Blast from the Past: Historical Fiction Books for Kids

This month I have a list of great historical fiction for kids of all ages. Historical fiction is often a way to get kids interested in a time or place or culture different from their own. It also is a way to make history more accessible than just learning about dates or wars or famous people’s achievements. Sometimes reading about ordinary people living through a specific time makes that time more real and brings history alive in a way that doesn’t always happen with a textbook.

Picture Books:

There are hundreds of fantastic historical fiction picture books out there. Here are just a few to try.

Grandfather’s Journey by Allan Say

Based on the true story of Allan Say’s grandfather, this book focuses on a young man from Japan who travels to California and back to Japan. The book shows the grandfather (and eventual grandson’s) feelings of belonging to two countries and looks at early twentieth century history in Japan and the US. The illustrations are beautiful and Say won a Caldecott medal for it in 1994.

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

The title pretty much tells all you need to know about the plot of this silly but endearing version of pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

Mailing May by Michael O’Tunnell

Technically, not historical fiction, this is based on the true story of Charlotte May Pierstoff who wanted to travel 75 miles to visit her grandmother in 1914. The only way to travel was a train ticket which was too expensive. Instead, her parents used the US Postal Service to mail her!

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart

A young girl goes to stay with an uncle in the city during the Depression. Her love of flowers and transformation of a roof into a rooftop garden win over her grumpy uncle and the neighborhood. The illustrations by David Small (the author’s husband and frequent collaborator) won this a Caldecott Honor Book.

Knit Your Bit: A World War I Story by Deborah Hopkinson

Mikey wants to help the war effort during WWI since his Dad is fighting as a soldier. His teacher suggests the class participate in a knitting bee but Mikey is at first reluctant as knitting is for girls.


Middle-Grade Historical Fiction:

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

This beautiful and complex book uses music to weave together four separate stories. Three of them take place in the 20th century and give windows into the life of a German boy with a disability during the rise of Nazi Germany, a young orphan in the US during the Depression, and the daughter of a migrant worker in Southern California during WWII.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Calpurnia is a young tomboy growing up in Texas at the turn of the 20th century. Her grandfather is a naturalist and great admirer of Charles Darwin and Calpurnia wants to follow in his footsteps much to the horror of her mother who believes girls need to be ladylike and mannered.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

This book in verse won the Newbery Medal in 2011. The poems give brief but vivid views into the lives of ordinary people during the middle ages from a young boy who has to hunt a boar to prove his manhood to a young girl who sells eels to support her family. This might make a better read-aloud than book read on one’s own as the poems fairly cry out to be heard.

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm

This sweet book tells the story of a young girl who goes to live with extended family in the Florida Keys during the Depression.

Inside out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Another book in verse, this one is inspired by the author’s childhood experiences as a refugee from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon who ends up in rural Alabama.


Books for Pre-Teens and Teens:

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

The first in a trilogy, this novel tells the story of Isabel who is a slave in New York City at the start of the Revolutionary War. Isabel’s loyalty is divided between the Patriots and British as she is looking to whoever will provide her and her sister with freedom. Isabel’s story is juxtaposed with that of Cruzon, a slave working for the Patriots. The other two books of the trilogy also follow Isabel and Cruzon. Kids read a lot of books about this time in history but these books provide a completely different perspective on familiar events.

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Perhaps especially appropriate now, this book explores a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 Philadelphia.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Holling Hoodhood is a seventh-grader at who is forced to spend Wednesdays with his teacher while the rest of his class has religious instruction (he is the only Presbyterian in a class of Catholics and Jews). His teacher forces him to read Shakespeare, which he believes is because she hates him. Set against the background of the 1970’s, Vietnam and cultural changes also loom big in his life. The author expertly weaves the plots of the Shakespeare plays Holling studies into the storyline. Also check out Okay for Now, a sequel of sorts (following a minor character in this book) that takes place at the same time and more directly deals with aftermath of Vietnam.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This immensely popular book takes place in Nazi Germany and is narrated by Death. It tells the story of a young girl, Liesel who lives with foster parents outside of Munich. Her story is complicated when her foster father agrees to hide a Jewish man in his basement. There is a lot of WWII historical fiction but this is the rare book that looks at the lives of ordinary Germans.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

A tightly plotted spy thriller, this book follows a young British female secret agent who is captured after a plane crash in Nazi-occupied France. As she confesses to her captors she tells the story of how she and the pilot came to be on their mission. Elizabeth Wein has several other books related to this one that are all excellent. Some are fairly graphic in the depiction of the horrors of WWII, so parents should preview for younger or more sensitive teens.