J Historical Fiction


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Twins Nettie and Nellie spent a lot of time together, just the two of them.  Their father was often away for long periods of time to find work, their older brother worked all day, and sometimes their mother would disappear for weeks–especially after their baby sister died.  But one day a man arrives to take the children away, saying that they are not being cared for properly.  At six years old, Nettie and Nellie find themselves in an orphanage, even though their parents are still alive.  Not long afterward they are put on a train and sent West with a group of other children in search of “forever homes.”  But some homes are not as wonderful as they are cracked up to be.

Based on the true story of the Crook sisters, Abbott’s book gives readers a glimpse into what it might be like to be placed in foster care or adopted in the early twentieth century.  Neither the characterization nor the settings are particularly vivid; the book is plot driven.  But the subject matter is interesting, and may especially appeal to readers now that Simone Biles’ Olympic wins are raising awareness of what foster care and adoption are like today.  I would recommend this book to third and fourth grade readers who are interested in history.

CHASING SECRETS by Gennifer Choldenko

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At the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco is a bustling hub of industry with ships coming into port from all over the world.  When rumors begin to circulate that a ship has brought the bubonic plague, the educated members of society and doctors, such as Lizzie’s father, do their best to reassure people that there is no plague danger.  But Aunt Hortense is still reluctant to the let Lizzie go with her father on his medical calls, which she considers to be unbecoming for a young woman even without the danger of plague.  Lizzie still manages to get herself tangled up in the plague controversy, however, when the nervous citizens erect a quarantine around Chinatown.  The family’s cook, Jing is trapped in the quarantine, and Lizzie discovers that Jing has been hiding a secret at home:  his son, Noah.  As Lizzie tries to find a way to get Jing out of the quarantine, she begins to uncover more secrets and isn’t sure she likes what she finds.

This well-written historical fiction novel is difficult to put down.  Every aspect of it is engaging–from Lizzie’s struggles with friendships at school to her controversial dreams of being a doctor to the secrets surrounding the plague scare and the racism it fueled.  I highly recommend it to middle grade readers who enjoy historical fiction!

If you liked Chasing Secrets, you might like some of these titles.



CAST OFF by Eve Yohalem

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When Petra flees from home, she knows she can never return.  Her father chases her through the streets, brandishing a fire poker.  If he catches her, he will kill her.  If she goes to the police, they will return her to him.  Desperate, she stows aboard a ship leaving Amsterdam for Indonesia, knowing full well that if she is discovered, she may be cast overboard.  Fortunately, the person who discovers her is Bram, a biracial ship’s boy who knows exactly what it’s like to live as a second class citizen.  Friendship makes life easier for both Petra and Bram, but a six month voyage at sea is filled with so many dangers that one wrong choice could lead to a watery grave.

This adventure-filled story about two kids seeking freedom will appeal to middle graders who love historical fiction.  As seafaring adventures go, it lacked the intensity of Castaways of the Flying Dutchman and the tight story arc of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  But the setting was vivid; you get a sense of being trapped on a crowded ship for six months.  Definitely worth reading if you like middle grade historical adventures.


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In a fictional conversation “inspired by historical fact,” Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony discuss their different fights for freedom and how their lives and causes intersected along the way. This book contains interesting facts and helps the reader see how pieces of history which are often described in isolation are really part of a broader fabric of events.  The format of the book as a conversation is unique, although I did not find it as compelling as I had hoped. Since the majority of the book is dialogue, the events are explained more with a statement of facts rather than the vivid narration you find in many historical nonfiction books, as well as historical fiction.  But it is a quick and informative read with supporting illustrations that are likely to engage many young readers.

ODETTE’S SECRETS by Maryann Macdonald

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Odette Meyers was a child when the Nazis invaded France. Her father joined the French Army and was put in a German prisoner of war camp, and her mother became involved with the Resistance.  When the Germans began to round up the Jews in her neighborhood, Odette and the other children of the Jewish resistance fighters escaped by train to the French countryside where they were hidden among Christian families. Odette had always been good at keeping secrets, but in the country she had to learn to keep the biggest secret of all: her identity.

Maryann Macdonald tells the true story of Odette Meyers in first person free verse.  Her story focuses on the changes that the war brought to her daily life as a child. If you liked Odette’s Secrets, you might like Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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Ada has spent her entire life in the room above the pub. Her mother tells her that her crippled foot is too much of an embarrassment; she can never be allowed outside. But in secret, while her mother is at work and her little brother is playing outside, Ada begins (painfully) to teach herself how to walk.  When England goes to war with Germany, the children of London are sent away to the country. Although her mother will not allow her to go, Ada sneaks away with her brother in search of a better life. Living in the country with a childless woman who is mourning the death of her partner, Ada begins to question some of the things she always believed to be true. Maybe she is not as worthless as her mother said. Maybe she can have friends. And with the help of the pony, Butter, she may even be able to run.

This is the story of a girl who overcomes a traumatic, abused childhood and a woman who finds her way out of her grief end into a community that she never expected to accept her.  The mother is not a nuanced character; the reason behind her hatred of her children is never really explained or alluded to. I think the book may have been stronger if there had been some elements of the mother’s character that elicited Ada’s love or loyalty, as is often the case in abusive situations. But Ada’s strength makes her a compelling character, and it is exciting  to watch her thrive in her new environment. Her journey is paralleled with her caregivers struggle to overcome her self-imposed isolation.  Not all readers will pick up on exactly why Miss Smith believes the community will not accept her (she tells the children it is because she chose to never marry, but her grief over the death of her best friend who lived with her implies that she is gay), but when the children bring her out of her shell, she is welcomed into the community with open arms.

I would recommend this book to middle grade readers who enjoy historical fiction.

GHOST KNIGHT by Cornelia Funke

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Jon is being sent to boarding school, and it’s all because of The Beard. John had hated his mother’s new boyfriend since the moment he moved into the house. He had done everything he could think of to get rid of The Beard–pranks, open cruelty, trying to turn his little sisters against him– but it is all to no avail. The end result is that Jon get sent to boarding school while The Beard stays in his home. Jon is determined to hate his time in Salisbury. But he never imagined that Salisbury could be a dangerous place for him. His first night in the boarding school, however, convinces him otherwise. He peers out the window and sees four blood stained ghosts on horseback, the marks of a hangman’s rope about their necks.  The next day at dusk the horsemen chased him across the school grounds. They call him Hartgill, his mother’s maiden name, and vow that just as they have slain his ancestors, they will not rest until Jon is dead. The only person who believes Jon’s wild tales of murderous ghosts is Ella, whose grandmother leads Salisbury’s ghost tours.  Not only does Ella believe him, she knows who can help: William Longespee a 12th century Crusader whose ghost still lives in the cathedral.  But John soon learns that William has a tragic and bloody history of his own.

This book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Its macabre spectres fall easily into the horror genre, yet there is humor in this book, and Jon’s evolving relationship with his future stepfather is central to the fantasy plot–far more than a framing device.  Perhaps the most fascinating element of this story is the medieval history that Funke weaves so seamlessly into Jon and Ella’s lives.  At times it seems like there are three plots running concurrently through this book. The plot that I had initially thought to be the primary one is wrapped up about two thirds of the way through the book, while the other two continue. It is an unusual way to create a story arc, but I did not dislike it. I found myself so invested in William Longespee’s story that I was eager to keep reading even after the murderous ghosts were vanquished.  This book will have crossover appeal for middle grade fans of either horror or fantasy.  I highly recommend the audiobook.

If you liked The Ghost Knight, you might like Coraline by Neil Gaiman.