From the ancient world to the grunge-filled 90s, historical novels bridge the gap between our present and our past. Young adult historical fiction novels can be particularly captivating, and offer 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 young adult historical fiction novels below are prime examples, as they each explore coming-of-age during a significant time in history.
Lovely War is told by the goddess Aphrodite, who must tell the tale or be judged on Mount Olympus. She speaks of Hazel, a London pianist; James, a British soldier who wished to be an architect; Aubrey, a Harlem-born ragtime lover in the U.S. Army; and Colette, a Belgian orphan with a beautiful voice. Through their stories, Aphrodite shows that War is a terrible force—but it can’t match the power of Love.
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 list, and was adapted into a film in 2013. More hopeful than most , The Book Thief is a moving tale of 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."
An Unlikely Friendship
When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, wishes to be with her confidante and best friend, Elizabeth Keckley. But her guards keep Elizabeth away—they have no idea the First Lady has such a close relationship with her black dressmaker.
This fictionalized biography explores the real relationship between the two women who became friends during the Lincoln administration. “Both personalities are well drawn, with real anxieties and emotions,” according to School Library Journal. For more information on Keckley, there’s no better source than her own memoir: .
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. At first, the dreaded yellow fever, which was carried by mosquitoes, only affected those close to the river.... But eventually this real-life epidemic—which wiped out over 5,000 people, 10 percent 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."
Doomed Queen Anne
Based on the tragic events of Anne Boleyn’s life, Meyer has created a first-person narrative to bring readers into the mind of the woman who would become King Henry VIII’s second wife. Born without neither wealth or a title, or even great beauty, Anne was determined to captivate the King. Unfortunately, her ambition would eventually lead to her demise.
The Carnival at Bray
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.
If the early 90s don’t seem like they should count as history, we have bad news for you—it was almost three decades ago, and a lot has changed since then. This was one of the reasons YA author Jessie Ann Foley chose that time period. As she explained, it “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
Eleanor & Park feels contemporary, but it actually takes place in the 80s. The time period is popular for current YA authors, as many of them were teens themselves during that decade. In an , 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