Top 10 Pulse-Pounding, Nail-Biting Historical Fiction Adventures by Kate Hannigan

Historical fiction doesn’t have to be a hard sell. For some young readers – my own kids included – it conjures up images of wooden-toothed men in white wigs or dusty, musty storylines. Often, however, it is anything but. I first fell in love with heart-pounding historical fiction when I got my hands on Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins back in grade school (and then The Thorn Birds in seventh grade, but that’s fodder for another post). And I’ve been hooked ever since.


While there are enough fast-paced historical adventure stories to fill entire libraries – Pam Munoz Ryan’s Riding Freedom, Kirby Larson’s Hattie Big Sky, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver, anything by Christopher Paul Curtis, to name a few – some new and just-released titles deserve a moment in the spotlight as well.


Here’s a Top 10 List of recent Pulse-Pounding, Nail-Biting Historical Fiction Adventures for middle-grade readers.

 Wonder at the Edge of the World

In Wonder at the Edge of the World (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015), Nicole Helget spins a suspenseful tale that spans land and sea. Opening in a tiny prairie town in the era of “Bleeding Kansas” before the Civil War, Halleluja “Lu” Wonder and her friend Eustace, a young slave on the brink of being sold, embark on a wild adventure that also includes Eustace’s cowardly dog, Fob. A scientific thinker, Lu wants to carry on her father’s legacy as a scientist and explorer, but first she has to set things right. And that means avenging his death and stashing his most dangerous artifact – a creepy but mesmerizing Medicine Head – in a place where no one will find it: Antarctica. The evil Navy captain who killed Lu’s father (an unrelenting Javert type) is hot on her heels to get the Medicine Head, and Lu and Eustace risk life and limb to escape him. Thrilling suspense includes jumping onto moving trains, a devastating fire, sailing the Atlantic among seafarers with the manners of pirates, harpoons, enormous whales! A great adventure book for girls and boys.

War That Saved My Life

While World War II rages in London and the countryside, it’s the battle within that is at the heart of The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books, January 2015). Ada was born with a clubfoot, and her abusive mother locks her away from the world because of it. But Ada is a fighter, and she bravely escapes her mother’s clutches by joining with her little brother as London’s children are evacuated to the safety of country villages. It’s there that she meets Miss Smith, who claims she isn’t “nice” yet provides Ada and Jamie with all they need to thrive. The thrills are more emotional here, as Ada starts to believe in herself and test her own boundaries, learning to ride a pony at breakneck speeds, scanning the countryside for spies, enduring the terror of air-raid sirens and bombings, and overcoming the damage done by an abusive, hateful parent. With the threat of Hitler’s army and Mam’s appearance looming, readers will find it hard to put this book down.

 The Boundless

If you’re a sucker for a good train story, run don’t walk to your nearest bookstore for Kenneth Oppel’s thrilling The Boundless (Simon & Schuster, 2014). It blends railroad history – about the maiden voyage of Canada’s first transcontinental railway – with hair-raising excitement. Look forward to an angry sasquatch, a traveling circus, dastardly double-crossing bad guys, a swamp hag, and best of all, avalanches! With a bit of magic realism thrown in, Boundless tells the story of Will, who is hungry for adventure but gets more than ever could have dreamed. Will finds himself in possession of a special key to a railroad car that holds treasures, and a band of blood-thirsty criminals is hot on his heels to snatch it for themselves. He must team up with a circus ringmaster and a young escape artist to survive. Truly a thrill a minute!

 West of the Moon

Fistfights, mud, filth, disease, and nail-biting escapes. These are all part of Margi Preus’s exciting West of the Moon (Abrams, 2014), in which Astri, 13, must escape the clutches of the dreadful goat farmer to whom she’s been sold. Fearless and defiant Astri races through the mountains with dreams to reach a ship bound for America and her father, and she rescues her younger sister and the mysterious Spinning Girl along the way too. Woven through with Norwegian folktales, West of the Moon is a haunting, suspenseful story inspired by Preus’s reading of her immigrant great-great grandmother’s diary.

Stella By Starlight

“Red fire. Black cross. White hoods. They’re here. Now.” Tension and suspense are high from the get-go in Stella by Starlight (Atheneum, January 2015), Sharon Draper’s Depression-era tale. Fifth-grader Stella and her little brother, Jojo, discover something terrifying in their segregated North Carolina town. A girl with plenty of smarts but difficulty with writing, Stella learns to find her voice, sneaking outside under the stars and penning her stories. Enduring a deadly snakebite that nearly kills her mother, racist bullies, a daring ice rescue, Stella ultimately comes to understand the power of family, community, and best of all, believing in herself.

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana (Chronicle Books, 2014) features recent history with Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans. Armani is turning 10 and can’t wait for her birthday party. But her excitement is crushed when the hurricane’s approach forces her party’s cancelation. But disappointment gives way to cold fear as the devastating storm pummels her home. Armani is separated from her parents and must care for her two little sisters as the stakes rise to nail-biting intensity. Chapters end in cliff hangers – “I clomped in Memaw’s boots, heading over by Daddy. No matter what, I needed him to know I was sorry. But I never made it that far” – and the suspense will keep readers devouring every page. Breathless!

On Track for Treasure

Orphans! Hobos! Riding the rails! This second book in the Wanderville series, On Track for Treasure (Razorbill, 2014), by Wendy McClure tells more adventures of orphans Jack, Frances, Harold, Alexander, and the others. A band of brave children, they’ve escaped the dreaded Orphan Trains, which shipped homeless children at the turn on the last century from overcrowded East Coast cities to Midwestern families willing to take them, and created their own makeshift community in the woods, calling it “Wanderville.” As with the original book in the series, there are close calls and plenty of suspense as the orphans flee the sheriff, encountering danger at every turn. In the spirit of the Boxcar Children, there are more adventure ahead as Book 3, Escape to the World’s Fair, publishes on June 16.


Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo (First Second, 2014) is a heart-breaking graphic novel about a young Jewish girl hidden away from the Nazis in Occupied Paris during World War II. A grandmother now, Dounia, tells her granddaughter the story she has kept secret even from her son. From the sweetness of her father’s gesture to protect young Dounia when they are forced to wear yellow stars –“This morning, I was at a big meeting. Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs” – to the shock of seeing her mother return from a camp –“At first, I didn’t recognize her” – Hidden takes readers through a range of powerful emotions. A gripping page-turner sure to be devoured in one sitting.

Murder Is Bad Manners

A body! And it’s the science teacher, no less! Set in 1934 at the Deepdean School for Girls, Murder Is Bad Manners (A Wells & Wong Mystery) by Robin Stevens (Simon & Schuster, April 2015) features mystery-solving eighth-graders Daisy Wells, a self-described Sherlock Holmes, and Hazel Wong, an able Dr. Watson and the book’s wonderful narrator. The two friends have formed their own Detective Society. After the body Hazel has discovered suddenly disappears, they race to solve the crime before anyone else gets hurt. Wonderful humor – “Murders, unfortunately, always come with murderers attached” – along with a rollicking plotline make this a thrilling read. Admittedly more detective thriller than historical read, this first installment in the Wells & Wong series offers nail-biting suspense in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.

 Secrets of a Terra Cotta Soldier

Ying Chang Compestine and Vinson Compestine take a fascinating look at China’s recent and ancient history with Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier (Abrams, 2014), complete with danger, deception, and warring soldiers come to life. A mother-son duo, they teamed up to write this double storyline about young Ming, who is struggling to help his father’s archaeology work during the Cultural Revolution, and Shi, the terra-cotta soldier who has come to life in their studio. The authors’ shared interest – Vinson’s fascination with ancient warfare and the terra-cotta soldiers, and Ying’s childhood under Chairman Mao – led them to collaborate on Terra-Cotta Soldier, creating thrilling historical fiction for young readers that spotlights real events that happened under two ruthless dictators from modern times and ancient China: Mao Zedong and Ying Zheng. Historical photos, a glossary, and detailed authors’ note enrich the reading experience.


The Detective's Assistant tagline coverChicago author Kate Hannigan wrote her own pulse-pounding historical fiction for middle-grade, The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 2015), based on America’s first woman detective, who helped thwart a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Visit her online at