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PPYA Revisited: Teens from Other Times

Historical Fiction section of a libraryRecently, an author friend on Goodreads posted about the recent scarcity of historical fiction in the YA category. After a swift perusal of my own “read” and “to-read” list, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that it’s true. With that thought in mind, I had a look at YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults (PPYA) lists, which have themes every year. The last time a historical fiction PPYA list was done was in 1998, the second year PPYA was in existence. The theme was “Teens from Other Times” and featured familiar titles Catherine, Called Birdy, Walter Dean Myers’ Fallen Angels, and Ann Rinaldi’s In My Father’s House. Of the twenty five titles placed in this category, few are regular familiars. If there are fewer pure historical fiction novels being written for a young adult audience, how do we determine the best ones to read? I am a history buff myself, and I usually find that fascinating characters, groups, or events from history can draw out the most compelling story. This is not, however, always the case. A fabricated historical figure, or one whose name might have been picked from a historical account and then fictionalized, can pull a reader just as well in any era. Every point in time had something going on; it’s up to the author to realize that event and make it palpable to the reader.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few books that might be on this PPYA list if it had been created today. This was actually a difficult list to put together, as there are no parallel plotlines, no magical realism or urban fantasy, and absolutely NO speculative fiction (that last was really hard; some of my favorite “Victorian” novels are actually steam- and dieselpunk). Also, more recent titles were considered; we’re going to stick to novels written in the 2000s or later. Finally, the parameters of PPYA–as seen in the title–indicate paperbacks, and therefore some of the great historical fiction that has come out in the past year would not qualify.

PPYA lists are usually 25 titles long; we’re going to do 10 of the historical fiction novels that have been incredibly popular from their hardcover release through to their paperback ones.

  • Anastasia’s Secret by Susanne Dunlap is the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaevna Romanova, from the time her family is exiled until their last days. Readers are drawn to the rich detail and romantic story of Anastasia and the young guard she has known since childhood.
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys was also a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which is awarded annually by YALSA. You’ve definitely heard the name on The Hub–it’s gotten quite a bit of recognition this year. Not only is it a novel about a Lithuanian teenager surviving the horrors of a Siberian work camp under Stalin, which is territory rarely touched by literature as a whole, let alone YA literature, but the text is enrapturing and compelling.
  • Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen takes place in 1929 New York, and follows three young people on their coming-of-age adventures. The flapper period has become particularly popular in the YA world, but this title seems to be a favorite of the subgenre.
  • Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson tells the moving story of a girl and her sister dealing with slavery and the American Revolution, all at the same time. Isabel is a clever young slave, who has to deal with issues of freedom, loyalty, and courage, and learn what each of those words really means.
  • Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac tells a story of transition and movement, starting out with a young Navajo’s entrance into the cruel world of mission schools in the American Southwest, and moving on to the use of the language those schools tried to destroy in countless covert missions during World War II.
  • A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly was a Printz Honor book and on the Teens Top Ten in 2004. In 1906, the “Murder of the Century” has just taken place and a small-town girl is stuck in the middle of it.
  • Song of the Exile by Kiana Davenport takes us to Hawaii during World War II (yes, there’s another WWII title).┬áThe book directly follows the story of lovers separated after the attack of Hawaii by the Japanese, but it also follows the local and international effects of the War and Hawaii’s quest for statehood.
  • Strings Attached by Judy Blundell focuses on Kit Corrigan, a 1950s girl who has run away to New York. She is in search of glamour and fame, but finds herself in the background, while offstage she deals with newly formed Mob ties.
  • Threads and Flames by Esther M. Friesner is a timely novel focusing on a young girl who has just arrived from Poland and finds a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, known today for the tragedy that inspired tireless effort for work reform and women’s rights. Through Raisa’s eyes, we can see the buildup, occurrence, and effects of a great American tragedy.
  • Wolf Cry by Julia Golding tells the story of a young Viking girl who must learn about life and the world’s good and injustice in the 9th century. Note that this book is also called The Silver Sea. No clue why it has two names, but it’s worth finding either title.

This list, you can tell, is a bit heavy on American history, and almost completely all modern (and I just noticed how many of them take place in New York). Do you have any international or ancient historical favorites?

— Jessica Pryde, currently reading Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (which, sadly, couldn’t make it on this list because it’s not in paperback yet).


  1. Emily Calkins Emily Calkins

    Great post, Jessica! I don’t know if you saw Kate Hart’s huge breakdown of recent YA publishing deals, but it confirmed the lack of YA historical fiction – only 4% of YA book deals last year were historical fiction.

    If you haven’t seen Kate’s post, it’s definitely worth checking out:

    And thanks for this great list! I’m familiar with most of these, but a few are new to me!

    • Jessica Pryde Jessica Pryde

      Thanks, Emily! I hadn’t seen that post, definitely some interesting numbers. I knew that HF was low, but I didn’t know it was that low.

  2. Sarah Flowers Sarah Flowers

    I would include Marcus Sedgwick’s The Revolver, 2011 Printz Honor book, which takes place in the Arctic Circle in 1899 and 1910.

    But you’re right; it’s harder than it seems. Helen Frost’s Crossing Stones, a 2010 BBYA book, and The Braid, a 2007 BBYA book, are great, but it appears that neither is available in paperback. There were a few good historicals this past year, but they are also not out in paperback yet. And all the other ones I can think of are for younger ages.

    • Jessica Pryde Jessica Pryde

      How’d I miss that one?!

  3. oooh, great list Jessica! I’ll definitely be adding these to my to-read list. I tend to think that I really enjoy historical fiction, but actually I like time travel and things like that, which I think of as historical fiction. For example, I loved Revolution, though it took place in two times. And I loved the recent May B., but it’s not paperback yet. Tricky parameters to follow for this list! Well done!

  4. Love this post! I’m hooked on historical fiction right now. I’ve always liked it, but it seems to my current reading obsession these days.

    I’d suggest The Other Countess, by Eve Edwards, which comes out in paperback on April 10th. It’s a lovely historical romance for teens that takes place in England in the late 1500s. Filled with all sorts of fascinating details about daily life at the time, it addresses in particular the status of women and what was expected of them.

  5. Kelly Metzger Kelly Metzger

    As a former PPYA member, I can state that although many members may be fans of historical fiction, we know that its popularity as a genre for teens has declined. During my two years, it just didn’t seem as pressing of a topic for list creation.

    As a historical fiction lover, I am pained by how little historical fiction circulates in my library. It is abysmal. I’m not sure why kids are so disconnected from it – is it because most of their required reading is historical? That’s my working theory.

    One title that is loved in our school is The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt. That is required reading in grade 6, but the two copies of its companion novel, Okay for Now, are always checked out, and that title often has a waiting list.

    • Jessica Pryde Jessica Pryde

      You know, I couldn’t figure out why fewer teens are reading historical fiction–but I like your theory. Also, recently, there are just so many things that make history more “interesting.” Steampunk and alternate/speculative history are really grabbing readers that might otherwise have been more attracted to regular historical fiction. Even when I look at my own shelves, more of the recent things that I have been reading that have anything to do with history also have some form of science or magic involved.

  6. Shelley Shelley

    How about The Disappeared by Gloria Whelan? It’s set in Argentina in the 1970’s.

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