YA Historical Fiction

RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

As a Floramancer and young woman of Afrikan ancestry, Laura has always known the Prohibition targeted her people specifically. When the Great Rust set in in the 1930s, the small-time Negro mages bore the brunt of the blame, even though white Mechomancers were the ones who’d taken the purity of the power imbued in in nature (the Possibilities) and exploited it for financial gain in their Industrial Revolution. But the Blights are getting worse, and the U.S. government has put the dangerous burden of fixing it on the Bureau of the Archane’s Colored Auxiliary.

With few options for gaining a license to practice Floramancy–or even earn enough money to live–Laura takes a new name (the Peregrine) and an apprenticeship with the Floramancer known as the Skylark who is tasked with finding the source of a particularly rotten Blight in Ohio. But when the Colored Auxiliary arrives, the Peregrine and her mentor realize something is wrong. The Blight bears an alarming resemblance to the Klan’s Necromancy–a horrific evil that touched the Skylark’s life once before. And as they travel toward the heart of the dark magic, the Peregrine realizes that there were secrets within her power she was keeping even from herself.

Justina Ireland once again proves herself the queen of historical fantasy, crafting a richly grounded world with a detailed, inventive magic system that both accentuates past evils and demands that readers recognize and analyze alarming trends in the modern world. She perfectly balances her voice with historical colloquialisms and modern sensibility and weaves a cast of nuanced secondary characters to support her heroine. This novel is a must-read for YA and NA fantasy fans! I cannot recommend it highly enough.

THE RED PALACE by June Hur

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Hyeon worked her whole life to become a palace nurse. It wasn’t an easy path for her, especially without the support of her father, a prominent justice who barely acknowledges her and her mother, who was once his concubine. Hyeon’s success as a nurse and rise to the prestigious palace position was largely thanks to her mentor, Nurse Jeongsu.

But when a massacre at the student hospital leaves four women dead, Nurse Jeongsu is arrested under suspicion of murder. And when an anonymous pamphlet circulates accusing the Crown Prince of the murders, Hyeon realizes two terrible truths: first, that Nurse Jeongsu will be convicted and executed to divert suspicion from the Palace, and second, that Hyeon herself has unwittingly provided the prince with a false alibi by claiming to treat his illness that night. She knows she must investigate the massacre herself if she has any hope of saving her mentor from execution, even when it means defying her father and forming an unlikely alliance with the young and unconventional police inspector who seems to respect her, despite her being a woman and a commoner, but who has the power to destroy her life–or maybe break her heart. But Hyeon will risk her heart, her job, and her father’s disapproval to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, with so many bloody secrets hidden within the Palace walls, the truth may cost her life.

Suspenseful, romantic, and rich with the fascinating history of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, THE RED PALACE is perhaps my favorite June Hur novel yet! She seamlessly weaves together the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in her family and her society with a based-on-a-tragic-true-story murder mystery–plus, a swoon-worthy romance that delighted my historical-romance-loving heart. I highly recommend this novel for any YA collection and to any teen and adult fans of historical mysteries.

MY CONTRARY MARY by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

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Mary, Queen of Scots, is as powerful as she is deviant. After all, it’s not every queen who dresses in a man’s clothes to sneak out for a night of revelry. But no one knows about her most secretive deviance–that she is one of the shape-shifters who can change into animals at will (in her case, a mouse) that are at the center of a political power struggle. Her fiancé, the french prince Francis, doesn’t even know. Of course he has problems of his own, now that his father has announced that he and Mary will be getting married within the week and even if he was sure that Mary loved him as much as he loved her (which he’s not), the wedding night is going to be incredibly awkward because his father plans to watch. Ew. Further complicating matters a Nostradamus (specifically the daughter of the Nostradamus) has been tasked with spying on the young queen and is about to discover her secret. And in case that isn’t enough going on, the king is about to die, and when that happens, everything is going to get very interesting…

This book is extremely weird (in a good way), guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. Narrators address the reader directly with a tongue-in-cheek, informal style as the utterly bizarre events unfold and the dialogue moves with perfect comedic timing. Pick up this one if you’re in the mood for a YA farcical twist on history!

Amazon.com: My Contrary Mary (The Lady Janies): 9780062930040: Hand,  Cynthia, Ashton, Brodi, Meadows, Jodi: Books

THE TELLER OF SECRETS by Bisi Adjapon

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Esi’s first experience with sex is the uncomfortable night she spent as a child in the same hotel bed with her father and his mistress. But when not long afterward, she is punished for being sexually assaulted, she figures out that the same rules do not apply to men and women. The disparity is further accentuated when her stepsisters experience brutal consequences for their own sexual choices. As Esi grows older, her sense of wrongness at this inequality grows with her, and she is determined to find a way to break out of the restrictions placed on her gender and take control of her own life.

With a powerful literary style, this novel explores heavy feminist topics through the historical context of 1960s Ghana. The voice, style, and thematic importance of the work set it in the same category as any of the great literature that might be studied in a college English department. This book is for the adult or mature teen reader who is looking for a book to savor and ponder.

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


More:

ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

A SISTERHOOD OF SECRET AMBITIONS by Sheena Boekweg

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The Society has been at work almost since America’s founding, but even now in the 1920s, no one knows about it. At least no men. Presidents have no idea how their Wives have shaped their policies. Male voters don’t realize how their Wives and Mothers have quietly but deliberately influenced their choices. No one expects to see a Spinster with a Beretta, or a secret code embedded in a recipe. When girls are brought to the Society, they are assigned a role: from the protective Spinsters to the espionage-minded Gossips, everyone has a part to play.

Elsie is a Wife-to-be. Up until now, she’s been paying “social calls” to women in distress to help rescue them from domestic violence. But she knows that her role will be greater. She will marry a great man–just as her mother (a Mother) was tasked with raising a great man in Elsie’s brother–and then she will get to work, anonymously guiding her husband to the choices that will advance women’s rights. She’s been training for it for years. But when her assignment finally arrives–a priority one man who the Society has selected as a future president–Elsie suddenly isn’t sure of her role anymore. It’s not that Andrew doesn’t seem great, from his dossier at least, but in order to win the priority one assignment, she’ll have to beat out her closest friends and fellow Wives-to-be. And as the competition for Andrew’s affections gets underway, a long-simmering doubt can no longer be ignored. The Society relies on secrecy, on the invisibility of women and the discounting of their contributions. But more than ever, Elsie just wants to be seen.

I think this Jazz Age alternative history was written especially for me. Full of secret codes, espionage, heist-like missions, humor, feminism, and discussion of queer and trans rights, this book is both fun and though-provoking in the best ways. Elsie is a heroine you will love to cheer for (and wish you could vote for!). I highly recommend this wonderful novel to fans of quirky YA history and/or spy/heist books. There is definite crossover appeal for adult audiences.

Amazon.com: A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions: 9781250770981: Boekweg,  Sheena: Books

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

BEYOND THE MAPPED STARS by Rosalyn Eves

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Elizabeth knows her role in her Mormon community. She helps her mother care for the younger children, and someday soon, her parents will expect her to accept the proposal of a neighbor to become his second wife. Becoming a scientist just isn’t an option, no matter how much she wishes it were.

When her little sister has an accident while Elizabeth is distracted with a science book, Elizabeth is devastated. Blaming herself, she offers to atone by focusing fully on her duties to her family, starting with taking her mother’s place on the long journey from Utah to Wyoming to help her older sister with her pregnancy. But when their train is robbed, Elizabeth winds up on an unexpected journey that brings her into contact with scientists like Thomas Edison–and she finally gets her first glimpse through a telescope. Now that she’s had a taste, will she ever be able to turn her back on the scientific life? And would it really be so bad if she didn’t?

BEYOND THE MAPPED STARS immerses readers in a nineteenth century Morman community, exploring both its strengths and its weaknesses and the ways that its younger members struggle to be true to their community and families’ values while also forming their own personal identities and beliefs. The book features a racially diverse cast and addresses a gay teen’s concerns about homophobia in his town. Given the thematic depth of this book, it would be an excellent choice for book clubs and classrooms. I’d recommend it to fans of character-driven, YA historical fiction.

Amazon.com: Beyond the Mapped Stars: 9781984849557: Eves, Rosalyn: Books

THE SILVER BLONDE by Elizabeth Ross

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Clara is ecstatic when the studio execs promote her to the film editing staff. After putting in her time in the film studio vault, she will now be a real member of the crew. It is her dream come true–a dream that would have been difficult enough for any woman to attain, let alone a German immigrant in 1946. But her triumph turns to horror when she stumbles on the body of film star Babe Bannon’s stand-in.

Everyone has a theory as to who killed poor Connie. After all, Babe has a slew of enemies in the studio and beyond, and it would be easy enough for someone to mistake the stand-in for the star. Same build, same costumes, same silver-blonde hair. But Clara isn’t convinced that Babe was the intended victim. When the cops let her return Connie’s belongings, Clara finds herself swept up in an investigation that endangers her job and brings her back in contact with the Nazi threat her family worked so hard to leave in the past.

I loved this atmospheric noir mystery! Though WWII historical fiction is ubiquitous, this novel takes a fresh look at the War (and post-War) in Hollywood and the subtle, insidious ways that ordinary people get swept up in hateful movements. There are frequent reminders of the many American Nazi sympathizers before Pearl Harbor (including famous figures like Walt Disney and Henry Ford) and the way microaggressions create a culture of discrimination. Though it is set in the past, this novel is (sadly) timely.

Adult fans of historical mysteries: do not let the YA label turn you off to this book! It is for you. Teen fans of historical fiction, noir fiction, and/or Old Hollywood will certainly enjoy the book as well, but THE SILVER BLONDE really exists in the mythical “New Adult” niche. All of the characters are 18+, some of them war veterans, struggling to advance their careers in misogynistic, antisemitic workplaces and reevaluating priorities when good career moves will take them away from family. While these themes aren’t inaccessible to teens, they will resonate most with college-age adults and 20- and 30-somethings. College book clubs will definitely want to check this one out!

Amazon.com: The Silver Blonde eBook: Ross, Elizabeth: Kindle Store

AN EMOTION OF GREAT DELIGHT by Tahereh Mafi

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In just a year, Shadi’s life has been upended. Since her brother died, her mother has unraveled. Her father is in the hospital, likely to die, and Shadi can’t even pretend to be sad about it. Her sister only speaks to her to pick a fight. Her best friend hates her. And worst of all, her country has gone to war with Iraq, and though her family doesn’t come from Iraq, because Shadi wears hijab, her entire community seems to blame her for the tragedies and consequences of 9/11. As Shadi shuffles through her life, trying to keep her head down and to keep her grief at bay, her ex-best friend’s brother suddenly reappears in her life, and her delicate balance collapses. She will finally have to confront the traumas in her life and process the heartbreak that preceded it all.

A story of love, family, heartbreak, and forgiveness, this recent-historical novel will appeal to readers of YA contemporary fiction and difficult, gut-wrenching romances. The poetic prose elevates what would already have been a beautiful narrative into something truly exquisite. I highly recommend it to YA readers and book clubs.