YA Historical Fiction

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.

UNDER A DANCING STAR by Laura Wood

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

Beatrice quite enjoys shocking the vicar. Certainly, it’s more interesting than sitting at her parents’ dinner party, ignoring the fact that they’re trying to marry her off to a boring family friend and not talking about the most interesting development in her life, namely the recent copulation of glowworms by the lake.

But her rudeness at table is the final straw for her parents, who promptly ship her off to stay with her uncle Leo in Italy. Upon arriving, she is surprised to discover that her uncle is hosting a group of artists for the summer, the most infuriating of whom is Ben, a young man with a terrible reputation. But Bea soon realizes she could put Ben’s terrible reputation to good use. They make a pact to conduct a scientific courtship so that Bea can learn about sexual congress in practice, as well as in theory. The one rule is that neither must fall in love with the other. It seems like an easy agreement. But as tension grows among the artists and whispers of Mussolini’s sinister intentions circulate around them, Bea begins to worry that her summer with Ben will be far from easy and scientific.

Although this novel is marketed as “an adaptation of” MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, it is more accurately a prequel, a depiction of the “merry war” between Benedick and Beatrice that Leonato references in Act I, before the action of the play begins. While you won’t find a point for point pairing with MAAN in the plot, the novel is true to the spirit of the characters and the tone of the play–raucously funny but with serious, heart-wrenching undercurrents (in this case, the insidious rise of fascism in 1930s Italy). For this reason, it would work well in a classroom, with the caveat that Ben and Bea do have sex (off-stage) which I know would be an automatic disqualifying factor in some school environments.

Shakespeare parallels aside, there is a lot to love in this book simply as a YA historical fiction. Beatrice is a nuanced, feminist character; Ben has emotional depth; the romance builds authentically; and the historical backdrop has the right balance of lush world-building and thought-provoking social and political commentary. Highly recommend this one for YA historical fiction readers, book clubs, and (where possible) classrooms!

Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood: 9780593309575 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

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Hwani hasn’t returned to the island of Jeju in years—not since the Forest Incident, when she and her sister were found near the body of a murdered young woman, an incident which Hwani cannot remember.

But Hwani’s father never forgot. The woman’s murder was the one case Detective Min never solved, and the continued disappearance of young girls from the forest caused him to return to Jeju over the past five years. Until the day he disappeared. Disguised as a boy and clutching her father’s journal, Hwani returns to the village of her birth, determined to find her father and solve the mystery of the stolen girls. But when the mystery brings her to the door of her estranged sister, Hwani discovers that the forest isn’t the only source of secrets, and she begins to wonder if finding the truth of her past will be worth the cost.

Set in 15th century Korea, this historical mystery is suspenseful, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. It gripped me from start to end. Though it is YA, adult historical fiction readers will find lots to love here, too. My favorite book of the year so far, and a must-read for YA mystery or historical fiction fans!

A SPY IN THE HOUSE by Y.S. Lee

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Mary Yang should have been hanged. She would have been–in fact–had the headmistresses of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls not been interested in her promising skills and personality. Because more than an Academy, Miss Scrimshaw’s is a cover for a feminist spy ring called the Agency. And at 17, Mary (now under the pseudonym of Mary Quinn) is ready for her first assignment. She infiltrates the household of wealthy merchant as a companion for his vapid daughter in the hopes of finding clues as to the whereabouts of missing cargo ships. It is supposed to be an easy job for a beginning agent. But Mary and her supervisors didn’t count on the presence of a charismatic (and persistent) young man. Or on the fact that this particular job has a connection to Mary’s long-buried past….

A fun Victorian mystery with crossover appeal for teens and adults, A SPY IN THE HOUSE is the first in THE AGENCY series. Lee has a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, and her credentials show in her meticulous world-building. Recommend to readers who (like me!) enjoy a touch of romance in their mysteries.

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott and LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

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In 1860s Massachusetts, four sisters and the boy next door grow up from a childhood of wild imagination and adventure to an adulthood of loss, love, and hope.

So I may be the only American white girl who was not a fan of LITTLE WOMEN as a kid. I mean, I liked most of the first half (the original Book One) but I never, never, never forgave Amy for burning Jo’s book. And I got very bored by Book Two, and also annoyed that Laurie married Amy (because again, SHE BURNED JO’S BOOK) and also super-super-annoyed that Jo married some random middle-aged German guy she just met because just because she was kind of lonely….

But I think that Greta Gerwig either read my childhood mind, or was also me as a child, because her adaptation was everything I wanted it to be. Florence Pugh made me like Amy. Genuinely understand and like her. The chaos of every scene must have been a nightmare to film, but it created such a joyful sense of community and family and connection between the four girls. I was mad at Amy for burning Jo’s book, but I was also mad at Jo for not noticing how much Amy looked up to her and wanted to spend time with her. And I loved the two-pronged solution to the “random German guy” problem: first, introducing him at the beginning of the film so he doesn’t come out of nowhere, and second, crafting an ending where Jo morphs with real-life Alcott, who didn’t believe women (including her character Jo) should have to get married (as she didn’t) but was forced to marry Jo off in the end to make it palatable to contemporary readers. In the film, you can take some delight in the unbelievable, silly, head-over-heels, love-at-first-sight ending because the director has hinted that it’s a fantasy and that the real Jo that you’ve known and loved is actually off somewhere, self-confident and content, living her dreams, publishing her books, and creating this fairytale ending for us to enjoy and for her to roll her eyes at.

P.S. I should note that I actually enjoy much more of Book Two as an adult. Especially now that I have kids. Especially that scene where Meg and John are trying to get their son to go to sleep and John ends up passed out in bed with his kid and Alcott remarks that trying to get a two year old to go to sleep is more exhausting than an entire day of work. Yeah. That. I read that part out loud to my husband. It’s somehow both comforting and discouraging to know that in 200 years of parenthood, nothing has changed….

DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland

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Jane would have grown up a slave if not for the War Between the States. Instead, she grew up helping her white mother defend the plantation against the onslaught of the undead who began to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the agreement to end the War so that North and South could join forces against the undead shamblers included the abolition of slavery, Black people are far from equal—arguably not even free. When Jane was rounded up with the rest of the Black teens on the plantation and sent to a finishing school where she would train to defend wealthy white women from shamblers, she hoped it would be an opportunity to gain some sort of liberty and life experience. Instead, she finds herself hampered by the racism and sexism that pervade her society. But when she and a classmate uncover a deadly conspiracy, they find themselves in grave danger and caught between the desire for self-preservation and the knowledge that if they don’t do something, the entire world could be lost to the undead.

This novel is stunning: well-written, nuanced, thought-provoking, timely, and with a gripping and richly imagined historical sci-fi that is nearly impossible to put down. Jane is a compelling and complex protagonist, and it is a pleasure to root for her against both the zombies and the disturbing social institutions that try to hold her back. For all of its thrilling adventure, it never shies away from a powerful and disturbing look at racism and its impact. I loved every page and highly recommend it to teen and adult fans of sci-fi, dystopia, or even historical fiction.