From the ancient world to the grungy 90s, historical novels bring the past to life. These young adult historical fiction novels have the added advantage of getting teens (and adults too!) interested in the past, with details you wouldn’t learn in school (ahem, ancient Roman group bathrooms).
The best historical novels are the ones where the historical facts and story blend together seamlessly. The novels below have the perfect amount of historical fun facts, mixed with relatable stories that just so happen to take place during important—or lost—points in history.
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The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
Narrated by Death himself, this 2005 novel about a young girl coming of age (and stealing books) in World War II-era Germany remains one of the most popular historical novels for teens and adults alike. It has spent over 375 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and remains on the list, over 10 years after its original publication—in 2013, was made into a popular movie as well.
Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys
Not to be confused with the other Shades of Grey, this novel was inspired by author Ruta Sepetys’s family history. The story follows Lina, an artistic fifteen-year-old girl, who has the misfortune of living in Lithuania in 1941, under the brutal Stalinist regime. She gets sent to a labor camp in Siberia, where she must dig up beets and fight for her life, all the while drawing her experiences in hopes of reaching her father.
In an interview, Sepetys said that she made this a YA novel, rather than one for adults, because “Many of the survivors I met were young when they were deported and I was very affected by the things they told me they experienced during their teen years in Siberia. Many of the teens had a will to live that surpassed that of the adults. They were powerful. I hoped that making the main character a young girl might add additional dimension to the story.”
Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Sixteen-year-old Mattie Cook is busy working at her family’s coffee shop in Philadelphia, when she hears the news that one of her childhood friends has been taken by a sudden illness and died. Soon, more and more people begin to catch the dreaded yellow fever, brought on by mosquitos in the hot summer air around the rivers. But Mattie is more excited by all of the new business coming to the coffee shop, which is located far from the diseased waterways.
But soon this real epidemic, which ended up wiping out over 5,000 people, 10% of Philly’s population at the time, starts hitting closer and closer to home for Mattie. Said Anderson in an interview, “Yellow Fever’s not a nice disease. It’s very gory and you’d puke up blood and it was like people dying all over in the streets. And I realized that between the disgusting factor and the history thing, I had the perfect book for children.” Fun!
The Carnival at Bray, by Jessie Ann Foley
Okay, fine, 1993 doesn’t seem like it should count as historical, but if you were born after that, or were just a little kid back then, you’re more likely to know Kurt from Glee than Kurt Cobain. When sixteen-year-old grunge-loving Maggie’s mom marries an Irish guy, she must leave behind big-city Chicago for a tiny town on the Irish coast. A story of love, death, and the power of music, in the 90s.
On the choice of the time period, Foley said, “Setting the novel in the 90’s solved some very important plot problems, the obvious one being the absence of social media. In order for Maggie to grow in the way she needed to, I felt like she needed to be truly isolated in Bray—truly marooned in this new country … With the lack of internet access, it’s harder to go back. She’s stuck, and she needs to show her mettle.”
Cleopatra’s Moon, by Vicky Alvear Shecter
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 the country and takes 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 non-fiction history-based books, before Cleopatra’s Moon, uses her solid grasp of the time period to write in lush detail, weaving in the beloved mythology of Ancient Egypt.
Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell
Who here forgot that Eleanor & Park takes place in the ‘80s? It’s a timeless love story, y’all. Just one that happens to have Walkmen and mixtapes. The 1980s is a surprisingly popular time period for YA novels, unless you consider that it’s when many YA authors were teens themselves. In an interview, Rowell (who was born in 1973), said, “With Eleanor & Park, I wanted to capture that time in the mid-’80s when alternative music and comic books were finally seeping into Middle America. That feeling—it was almost foreboding—that INTERESTING THINGS were happening out there.” And interesting things are happening in this book—if you haven’t already jumped on the Rowell bandwagon, this New York Times Best Seller is a great place to start.