Recently, 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). The 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).
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