The transformative power of historical fiction

historical fiction recommendations for ages 9-18 simplehomeschool
The following is a guest post written by Caroline Starr Rose of Caroline by line and the verse novel May B.

What’s the point of historical fiction? Publisher’s Weekly recently ran an interview with Newbery and Newbery-Honor medalist Karen Cushman, one of children’s literature’s most celebrated authors. Here’s what she had to say:

“I think for readers historical fiction is important because it helps them to see beyond the boundaries of their own experience. It helps them to stretch and to see what life is like for others. This helps illustrate both how we are the same and how we are different, and can give readers more empathy.”

As a social studies teacher turned children’s author, nothing fires me up as a much as a well-crafted historical novel. Nothing has made history more personal than the books I’ve treasured in childhood and beyond.

Here are some historical titles worth celebrating, worth sharing, worth reading with the young people in your lives.

Middle-Grade Books:

FEVER 1793
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Age Range: 11 – 13

In an intense, well-researched tale that will resonate particularly with readers in parts of the country where the West Nile virus and other insect-borne diseases are active, Anderson takes a Philadelphia teenager through one of the most devastating outbreaks of yellow fever in our country’s history.
— Kirkus reviews

My take: I read this book with students during a summer book club. The story is riveting, and the subject matter made for some memorable activities perfect for the weird and wonderful middle-school set (interpretive performances of the stages of yellow fever, anyone?).

or, Trouble Rides a Fast Horse
By Audrey Couloumbis
Age Range: 9 – 18
“Some days it isn’t even a good idea to get out of bed,” muttered Aunt Ruthie as she stepped out of the mercantile. Just then, a bullet hits her in the heart and kills her, leaving 11-year-old Sallie and 15-year-old Maude orphans once again. Soon thereafter, the sisters are headed west, about to live the adventures Sallie had read about in her dime novels. They are involved in a bank robbery, struck by a headless rattlesnake, attacked by a mountain lion and forced to be on the run when wanted posters featuring “Mad Maude” begin appearing in the newspapers.

What a pleasure to read something just for the sheer fun of the storytelling. Sallie’s fresh and feisty voice, girls dressed as boys, an outlaw with a heart of gold, adventure and humor add up to great family entertainment.
— Kirkus reviews

My take: Rollicking good fun!

Based on the True Story of Nakahama Manjiro
By Margi Preus (Author) , Jillian Tamaki (Illustrator)
Age Range: 9 – 13

In 1841, 14-year-old Manjiro joined four others on an overnight fishing trip. Caught by a severe storm, their small rowboat was shipwrecked on a rocky island. Five months later, they were rescued by the crew of a whaling ship from New Bedford. Manjiro, renamed John Mung, was befriended by the captain and eventually lived in his home in New Bedford, rapidly absorbing Western culture. But the plight of his impoverished family in Japan was never far from Manjiro’s mind, although he knew that his country’s strict isolationist policy meant a death sentence if he returned.
— Kirkus reviews

My take: Adored it!

By Thanhha Lai
Age Range: 9 – 12
An enlightening, poignant and unexpectedly funny novel in verse is rooted in the author’s childhood experiences. In Saigon in 1975, 10-year-old Kim Hà celebrates Tet (New Year) with her mother and three older brothers; none of them guesses at the changes the Year of the Cat will bring. On the eve of the fall of Saigon, they finally decide they must escape.

In her not-to-be-missed debut, Lai evokes a distinct time and place and presents a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven’t found themselves in a strange new country.
— Kirkus reviews

My take: This book is tender, beautiful glimpse into another culture. Using unrhymed poetry to tell her story, Lai’s spare language reflects the vulnerability of a child thrown into a new world with honesty and heart.

Young-Adult Books:

By Jennifer Donnelly
Age Range: 12 – 18

Donnelly combines a mystery with a coming-of-age story about a girl choosing among family obligations, romance, and education. The mystery derives from a true event, the death in 1906 of a young woman in northern New York. In this fictional rendition, 16-year-old farm girl Mattie Gokey is working for the summer at the hotel where the murdered woman has been staying and has given Mattie letters to burn. As the details emerge about the possible murder, Mattie struggles with whether to burn the letters or turn them over to the police. She also wrestles with a deathbed promise to her mother to stay and raise her younger siblings. Mattie, who loves language and excels at creative writing, longs to go to New York City for college, encouraged by a feminist schoolteacher.
— Kirkus reviews

My take: As an author, I was caught up in the sheer beauty of Donnelly’s writing. As a reader, Mattie reminded me of one of my all-time favorite characters, Francie Nolan.

By Elizabeth Wein
Age Range: 14 – 18

In a cell in Nazi-occupied France, a young woman writes. Like Scheherezade, to whom she is compared by the SS officer in charge of her case, she dribbles out information—“everything I can remember about the British War Effort”—in exchange for time and a reprieve from torture. But her story is more than a listing of wireless codes or aircraft types. Instead, she describes her friendship with Maddie, the pilot who flew them to France, as well as the real details of the British War Effort: the breaking down of class barriers, the opportunities, the fears and victories not only of war, but of daily life.

Through the layers of story, characters (including the Nazis) spring to life. And as the epigraph makes clear, there is more to this tale than is immediately apparent. The twists will lead readers to finish the last page and turn back to the beginning to see how the pieces slot perfectly, unexpectedly into place.
— Kirkus reviews

My take: Unbelievable storytelling. Masterful writing. A beautiful picture of the bond of friendship. I couldn’t leave this story for days after reading.

By J. Anderson Coats
Age Range: 12 – 18

Two girls of very different degree are brought together unwillingly by the English conquest of Wales.

Cecily is in a pet at having to leave the home of her youth—where her mother is buried—and relocate to the Welsh frontier, but her father is a younger son. He will take a burgage in Caernarvon, recently conquered by Edward I. In exchange for a home, he will help to keep the King’s peace. Cecily hates Caernarvon. She hates its weather, its primitive appointments and its natives, especially Gwinny, the servant girl who doesn’t obey, and the young man who stares at her.

Never opting for the easy characterization, debut author Coats compellingly re-creates this occupation from both sides. It all leads to an ending so brutal and unexpected it will take readers’ breath away even as it makes them think hard about the title.
— Kirkus reviews

My take: J. Anderson Coats started keeping copious notes on the middle ages as a teenager. I know no one with such passion for or knowledge of this era. This book is a masterpiece.

What historical fiction for young readers has left its impression on you?

About Caroline Starr Rose

Caroline Starr Rose is an award-winning middle grade and picture book author whose books have been American Library Association Notable, Junior Library Guild, American Booksellers Association New Voices, Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state awards lists. In 2012 Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her husband and two sons in New Mexico. You can find her at


  1. Where are the books for teenage boys? I find it a struggle to find well written books for my teenage son who loves to read. My daughter never had this problem, there was always a variety of titles to choose from. We really need to encourage authors to start writing for boys.

    • Ah. This is an age-old problem and one that’s not going away any time soon. There are mixed messages coming out of NY publishing houses. Editors often say they want books with male protagonists, but quite honestly they can be a hard sell. (especially after the middle-grade years [ages 8-12], when many boys leave children’s literature and move directly to adult titles.) And because publishing — in the end — is a business, publishing houses are more likely to take risks on a sure thing, meaning books with female leads. This mindset does seem to leave boys in the lurch, doesn’t it?

      And yet. There are books about boys still being written. And there are fabulous titles from back lists available. (You probably noticed I’ve selected titles published in the last few years. I find that most parents are familiar with classics — the things they read in school or picked up on their own as children — but not as familiar with newer titles.) And while I only have one book with a male protagonist listed here (HEART OF A SAMURAI), with the exception (possibly) of A NORTHERN LIGHT, every title here would appeal to boys… if we are making the effort to tell our boys that all books are available to them. Boys start to get the message in fifth or sixth grade that books about girls are no longer acceptable. And yet girls are never fed this line.

      I understand. And I may be saying things that are frustrating; I understand that, too. I have two boys at home, 12 and almost 10. Here’s an example from our world. Most “boy books” (a term I’m not really comfortable with) tend to be fantasy books. Neither of my boys are into fantasy. That makes personal reading and family reading difficult. In the last few years, here are some of the titles we’ve read together. I’ve indicated which ones have male leads:
      The Narnia Series (omniscient narrator with male and female characters)
      SWINDLE, ZOOBREAK, and FRAMED (omniscient narrator with male and female characters)
      The TOILET PAPER TIGERS and THE CHICKEN DOESN’T SKATE (omniscient narrator with male and female characters)
      WONDERSTRUCK (dual voices, M and F)
      Various Hank the Cowdog books (M…dog 🙂
      THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST (omniscient narrator with male and female characters)
      HORTON HALFPOTT (omniscient narrator with male and female characters)
      LIAR AND SPY (M)
      NO TALKING! (omniscient narrator with male and female characters)

      Here’s a great article by author Marie Lu about this very subject.

      I’ve gone on a while here, but if you’re interested in more titles with male leads, please don’t hesitate to click through to my blog’s contact page and send me a direct email. I also wrote a post about “boy books” a few years ago for Jamie’s Steady Mom that you can access here:
      Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: Poem Spools — Stitch-by-Stitch: Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

      • there ARE books available — p’r’aps not with a contemporary setting. altho our son who has Tourette’s, has quite a few titles with that theme.
        There’s the Henty novels, and P&R Publishing in NJ lists a few, mostly set in Ireland, Scotland, &c, a couple centuries ago.
        And there’s The Cross and The Switchblade….

        • Forgot to mention —
          MANY movies are based on novels, so if there’s a “good” vid, chances are there may be a book behind it that’s readable….

    • For YA titles that will appeal to boys, here are some resources:
      Young Adult Books for Boys
      Popular Male YA Author’s Books
      Eight YA Authors Recommend Books for Teenage Guys
      140+ Books for the Boys of YA

      Some of my favorite recent YA books with male leads:
      Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: Poem Spools — Stitch-by-Stitch: Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

    • I have two sons, and I agree, finding good books for them can be a challenge. I help facilitate a boys’ book club for my sons and their friends– we’ve found many good titles for them, including one from this list, Heart of a Samurai, which they loved. So far they’ve also read Icefall by Matthew Kirby;the Heir Chronicles trilogy by Cinda Willimas Chima; Bomb by Steve Sheinkin; Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac; the Ashtown Burials books by N.D. Wilson; the Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins; Chains by Laurie Anderson; and Divergent by Veronica Roth. One of the older brothers (an 18-year-old) often chose the books and led the discussions, so they’re all boy-friendly! Hope this helps with the quest.

  2. I share my middle name with the title character in Conrad Richter’s “The Trees”, “The Field”, and “The Town”. All three of these books give a wonderful description of what early settler life may have been like. They are well written and interesting, especially once you get a grasp of the dialect. I think all high school students should read them. They changed my life.
    Octavia’s latest post: *this moment*

    • I read Richter’s A LIGHT IN THE FOREST in seventh grade and again on my own in college. It had a profound affect on me and my future reading. I sought out books about the native/non-native experience in children’s books and adult titles. The interest all stemmed from this book. My newest novel is actually about a forbidden friendship between an English and a Roanoke girl. Thank you, Mr. Richter, for the inspiration!
      Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: Poem Spools — Stitch-by-Stitch: Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

  3. My 5th grader has been reading through the the first settlers and now the Revolutionary War through historical fiction. For me, this has been the best part of home-schooling. (We just started this year.) Right now she is deep into “Chains” also by Laurie Halse Anderson. Looking forward to “Fever” and also the suggestions in the comments section.
    Andee Z’s latest post: 10 Activities to Encourage Compassion in Our Children

  4. Ah, historical fiction, my personal favorite of all fiction to read. My children are too young for these titles, but I will file this away in my bookmarks for later use. Thanks for sharing this list, and your personal take on the stories. Some of these sound fun as “read alouds”, even after my kid are reading independently.
    Sarah M
    Sarah M’s latest post: What Takes Time

    • Yes! Read alouds! I listened to HEART OF A SAMURAI while running errands. It took me a few weeks, but it was worth it. Love the good ol’ books on CD section of the library. I can already hear Maud March read aloud — what fun!

      I’m always thrilled to hear when parents keep reading with their kids beyond the early years. There are so many opportunities to make memories, learn together, experience the world, and spark important discussions. Reading serves so many purposes and brings so much joy.
      Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: Poem Spools — Stitch-by-Stitch: Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

  5. Karen Cushman’s own “Alchemy and Meggy Swann” is one of our favorite books of the past year! We’re also loving the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and The Alchemyst series, both of which are set in modern days (with male protagonists, as an earlier commenter was interested in!) but with major historical figures tied in.
    Joan’s latest post: Our scrapbook: In which we become a family of vampire-pirates (sort of?)

  6. I love The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys for YA historical fiction. Great list!
    Kelly’s latest post: Vulnerability: Our Greatest Asset

  7. thanks for the suggestions. I’m interested in reading some of these newer books b/c I usually read older classics.
    If you’re looking for boy books, I highly recommend GA henty
    Kerry’s latest post: National Jelly Bean Day is April 22

  8. Outstanding list. We’ve been homeschooling for decades and these are new to me. Can’t wait to dig in to some read alouds this summer. Thanks for the post.

  9. Where did you find the collection of busts?? Love!

  10. here is actually a lot out there for boys, more than you think. But I also think we have to be careful to not put boys or girls in a box as far as what they will enjoy! I have four sons and they have enjoyed many books that I would have often thought of as more \”girl\” stories. Some of our favorites – Nancy Rue\’s series, The old Lee Roddy series, Robert Elmer, Wayne Thomas Batson\’s books, Frank Peretti\’s for kids, Amos Fortune Freeman, Patricia St. John books, Childhood of Famous American\’s, AIO series, Bread and Roses, Henry\’s Red Sea, Distant Thunder, Captain Kate (boy and girl), The Children who stayed alone, Snow Treasure, Chris Fabry\’s books and many others. There are many new books being written all the time for both young people and children…but it is good to know what you want to see. The best way to get them to know you want the books, is when you find an author that you like, write them a note and let them know. Buy their books! I visit with many authors and they struggle with book sales, and the publishers will only publish what they know sells!
    Martha Artyomenko’s latest post: #1 thing not to do when your child embarrasses you

  11. Shannon says:

    I was excited to try some of these recommendations, however I now know not to make assumptions regarding other’s views on appropriateness. My daughter is 15 and was reading “Code name Verity.” She decided to stop reading it because of the F bomb, as well as the use of other language she felt inappropriate. I had been looking forward to relying on recommendations that could save me some time, but not now. Maybe reviews could include if there is content that some may find less then edifying? Idk, just disappointing. Glad my daughter isn’t jaded enough that foul language doesn’t bother her. (If I somehow read the information wrong regarding the book, whoops on my part and sorry!)

  12. What about all the Bodie Thoene books? She has like 30 historical fiction books. We love the World war 2 ones.

  13. Have you tried Michael Morpurgo? He writes many fictions based on historical event. My favourite is Private Peaceful based on world war 1 – suitable for 12 onwards.

  14. Thanks for this list! I look forward to reading them with my boys when they’re a bit older. Right now we’re enjoying historical fiction geared at a slightly younger audience: The extended Little House on the Prairie series (which reaches clear back to Scotland), Caddie Woodlawn, and books from the Dear America series.
    Kariane’s latest post: Letting my Kids Set Things on Fire

  15. We recommend the Roman Mysteries series for age 8-12 too – brilliantly detailed life in Roman times with 2 boys (one Greek and one Jew) and 2 girls (one Roman and one African ex-slave) solving no end of exciting mysteries. Starting with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD and going on through the emergence of Christianity, there are 13 books in the series by Caroline Lawrence. An extra chapter (“Aristo’s scroll”) at the back gives correct pronunciation and definitions of Latin words used.

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