YA Historical Fiction

AUDACITY by Melanie Crowder

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Clara always loved learning. But in her small Jewish community, women were not meant to be scholars. And her father was determined that not even his sons would ever learn Russian, the language of their oppressors.  Still Clara dreamed of being a doctor, and taught herself in secret how to read and how to speak Russian. When a violent pogrom destroyed their community, Clara and her family moved to America, and the opportunity for her to pursue her studies seemed more real than ever. But when the need to support her family forced Clara to work in a sweatshop, she discovered the horrible plight of the working immigrant woman – and child – and her dreams of becoming a surgeon began to conflict with her desire to pursue justice for the oppressed women around her.  Still a teenager, Clara formed a union, and endured terrible hardships as she pursued her new dream.

Inspired by Clara’s real life love of poetry, Crowder tells the true story of Clara Lemlich as she imagines Clara would have experienced it in beautiful poetic verse. The story is exciting, informative, and inspiring. Teen readers may see parallels between Clara’s struggle for justice and many injustice is in our world today. The book concludes with a detailed description of what is true and what is fictionalized in the novel, as well as interviews with Clara’s surviving relatives. I highly recommend this book to teen readers who enjoy historical fiction.

OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt

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Whenever everything seems to be going well, something terrible is going to happen soon.  When Doug gets a baseball cap signed by Joe Pepitone (the Joe Pepitone of the Yankees!), it is inevitable that his jerk older brother steals it. And when he is finally feeling happy on Long Island with friends and a baseball team, it is inevitable that his father mouths off to his boss, loses his job, and moves the family upstate to stupid Marysville, New York. Which means that they’ll be living near Ernie Eco (the jerk). Which means that Doug’s father will be going out drinking every night with Ernie Eco (the jerk) and his brother will still act like the evil criminal mind he is and his mother will still stare into the distance like she’s wishing she had a different life–or maybe wondering when Lucas will come home from Vietnam. And it turns out that everyone in stupid Marysville looks at Doug like he’s the scum of the earth. Terrific. But when Doug discovers a book in the library with an extraordinary painting of a terrified bird plunging toward an icy sea, he is inspired to uncover a new side of himself and the people of Marysville. Of course whenever everything seems to be going well, something terrible must be about to happen. . . .

Through brilliantly written first person narration, Schmidt gradually reveals Doug’s transformation and the evolution of his relationships with friends, family, and neighbors. Not only is the coming-of-age story compelling and accessible, but tense character relationships add suspense that makes this book difficult to put down. It will appeal to middle grade readers and teens (and even adults, especially those who grew up in the sixties) who enjoy coming-of-age stories and historical fiction.

Doug’s voice makes this book exceptional, and Lincoln Hoppe’s performance of the audiobook is perfect. I highly recommend listening to this one!

THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock

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The police think that Nicolette’s death was an accident—a drunken teenager wandering too close to the edge of the cliff.  They are wrong.  Cat killed her—a fact which still surprises Cat, to some extent.  It shouldn’t surprise her, though.  It was her fate as a Rozier.  Ever since the German occupation of their Guernsey Island home, Roziers have been falling into dangerous friendships with fatal consequences and covering it all up in blankets of lies.  But now Cat is ready to uncover the truth, both about Nic’s death and her Uncle Charlie’s experience with the Nazis.

This intriguing novel is part historical fiction, part mystery, and part angsty-and-self-destructive-rebellious-teen fiction.  Both the contemporary and historical plots keep you turning pages.  The novel is marketed for adults, although some teens will certainly enjoy it as well.  I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in WWII historical fiction and readers who like suspenseful stories about dysfunctional families/friendship drama.

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs

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When Jacob was a young child, he believed his grandfather’s stories about growing up in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and fighting monsters.  He believed that the photographs of the flying girl, the invisible boy, and his grandfather’s other peculiar playmates were all real.  By age 16, however, Jacob has grown to understand that the photographs are fake and his grandfather’s stories merely fantasies invented to mask the horrible reality of growing up in Poland and being hunted by human monsters, the Nazis.  But when Jacob finds his grandfather dead in the woods, he has to admit that either he is going crazy or the tentacled creature he saw slithering away from his grandfather’s bleeding body was no fairytale.  Finding a letter from Miss Peregrine in his grandfather’s study, Jacob travels to England in search of the Home for Peculiar Children, all too aware that if Miss Peregrine is real, the monsters must be real too.

I absolutely loved this book.  From its beginnings playing with the blurred lines between true horrors and fantastical horrors to the full-fledged fantasy of Miss Peregrine and her wards and through all of the photographs in between, the book was fascinating and fast paced.  I couldn’t put it down.  Unfortunately, the ending was not as strong as the beginning and middle.  It was clumsy and poorly timed, and instead of providing the cliff-hanger incentive to read a sequel that the author intended, it just seemed awkward and dissatisfying.  If only he had ended it about a page earlier!  But I hope that the poor ending will be remedied by the sequel that is promised for 2013.  For that reason, I will give this book a strange recommendation:  I highly recommend reading it, but if you are picky about endings like I am, you may want to wait to read it until the sequel is released to avoid an awkward interruption in the action.

 

THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton

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Although some of the Greasers would be quick to pick a fight with the Socials, Ponyboy generally tries to stay out of trouble in an effort to please his older brother Darry (who has been responsible for him since their parents died).  But that doesn’t stop the Socs from picking a fight with him.  Walking home from the movie theater one night, Ponyboy gets jumped by a few Socs, one of whom has a knife.  Darry, their middle brother, Sodapop, and a few other Greasers come to Ponyboy’s aid and chase the rival gang away, but the incident confirms what Ponyboy already believed: the rich kids hate the poor, greasy haired East Siders so much that they don’t care how badly they hurt them–just like how they beat up Johnny and left him for dead a few weeks earlier.  Socs are so rich that they have no problems, no responsibilities, and no consequences for their actions.  The only way Greasers can defend themselves is to fight back.  But when Ponyboy meets a couple of Soc girls at a drive-in and has a real conversation with them, he begins to realize that maybe they aren’t so different after all.  The Greasers are walking the girls home when the Socs boyfriends show up.  The girls manage to prevent a fight in the moment, but later that night the Soc boys catch up with Ponyboy and Johnny.  When they try to drown Ponyboy in a fountain, Johnny pulls a knife and accidentally kills one of the Socs.  Not knowing what else to do, Ponyboy and Johnny flee the city, knowing that nothing will ever be the same.

Once a popular realistic fiction novel, The Outsiders has become a YA classic.  While the action of the plot centers of gang rivalries and violence, the thematic focus of the story is on the social differences that underlie these rivalries and the common coming-of-age experiences of balancing social and family pressures and solidifying a sense of identity.  It is an exciting and thought-provoking novel, and short enough to entice reluctant readers.  I don’t recommend the 1988 audiobook; it’s not the best performance. But I definitely do recommend the book itself, particularly to high schoolers.

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

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The first time Death met Liesel Meminger, the book thief, she was on a train with her mother and her little brother, traveling to a foster home near Munich where the children could escape the shadow of their father’s identity as a Kommunist. It was the little brother’s soul that Death had come to collect.  As he cradled the little boy’s soul in his arms and watched the living grieve, Death did not know that he would meet the book thief two more times during her childhood, nor that he would find her journal in the wreckage of a bomb-torn city and would read it again and again, memorizing her story and always carrying it with him.  He shares Liesel’s story with the readers in his own way–recounting the mischief she concocts with Rudy Steiner, the complicated but ultimately loving relationships in her foster family, the struggle of learning to read, poverty and hunger in the Third Reich, the terrifying business of hiding a Jew and the powerful friendship that results from it, the complex intertwining of patriotism, loyalty, and morality–all over-layed with Death’s observations of the tragedy of war and the enduring hope and beauty of life.

Ultimately, it is the words—of the author, of the characters, of the past—that bring the story to life so vibrantly and unforgettably.  This is a book to be savored.  It is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.  There are no real plot twists; Death tells you the ending at the beginning.  The book is about the journey of the characters and their complex, beautiful relationships.  Zusak does not neglect even the minor characters, making them all irresistibly complicated and human.  I warn you, you will fall in love with characters in this book, and their stories will stay with you–as they did for the narrator, Death.  Your heart will likely break at some of the tragedies they endure.  But it is worth it for the journey you share with them, just as Death demonstrates that even the shortest lives captured in Liesel’s journal have profound and enduring beauty and meaning.  The Book Thief has been my Favorite Book Of All Time since I first read it in 2006, and it will take an extraordinary book to ever supplant it in my affection.  I cannot recommend it highly enough for teens and for adults.

If you liked The Book Thief for its themes and characters, you might like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

If you liked The Book Thief for its subject matter and narrative style, you might like Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

THE ROCK AND THE RIVER by Kekla Magoon

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In some ways, Sam has led a sheltered life.  He has experienced some of the racial prejudice that his father, a well-known Civil Rights activist, is fighting against, but living in his middle-class neighborhood, he has never quite understood the struggle in the same way that others seem to.  His older brother, Stick, on the other hand, seems to be getting involved in things that are over his head.  He has grown frustrated with his father’s methods of peaceful protest and joins the Black Panthers.  Sam is stuck in the middle of the fight between his father and brother, trying to understand the implications for the struggle for Civil Rights and figure out on which side he should take his stand.

This wonderful historical novel weaves realistic family tensions into the political tensions of an important historical period.  The story is gritty, realistic, action-packed, and thought-provoking.  Not the feel-good book of the year, but a gripping read.  The well-researched historical backdrop of the story along-side the intense, character-driven fictional story would also make this an enjoyable book to use in a high school classroom.