From the ancient world to the grungy 90s, historical novels bridge the gap between our present and our past. Young adult historical fiction novels, in particular, can captivate the younger set, offering details that aren't found in the average school textbook. These stories make the children of bygone eras seem less removed—and much more relatable to the modern day teen reader.
The best historical novels are ones where fact and fiction complement each other, blending so seamlessly that it's hard to distinguish between the two. The books below are prime examples, as they explore coming-of-age during a significant time in history.
The Book Thief
Narrated by Death himself, this novel about a young girl growing up (and stealing books) in World War II Germany remains one of the genre's most popular. It spent over 375 weeks on the New York Times bestseller, and was adapted into a film in 2013. It's a moving tale of an friendship, hope, and the power of words.
Between Shades of Gray
Not to be confused with the other Shades of Grey, this novel was inspired by author Ruta Sepetys’ family history. The story follows Lina, an artistic fifteen-year old, who lives in 1941 Lithuania under the brutal Stalinist regime. When she is sent to a labor camp in Siberia, she must fight for her life—all the while maintaining faith that she'll reunite with her father.
Making this a YA novel, not an adult novel, was a deliberate choice. "Many of the survivors I met were young when they were deported," Sepetys said in an interview. "Many of the teens had a will to live that surpassed that of the adults. They were powerful."
Sixteen-year-old Mattie is working at her family’s Philadelphia coffee shop when she learns that her childhood friend has died of a sudden illness. Soon, more people begin to catch the dreaded yellow fever, which is carried by the mosquitos around the rivers. But Mattie has the luxury of being far away from the diseased waterways and, removed from the danger, can enjoy the increased flow of business into the coffee shop. But eventually this real-life epidemic—which wiped out over 5,000 people, 10% of Philly’s population at the time—starts hitting closer and closer to home.
Anderson described Yellow Fever as "very gory" in an interview, saying "you’d puke up blood...it was like people dying all over in the streets." Of course, this didn't deter her from writing a story aimed at young adults. The combination of history and "the disgusting factor," Anderson joked, made her realize she had "the perfect book for children."
The Carnival at Bray
Okay, so 1993 doesn’t seem like it should count as "history," but if you were born after that, you’re more likely to know Kurt from Glee than Kurt Cobain. When Maggie’s mom marries an Irish guy, the grunge-loving teen must leave Chicago for a tiny town on the Irish coast. This critically-acclaimed novel is a story of love, death—and the power of music—in the 90s.
On the choice of the time period, Foley said that "setting the novel...solved some very important plot problems, the obvious one being the absence of social media." Her teenage heroine "needed to be truly isolated in Bray" so that she could grow and ultimately "show her mettle."
Life in Ancient Egypt isn't all sun goddesses and eyeliner—especially when you’re Cleopatra Selene, the only daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. When the Roman Emperor takes over and holds Selene and her siblings hostage, she must use the political wiles inherited from her parents to reclaim her place as the rightful Queen of Egypt. Schecter, who primarily wrote adult historical fiction before Cleopatra’s Moon, uses her solid grasp of the time period to write with lush detail, masterfully incorporating the mythology of Ancient Egypt.
Eleanor & Park
Who here forgot that Eleanor & Park takes place in the 80s? The time period is a surprisingly popular for YA novels, as many authors were teens themselves during that decade. In an interview, Rainbow Rowell (who was born in 1973) said she wanted to capture "when alternative music and comic books were finally seeping into Middle America...[when] INTERESTING THINGS were happening out there."
Interesting things are definitely happening in her book. If you haven’t already jumped on the Rowell bandwagon, this New York Times bestseller is a great place to start.
Featured still from "The Book Thief" (2013), via 20th Century Fox