Top Ten Historical Fiction Titles to Encourage a Diverse Understanding of the Past by Rebecca Redinger
When teachers and librarians encourage students to read historical, they not only provide a way to understand the past, they also promote an enjoyment in learning. Historical fiction has not always been used in this way, however. For centuries, children’s literature, and historical fiction in general, failed to accurately reflect and include global humanity.
In the nineteenth century, school textbooks would regularly feature stories to illustrate the individual triumphs of those with good character and civic virtue. These stories taught local history, government, and national identity, but they were often ethnocentric and male-dominated narratives. Things began to change in the twentieth century when the Industrial Revolution and mass immigration from Europe influenced writers to embrace realism. Instead of focusing on the privileged and powerful, they captured the lives of common people as they interacted with both the ordinary and extraordinary. Yet it wasn’t until our current century that themes of multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion really began to enter the K-12 classroom. One of the largest contributors to this shift is the prevalence of sound historical fiction written for children and young adults. These titles are praised for accurately depicting the values, actions, and reactions of a given historical period, while at the same time providing authentic characters, places, and events.
These ten books are excellent examples of twenty-first century historical fiction that represents the voices of people from different cultures, ethnicities, socio-economies, and abilities. Not only are these books effective resources for educators and librarians to talk about topics absent from textbooks, they also demonstrate that learning about the past can also be fun!
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Grades 5-7)
Pam Munoz Ryan takes storytelling to a new level with this tale of four children’s interaction with a “magical” harmonica . Spanning decades, the book recounts Friedrich’s hardships at the rise of Nazi Germany, Mike’s struggles during the Great Depression, and Ivy’s encounters with racism during WWII. The harmonica music helps keeps their families together and ultimately draws the children towards a common goal.
The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Grades 5-7)
I’ve always been a sucker for a good World War II story, but it’s not often that I read a children’s book about the English home-front. From this unique vantage point, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley presents a story of perseverance and triumph. Burdened by a clubfoot, Ada overcomes physical and emotional challenges when she and her brother Jamie flee their abusive mother to live in the English countryside. Under the care of Susan, the three overcome their fears and learn the power of love and community.
Al Capone Shines my Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko (Grades 5-7)
When I first sat down to read this book, I had no idea what to expect, except that Gennifer Choldenko is a master of the historically-accurate backdrop. Choosing the notorious time period when Al Capone was imprisoned at Alcatraz and prison guards lived with their families on the island, she tells the story of twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan, and his life with an autistic sister, and encounters with convicts, a new school, bullies, and baseball.
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristen Levine (Grades 5-7)
We’ve all heard of the Little Rock Nine, but Kristen Levine chose to set this story one year later, at a time when Little Rock was still reeling from their choices. Marlee, a painfully shy math whiz, is delighted when she has the courage to become friends with Lizzie, the new girl at school. But when it’s discovered that Lizzie is actually light-skinned black passing for white, Marlee wrestles to find her voice, maintain her friendship with Lizzie, keep peace within her family, and fight against racism. A note of care for sensitive readers: the story contains multiple references to the “n-word.”
The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan (Grades 4-7)
Not much is known about Kate Warne, the first female detective for the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, but what is known about this courageous trail-blazer fuels Kate Hannigan’s story about Warne and her spunky niece, Nell. Together the two help solve cases across the country, including mysteries surrounding President Lincoln and the underground railroad. Along the way, Nell discovers the answers to some mysteries of her own and learns hard lessons about family and belonging.
Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling (Grades 3-6)
When the United States joins World War II, Aki and her family are forced to move to an internment camp in the Arizona desert. To save their Southern California farm, Sylvia’s family move into the house and take over the work. Based on actual accounts of this time when racial prejudice and segregation was the norm in the United States, Winifred Conkling offers an intimate glimpse of Japanese and Mexican life in the 1940s and tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two girls affected by the harsh realities of war.
The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (Grades 5-7)
If you enjoyed Christopher Paul Curtis’ classic Bud, Not Buddy, then you are sure to enjoy this follow-up story, featuring twelve-year-old Deza Malone. The book begins in 1936, during the height of the Great Depression, with the Malones living in Gary, Indiana. When Deza’s father can’t find work and her mother loses her job, the family decides to move to Flint, Michigan. Along the way, Deza endures discrimination, heartache, and shame, but learns to look past adversity with the help of her tenacious spirit and sharp mind.
(A note of care for younger readers: these stories, though redemptive in nature, include violence and tragedy).
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt (Grades 7-12)
Gary Schmidt is known for delicately weaving history into powerful, character-driven stories, and this is no exception. When Turner Buckminster’s family moves to Phippsburg, Maine in 1911, all he can think about is leaving. That is, until he meets Lizzie Bright Griffin, a spirited girl from Malaga Island. The inhabitants of the island, impoverished former slaves, are soon driven from their home, and it seems Turner is the only one who cares.
Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse (Grades 6-9)
Karen Hesse is a master of narrative, and this historical tale based on the Russian immigrant family who invented the teddy bear is no exception. Hesse expertly weaves together the adventures and struggles of fourteen-year-old Joseph Michtom, and hauntingly poetic accounts of the street children living under the Brooklyn Bridge, with excerpts from vintage newspapers. As the book progresses, readers will see the Brooklyn Bridge as a symbol both pain and rising perseverance.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Grades 8-12)
Ruta Sepetys’ haunting novel recounts the events of the German Wilhelm Gustloff’s maritime disaster at the end of World War II. Seeking to escape the tragedies of 1945 Europe, four rotating narrators, Joana, Florian, Amelia, and Alfred, recount their experience along the way, and eventually find themselves companions onboard the Gustloff. With sensitive and beautiful writing, Sepetys observes the horrors of human cruelty, while at the same time revealing threads of sacrifice, courage, and hope.
Rebecca Redinger has a background in public history, and works at the Chicago History Museum as a coordinator for the Chicago Metro History Fair. In 2013 she shifted her focus towards librarianship and completed her MLIS in Children’s and Youth Services this past May. You can view her thesis project website uncoverthepast.org. She enjoys reading, blogging, cooking, digital photography, and graphic design.