The Ways Things Were: Historical Fiction

The Ways Things Were: Historical Fiction

Revolutions, mutinies, labor strikes, dinosaur discoveries—the past is anything but dull! Take a look at some of these great historical fiction titles for an idea of what life was like, from the 14th century through the 1980s.

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson
After the death of their owner, Isabel and her sister Ruth are sold to a Loyalist couple from New York City.  The Locktons are working with the British on invasion plans, and Isabel is trying to stay out of it.  But some new friends want her to spy on her owners, report back to the Patriots, and help foil the invasion.  It’s not until Mrs. Lockton takes out her rage on Ruth that Isabel’s priorities come into focus—and her priorities are not to her cruel owners.

Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Andersonttie Cook has big plans, primarily to turn her mother’s little coffeehouse into a successful business.  But her priorities change when yellow fever strikes close to home, and Mattie’s plans run more to survival and care-giving than growth of the family business.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson
Octavian is a very unusual boy: dressed in silks, given a fine classical education, and raised by philosophers, he seemingly has everything—until he opens a forbidden door and learns the truth about the philosophers’ experiments.  After one of their experiments leads to a tragedy in Octavian’s life, he sets out on his own course, toward adulthood and toward the Revolutionary War.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi
The 13-year-old boy known only as Asta’s son must flee his tiny 14th-century English village when he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  Before he leaves, he learns that he was baptized Crispin and that his late mother held a secret—but the priest is killed before he can tell Crispin more.  Meanwhile, peasants are secretly plotting a revolt against the same feudal lords who want Crispin dead, and Crispin’s traveling companion is deeply involved in the uprising.  What makes the pair such a threat to the kingdom?

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi
When a sheltered, upper-class girl learns that she is the only passenger on a cargo ship to America, things look bad. When she finds herself in the middle of a mutiny, things look worse.  Charlotte must decide—and quickly—to which side she owes her loyalty, and work harder than she’s ever had to before to prove it.

Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko
It’s 1935, and Moose Flanagan and his family have just moved to Alcatraz Island, to be nearer to a special school for his autistic sister Natalie.  Moose is coping as best he can under the weight of the move, his own new school, and having near-complete responsibility for his older sister while his dad works all the time and his mom obsessively seeks a cure for Natalie’s condition.  As he begins to settle in, Moose finds himself caught up in mischief and money-making schemes—all spearheaded by the warden’s daughter, Piper.  The author’s notes at the end add many historical facts to the details presented in this hopeful coming-of-age novel.

The Midwife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman
Nameless and homeless, a girl is woken from her night in the dung heap by the severe-looking midwife.  The midwife puts her to work as an apprentice, gathering roots and trapping birds.  The first time the girl is called to assist a birth, though; she finds her skills aren’t up to the task.  And they’re not the second time, either.  How many chances will the midwife give her before she’s homeless again?

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet intends to be a famous author someday, and she’s starting by writing down everything she sees—and she sees a lot on her daily spy route.  Which is fine, until she loses her notebook and all her classmates find out just how much Harriet sees—and how she feels about them.  Harriet will have to give up her spying if she even hopes to get her friends back—but is such a big sacrifice worth it?

Uprising, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Bella, newly arrived from Italy, finds a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. There she meets Yetta, a young woman fighting to unionize the shirtwaist workers.  When the workers go on strike, wealthy Jane runs away from home to help the fight—even though it means walking away from her father’s money and her life of privilege.  While the girls return to work without a union, they still fight to improve conditions—but changes don’t come quickly enough to prevent a deadly fire.

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse
Billie Jo lives in dust-bowl Oklahoma, where everything is a struggle—the crops that blow away in the night, the pervasive dust that settles over everything, the guilt and grief Billie Jo feels after the accident that kills her mother.  Billie Jo’s father is decaying under the same burdens, but neither of them can reach out to the other—unless Billie Jo finds the strength to change everything.  Out of the Dust is a quiet, emotionally powerful historical novel.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
In the latter half of 1899, Calpurnia is an oddity, her interest in science at odds with her mother's interest in making her a debutante and, eventually, wife. Calpurnia’s interests, though, are not in housewifery: she’s been studying science with her grandfather, an avid naturalist. The discovery of a new species of plant might be her salvation—or she may have to resign herself to cooking, knitting, and living the only kind of life for girls in 1899.

Vixen, by Jillian Larkin
Chicago socialite Gloria knows there must be something more for her than her engagement to most-eligible-bachelor Sebastian. She finds that something in Chicago's hottest speakeasy, and particularly in the company of the jazz band’s black piano player.  Meanwhile, her cousin Clara is playing the part of the innocent country girl while escaping her own tawdry flapper past, and Gloria's best friend Lorraine wants nothing more than to win their mutual friend Marcus's affections, but he only has eyes for another.  All three girls have their secret desires, and fulfilling them means being prepared to sacrifice everything.

The Silent Boy, by Lois Lowry
If you found a box of old photographs, what kind of story would they tell?  The Silent Boy tells Katy's story of growing up in a mill town in the early 1900s, and her friendship with the "touched" brother of her family's housegirl.

Houdini: The Handcuff King, by Jason Lutes & Nick Bertozzi
What kind of man was Houdini?  This graphic novel provides a few anecdotes (some fictionalized) from the escape artist’s life that give some insight into the man behind the illusions.

Bloody Jack, by LA Meyer
Mary Faber has been living in the streets of London with a gang of her fellow beggars for years.  When the leader of her gang, Rooster Charlie, is killed, it’s time for Mary to strike out on her own.  She dons his shirt and pants, cuts off her hair, calls herself Jacky, and lands herself a spot as a Ship’s Boy on the HMS Dolphin.  What follows is a series of adventures on the high seas, including storms, pirate attacks, shipwrecks, and even a touch of romance—and every adventure is another opportunity for Jacky to blow her cover.

Winnie’s War, by Jenny Moss
When 12-year-old Winnie’s father brings her along on a carpentry job to measure a deceased neighbor for a coffin, she instantly knows that the Spanish flu epidemic has hit her small town of Coward Creek, Texas. She tries to protect her family and keep them from catching the flu, desperately seeking home remedies she knows are useless and making masks she hopes are not.  Unfortunately, pandemics have a way of getting past even the best defenses. 

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards, by Jim Ottaviani
In the late 1800s, as the United States busily dug and tunneled its way across the country, the diggers accidentally started the Bone Wars.  Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, two paleontologists, found and fought for the dinosaur bones—and the credit.  How low will scientists go?  Pretty low, it turns out.  Don’t miss this graphic novel about the gilded age of paleontology!

Mamba Point, by Kurtis Scaletta
One of the first things Linus sees when he steps off the plane in his new home of Liberia is a black mamba, the deadliest snake in the whole country. He notices the snake more and more, and it seems almost friendly. Linus feels himself becoming more like the snake—braver, bolder—but will his mystical connection to this spirit animal help him reinvent himself, or put his whole family in danger?

The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt
Hollis is just trying to make it through the seventh grade--the year when half his class goes to Hebrew school on Wednesday afternoons, and the other half goes to catechism, leaving Hollis alone with Mrs. Baker week after week. And that wouldn't be so bad, except that Mrs. Baker hates him. After devising several plans to get rid of him in the afternoons, she finally starts assigning him Shakespeare--which leads to a number of colorful curses, an understanding of love, and a public performance in yellow tights with feathers on the butt.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
After his uncle disappears, Hugo tends to the station clock and steals food to get by.  He also steals mechanical toys, and when the elderly toy-maker catches him, Hugo loses his late father’s sketches of a mechanical man.  But when the toymaker’s granddaughter offers to help him get it back, Hugo must make the decision to trust (or not) this strange girl.  This cinematic experience, told through both words and pictures, is not to be missed.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
The adults in Francie’s life are deeply flawed—an alcoholic father, a bitterly-realistic mother, and an aunt who seeks love in all the wrong places—and cause Francie to grow up into the sum of their parts: romantic and practical, a determined, truth-seeking dreamer, though not without her share of struggle in her poverty-stricken neighborhood.

Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli
Misha is an orphan, homeless, on the streets of Poland in 1939.  He survives by stealing food and hiding from adults.  For all his street smarts, though, he is naïve about the shiny-booted Nazis and wants to be one of them.  When Misha’s Jewish friend Jenina and her family are forced to move into a newly-created ghetto, Misha cheerfully moves with them.  But as conditions grow worse and his adopted family is starving, Misha’s loyalty and survival instincts are tested against the growing horror of the holocaust.

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
Finally in the sixth grade, Miranda feels like 1979 will finally be her year.  Except it’s a lot weirder a year than she expects: her best friend, Sal, wants to hang out with the guys instead of with her, apartment keys go missing, and Miranda finds odd notes in her coat pockets, asking her to write letters that will somehow save someone’s life.  If she can make sense of it all before it’s too late, anyway.

This Means War!, by Ellen Wittlinger
Juliet and Lowell have been best friends for years--but suddenly he'd rather hang out with the guys and pretend Juliet doesn't exist. Juliet is in the market for a new friend, and she finds one in Patsy: brave, strong, wonderful Patsy, who won't accept being considered less able than the boys. Patsy riles both the girls and the boys into a competition to prove which sex is better: 9 tests, boys v. girls, best five wins. Running races, climbing trees, and other tasks prove not only who the best athletes are, but where the lines are between bravery and foolhardiness.