Who doesn’t love some great historical fiction? Historical fiction gives us not only fantastic stories and characters but context into eras we might not have known much about otherwise. And no one is better served by historical fiction than children, so without further ado, here is my top five roundup of fantastic historical fiction for children!
Number the Stars, Lois Lowry
Lowry is known for her works like The Giver, but this book is an absolutely heartwarming and inspiring gem. This book is an amazing read to introduce kids to a very difficult era of history. Lowry deftly invites young readers into a story where they can ponder what they would do in such a difficult and dangerous situation.
The story takes place in Denmark at the height of World War II and follows a young girl named Annemarie whose world is turned upside down when the Nazis tighten their grip on her beleaguered country. When it becomes clear that the Nazis have sinister intentions for their Jewish friends and neighbors, Annemarie and her family become involved in a brave and daring plan to get them to safety. Despite her young age, Annemarie quickly learns what it means to have courage in the face of fear and protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Bud, Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis
Bud, Not Buddy is the heartwarming story of a young boy on a journey to find his father in a world that would rather leave him by the wayside. The story is set in Depression-era Michigan and follows Bud as he narrates his way through harrowing and hilarious adventures like escapes from imagined vampire guards, riding the rails, and even a first kiss. Whatever life throws his way, Bud handles in his signature unruffled style, often sighting his humorous “Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself”
It’s not easy to introduce kids to topics like the Great Depression, racism, and loneliness, but somehow Curtis manages to do so not just brilliantly but with charm and sensitivity too. While Buddy’s world may be harsh, unkind, and unfeeling, he approaches it with so much wit, perseverance, and humor that you can’t help but ease into his version of the story. No problem is too big for Bud to puzzle through and he has no problem calling things out for what they are. Add to that equation Bud’s sudden and beautiful introduction to the world of jazz, and his story has a little bit of something for everyone to learn from.
The Dear America Series
This entire series is a gold mine for historical goodness. There are so many books in this series I couldn’t pull out a single one, so we’re just going with the series as a whole here. I was assigned several of these books to read when I was in school and I was hooked. Once I had finished the books I was assigned I made a major library haul with any others I could get my hands on. They cover a vast array of topics such as settling at Plymouth, the Revolutionary War, the Trail of Tears, slavery, the Titanic, suffrage, and more.
The series is structured to look like a diary written by a young girl living through a major event or era of American history. Each book covers not just the broad strokes of our heroine’s time in history, but the little rhythms of how it affects her own life amid her own struggles and ambitions. At the end, there’s a section dedicated to expanding on the historical event and gives a young reader a bit more context to the era they’re reading about. So while the story created may be fictional, each other puts a great deal of work into ensuring that their book presents the event in as accurate terms as possible.
Some of my favorites from this series are A Coal Miner’s Bride, Early Sunday Morning, and A Line in the Sand.
Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse
This is certainly not a cheery inclusion on this list, but it’s hard to be cheery when discussing the “Dust Bowl” tragedy that Oklahoman farmers of the 1930s faced. In place of cheap cheeriness, the book offers a heartbreakingly poetic look into the struggle and toil the drought brought one girl.
Billie Jo’s life is not simple in such trying times, but she finds solace in playing piano and the anticipation that her mother will soon have a baby. But tragedy soon strikes and Billie Jo is left to grieve with nothing to tether her to hope in an already hopeless world.
What’s even more striking about this book is the style in which it’s written. A novel completely written and stylized to read as poems may seem like an unusual approach for children’s fiction, but Hesse brilliantly pulls off the feat and the result is a beautifully lyrically masterpiece that children can lose themselves in.
A Night Divided, Jennifer A. Nielsen
Unlike the other books on this list, I actually read this one just in the last year. I was perusing the shelves of the library, started chatting with a librarian, and asked her if she wouldn’t mind surprising me with a few choices to check out. (Side note: I cannot tell you how fun that was) One of the books she picked out was A Night Divided and man did she know what she was doing. I started this book on a Saturday and finished it on that same Saturday. It was that much of a page-turner.
The book follows Gerta, a young girl living in Berlin at a critical time. Overnight, she is separated from half of her family as the Berlin wall rises and changes the entire course of her world. She is on the Soviet side with her oldest brother and mother while her father and middle brother were caught off guard on the other. Gerta and her older brother hatch a daring plan from instruction discovered from their father, but the insurmountable danger puts them at risk every minute as time starts to run out.
Gerta’s story is a fantastic way to introduce a young reader to a chapter of history many people only have a broad stroke familiarity with. It’s not only a look at the oppressive nature of the wall but the complications of daily life. Gerta’s world is filled with informants around every corner, strict regulations, heartbreaking failed attempts at escape, and tight-lipped conversations because one can never be too sure who might be listening, even in their own home.