her family are focused on surviving a tough winter. They must move on due to the invasion of white settlers on the land. Erdrich is a master at staying true to the difficult social, environmental and personal challenges of Omakayas' Ojibwe community while still writing a story full of humor and heart. Despite her circumstances, Omakays is still a girl on the brink of womanhood, reflecting on her changing heart and first crush and anticipating the physical changes on the horizon. This is the third book in The Birchbark House series. Ages 9 and up.
MORE: Native American Middle Grade Books
DARING DARLENE QUEEN OF THE SCREEN by Anne Nesbet
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. Ages 8 and up.
STEP UP TO THE PLATE MARIA SINGH by Uma Krishnaswami
It's 1945 and Maria, a biracial girl in California (her father is from India, her mother is from Mexico) wants to play softball on a team organized by her teacher. At the same time, her multicultural community is feeling the strains of institutional discrimination and her family is in danger of losing their farm. Fascinating and enlightening, but also a great story of a determined girl. Ages 8 and up.
MORE: Books with South-Asian and Indian Protagonists
BROTHER'S KEEPER by Julie Lee
I could not put this book down! In 1950, as the border between North and South Korea is closing, 12-year-old Sora Pak and her family join the mass exodus out of the north. In the chaos, Sora and her younger brother are separated from the rest of the family. Sora is determined to continue on and make it down to a meeting location in the south, where she knows her family is headed. The journey is harrowing, her brother becomes sick, hunger is a constant, and winter sets in. Lee based her impressive novel on the experiences of her mother. Ages 8 and up.
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.
THE BLACKBIRD GIRLS by Anne Blankman
Valentina and Oksana both have fathers who work at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but the girls do not get along. When the unthinkable happens and there is an explosion at the plant, the girls are evacuated. Oksana has to leave her mother and father behind and instead accompanies Valentina and her mother to Leningrad. The story alternates between the two girls in 1986, and Rifka in 1941, who we later learn is Valentina's grandmother. The girls learn secrets about their families, each other and must learn out how to trust each other. Ages 10 and up.
A great blog post. Some really interesting books. Thanks!
Thank you! Happy reading.