In recent years, more and more writers of young adult novels have turned to to history for their source material. That’s good news for readers of all ages. There are few things more fascinating than reading a story about a whole world that’s brand new to you ― especially if that world actually existed somewhere in our past. Here are my top five young adult historical novels, listed in the order in which they take place. (This list, by the way, focuses on realistic fiction, but, there are also a lot of fantastic young adult books in historical settings that have fantasy or paranormal elements to them. Some recent favorites include Chime by Franny Billingsley, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, and Sekret by Lindsay Smith.)
1. Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Philadelphia, 1793. A yellow fever epidemic sweeps the city, sickening and killing most of the population. Fourteen-year-old Mattie starts out the story resenting all the work she has to do to help run her mother’s coffeehouse, but after her mother is stricken with the fever, Mattie has to step up and take charge of her future and her family’s. An amazing story with fascinating historical details and a protagonist anyone who’s ever been 14 will immediately relate to.
2. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Upstate New York, 1906. Sixteen-year-old Mattie dreams of going to college and becoming a writer in New York City, but her family and her whole world are deeply tied to their town and their farm. As Mattie quietly tries to consider her options, she becomes obsessed with a local murder mystery that’s based on true events. The process Mattie goes through as she struggles to choose her path is one of the most realistic coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read.
3. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
France, 1943. Two young women become friends while serving in the British military during the Second World War. Pilot Maddie and spy Julie have one of the deepest friendships I’ve ever encountered in a YA novel. The story, which starts out as Julie’s “confession” during her interrogation by the Nazis, is shockingly frank, which makes it that much more suspenseful ― you honestly don’t know how far this story is going to go. My heart did flip-flops as I turned each page. (By the way, I never noticed until I started writing this post how many historical YA heroines seem to be named Maddie, Mattie, or variations thereof. Interesting!)
4. Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys
New Orleans, 1950. Seventeen-year-old Josie lives above the bookshop where she works in the French Quarter and longs to leave the only city she’s ever known for an elite college in New England. Torn between her mother, a notorious prostitute; her mentor, a savvy, caring brothel madam; and her dream of a bigger future, Josie gets caught up in a murder mystery that threatens to destroy everything she’s worked toward. A beautiful story with one of the most mature, intelligent, and all-around fascinating YA heroines I’ve ever read. (Ruta Sepetys’ first historical YA novel, Between Shades of Grey, is amazing too, by the way.)
5. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Oakland, California, 1968. 11-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters spend a summer visiting their estranged mother in Oakland, where she’s a part of the Black Panther movement. A prose novel that reads like a poem, One Crazy Summer is the very best kind of historical fiction ― the kind that teaches you about the past so subtly you don’t even know how much you’re learning until you realise you’re still thinking about the book weeks after you’ve put it down.
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley is out this week from Mira Ink.