Even if you haven’t succumbed to the irresistible lure of the British PBS series Downton Abbey–and I have to say there are probably more female fans out there than male–I think everyone should take a look. There are many topics explored in the series that are of great interest to readers of both genders. The many universal themes explored in the show will have a lot of appeal for teen readers, and they are not all just portrayed in a soap opera-ish way either.
Downton Abbey takes place in a stately manor in Great Britain beginning in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and explores the lives of those who live upstairs and below stairs in the manor. World events like WWI, the women’s suffrage movement, and social class struggles affect the lives of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and the rest of the Crawley family and their servants, from the acerbic Dowager Countess played with perfection by Maggie Smith (who has the best lines), her fair-minded and kindly son the Earl of Grantham and his American born wife Cora, their three headstrong daughters, to their many servants, including two servants I really love to hate, Cora’s scheming maid Sarah and nasty Thomas, the former footman.
The website for the show is really comprehensive and fun and it even has a quiz that you can take to see what character you are most like. Not too surprisingly, I am most like the hardworking and love-thwarted head housemaid Anna.
There are lists popping up everywhere with read-alike booklists, including one from SLJ Teen’s February 15th e-newsletter as well as the Youth Services Corner website and CLM’s blog called Staircase Wit. Many of the lists are comprised of mostly adult titles but there are books for teens too. I’ll try not to repeat all the same books listed on other lists that I’ve seen, although there are a few that are so good they deserve to be mentioned again. I also have to say that my list is a bit biased toward more male, action-oriented books because I tend to read more of them and less of the romances. You’ll find that other lists are skewed a bit more towards romance.
One of the aspects of the series that I really like, especially in the second season, is the effect that WWI has on the characters and the way fighting in the war has affected certain characters. The series hasn’t shied away from the brutality of war, and the fact that those fighting in it were just scared young boys who didn’t know what they were doing. Many came home changed and it honestly portrays their medical issues, including post-traumatic stress.
If you like Downton Abbey, you might like these books:
Kipling’s Choice – Geert Spillebeen (2005) – 2006 Best Books for Young Adults
This fictionalized biography contrasts the gruesome details of Lt. John Kipling, 18, as he lies dying during his first day in battle in France and reflects on how his beloved father, Rudyard Kipling, the world-famous writer, used his influence to get the authorities to overlook John’s poor eyesight so that he could fight in a “glorious adventure” for the British Empire against “barbaric” Huns.
War Horse – Michael Morpurgo (published in the US in 2007)
A powerful story told by Joey, a red-bay horse, of his experiences after he was sold by his beloved young master’s father at the beginning of WWI to the British Army to help them fight the Germans in France by charging the enemy, dragging heavy artillery, and carrying wounded soldiers. He survives numerous skirmishes and becomes the only horse to survive the fighting in “no man’s land.” Through it all, Joey never loses hope that he will be reunited with his young master. The Oscar nominated film for Best Picture and the Broadway play are based on this book.
Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo (2004) – 2005 Best Books for Young Adults
At 15, Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful lied about his age in order to follow his beloved older brother, Charlie, to fight in France during WWI. Now, nearly two years later, as Tommo sits waiting in the dark for the horror he knows will come at dawn, he remembers it all, including his past and his present, stuck in a hellish war.
Lost Crown – Sarah Miller (2011)
As World War I ignites across Europe, political unrest sweeps Russia. First dissent, then disorder, mutiny and finally revolution. For Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, grand duchesses living a life steeped in tradition and privilege, the end of their girlhood together is colliding with the end of more than they ever imagined. In alternating chapters narrated by each of the sisters, the reader really gets the sense of what it was like being a daughter of the Tsar during that tumultuous period.
The FitzOsbornes in Exile – Michelle Cooper (2011) – 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults
Although this novel takes place right before WWII and not WWI as Downton Abbey does, it does have a similar theme about a family of royals, the FitzOsbornes, who try to save their home while being caught up in London’s social scene as Hitler begins his conquest of Europe in 1937.
The Foreshadowing – Marcus Sedgwick (2006) – 2007 Best Books for Young Adults
It’s 1915 and WWI has just begun. 17 -year-old Sasha is a well-to-do, sheltered-English girl. Just as her brother Thomas longs to be a doctor, she wants to nurse, yet girls of her class don’t do that kind of work. But as the war begins and the hospitals fill with young soldiers, she gets a chance to help. But working in the hospital confirms what Sasha has suspected–she can see when someone is going to die. Her premonitions show her the brutal horrors on the battlefields of the Somme, and the faces of the soldiers who will die. And one of them is her brother Thomas. Pretending to be a real nurse, Sasha goes behind the front lines searching for Thomas, risking her own life as she races to find him, and somehow prevent his death.
The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic – Allan Wolf (2011) – 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults
The author recreates the voices of 24 passengers, spanning different social classes and stations and lets the reader experience from these passengers’ point-of-view the event that they never imagined could have happened to their “unsinkable” ship after it collided with an iceberg in 1912. The author, Wolf, a poet, includes telegrahs, undertaker’s reports, and other historic records in his novel in verse, and offers a unforgettable and powerful glimpse in the lives of these passengers.
The Luxe – Anna Godbersen (2007)
It’s 1899 and the book opens with Elizabeth Holland’s funeral. She was a well-bred beauty, believed to have died after plunging to her death in the Hudson River. The narrative then travels back several weeks, tracing the relationships and events that have led to the somber assembly. This tangled web includes not one but two sets of star-crossed lovers; an upstairs/downstairs romance; a scheming social climber; a bitter servant girl; and oodles of money.
A Countess Below Stairs – Eva Ibbotson (also known as Secret Countess)
This was originally published for adults in 1981 but was reprinted in paperback in 2007 for teens. The Russian Revolution in 1917 has sent the wealthy Grazinsky family into exile. Anna Grazinsky is the titular countess. Once in England, Anna and her mother and brother are left to fend for themselves. Determined to help, Anna secretly takes a job as a maid at a stately manor named Meersham for the Westerholme family. She finds herself falling for the handsome Earl of Westerholme as he doesfor her. As their attraction grows stronger, Anna finds it more and more difficult to keep her secrets but he has a few of his own as well, including a beautiful fiancÃ©e.
I know there are many other read-alikes I could have included. I’d love your help to add to the list.
— Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Tortured: A Bridge Story Between Birthmarked and Prized by Caragh M. O’Brien
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