Historical fiction is like your personal time machine. Hop into a book and whisk off to medieval England, the Wild West, or ancient Rome—the options are endless. Historical fiction takes facts and events from the past and deftly weaves them into a fictional tale about characters we grow to love. Plenty of recent books for kids and teens are making history come alive with exciting stories, beautiful prose and authentic settings, written with sensitivity to difficult issues and respect to all cultures represented.
Today’s Five on Friday will give you five fabulous historical fiction options for upper middle grade readers. 5th graders and up should grab one of these and set the flux capacitor for GO!
Five Books for 11-14 year olds who are ready for a blast from the past.
1) Esperanza Rising
By: Pam Munoz Ryan
Esperanza Rising is about a girl from a wealthy Mexican ranching family who is forced to immigrate to the United States during the Great Depression and begin life as a farm worker. In California, she and her mother face discrimination, harsh working conditions and poverty. It’s a shock to Esperanza’s senses, who is already reeling from the loss of her beloved Papa. Readers get an inside look at life in these camps and the kind of hard labor expected. Esperanza isn’t the most sympathetic of characters in the beginning, despite the tragedies she experiences. She is spoiled and unprepared for realities outside of her life of privilege, but readers get to cheer with her as she grows up, humbles up, and accepts the responsibility of caring for her ill mother and the other migrants around her. Beautifully written and compelling.
2) One Came Home
By: Amy Timberlake
The book captivated me from its first brilliant paragraph: “So it comes to this, I remember thinking on Wednesday, June 7, 1871. The date sticks in my mind because it was the day of my sister’s first funeral and I knew it wasn’t her last—which is why I left. That’s the long and short of it” (1). Thirteen-year-old Georgie lives in a Wisconsin frontier town. Everyone believes her big sister Agatha has died, but Georgie doesn’t believe that the unrecognizable body wearing Agatha’s dress is really her sister. So she sets out to discover what really happened and experiences many adventures and near-disasters along the way.
Georgie’s narration is as sharp as her shooting and honestly reflects that cusp of young adulthood when people are figuring out who they want to be. Mystery and history wrapped together with wit and grit.
3) Code Talker
By: Joseph Bruchac
Ned, a boy from a Navajo reservation, goes to school to learn English and eventually is recruited into the Marines. He becomes a member of a special team of Navajo soldiers whose secret mission is to send messages during World War II using a code based on their own sacred language that the enemies cannot crack. The protagonist is fictional, a grandfather telling the story of his war medal, but the events and battles in the story are real.
The language of the story is direct and the story moves quickly. Because this is a grandfather looking back, we know Ned survives the war, which helps reduce possible uncomfortable tension. The grim reality of prejudice against the Navajos is painted clearly, but not in a sensationalized manner. The focus remains on the amazing accomplishment of the Navajo soldiers as a group. It’s an inspiring tale about overcoming oppression and staying true to yourself– and being able to help others because of it.
By: Laurie Halse Anderson
Set during the American Revolution, we see the events of that fateful time unfolding through the eyes of a 13 year old slave, Isabel, who is taking care of her little sister. Freed upon her master’s death, they nevertheless end up as property of a couple in New York who are loyal to England. We witness Isabel’s own revolution as she decides to smuggle information to the rebels, in hopes of gaining her and her sister’s freedom.
Chains is the first in a trilogy. Poignant without being overly sentimental, it is a well-researched look into a commonly studied period of history in America, from a point of view often left out of the discussion.
5) The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
By: Jacqueline Kelly
Set in 1899, in south central Texas, Calpurnia Tate is nearly 12 years old. She is the only girl in a family with 7 children. Throughout the story, she learns about science from her grandfather, an amateur naturalist, but her mother becomes concerned with her gallivanting around the country and fiddling with insects and sets out to teach her only daughter how to be a lady. Ladies weren’t scientists—not then, not there. The title is a clever reference to all the changes Calpurnia experiences as she studies science with her grandfather based on Darwin’s methodology and must somehow adapt to her own restrictive environment as a young female in 1899.
The style reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is simply gorgeous. It’s a bit slower-paced and more contemplative than others on this list, but if you can deal with that, you’ll be well-rewarded. Its sequel, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, is on my to-read list.
If you are seeking more upper MG historical fiction after these, check out Firefly Letters, by Margarita Engle, Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, Al Capone Does my Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko and Revolution by Deborah Wiles. There are some beloved classics of historical fiction that I adore, too, such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton.
Whether you choose a recent release or a popular classic, historical fiction is a treasure trove just waiting for discovery.
What tween-friendly historical fiction do you love, and why?
Let us know in the comments, or using the hashtag #5OnFri!
Amy writes stories for tweens and teens, including The Fairy Keeper. She is a former reading teacher who now has her Masters in Library Science. As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though Texas is still where they call home. A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book. Tweet with her @AmyBearce.