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(Almost) Everything I Need to Know About History, I Learned From YA Novels

While this title may be an exaggeration, as I was a history major in college, it’s true that much of what I remember about history comes from reading historical fiction and biographies or memoirs. While not all of the historical books I love are YA, there are a number of YA titles that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about those who came before us.

My inspiration for this post came when a friend told me he doesn’t like history because “It’s just a bunch of memorizing dates.” Whaaaat? No! The most important part of the word history is STORY: the story of men, women, and children who have lived on this earth and done both fantastic and everyday things. I am a true believer that the only way to understand the societies and cultures of today is to look to the past to see how they have developed over time. Stories populated with memorable characters are the best way to contextualize and immerse myself in that past.

What follows is pretty much a mish-mash of titles that have recently taught me about the past. Due to space limitations, I have only provided brief descriptions; check them out on Goodreads for more information.

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Disease! Always a fascinatingly morbid topic. I had no idea yellow fever was so serious until I read this book. (If, like me, you find epidemics to be weirdly interesting, read the adult novel Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks.)


Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Based on Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings, this book gives great insight into one of our most well known Presidents. (I’ll say this: the man had a lot of debts and a strange grasp on the idea of equality.)


The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman
This novel tells the story of a 13-year-old girl time traveling from 1960 to 1860. It is a truly moving and intriguing look at the lives of slaves in Southern plantations, as well as the relationships between whites and blacks in the South at the start of the 1960s. I found a blurb for it on Amazon by Jane Yolen, which is quite fitting, because this book reminded me of The Devil’s Arithmetic.


Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller
I always wondered how Helen Keller learned to communicate, being both deaf and blind. After reading this book, told from the perspective of Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, now I know. Each chapter starts with a line from Sullivan’s actual letters, and let me tell you, young Miss Keller was no picnic to teach.


The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Set in 1899 Texas, this book stars Calpurnia Tate, a girl who is not content with becoming a housewife (or taking on any other respectable job for that matter). Instead, she has her heart set on becoming a scientist like her grandfather — who just happens to exchange letters with Charles Darwin.


Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt
Based on true stories from 1912, this book takes its readers to a small Maine community, focusing on the friendship between a white pastor’s son and the daughter of former slaves. Tissues needed.


Countdown by Deborah Wiles
What was it like to live during the Cold War? This book incorporates advertisements, photographs, and quotes from the 1960s to show you.



Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
Myers brings his amazing writing talents to tell the story of a teenage boy who joins the military during the Vietnam War.



The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Set in Afghanistan soon after the Taliban take over, The Breadwinner tells the story of a young girl risking her life to dress as a boy and make money for her family. Along with A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, this book gave me my first real understandings of how the Taliban changed Afghanistan.


Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
This graphic novel is the memoir of Marjane Satrapi’s years growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran. As with The Breadwinner, this is a story of what can happen when a country becomes a theocracy.


Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang
Another memoir of living through a revolution — this time the Cultural Revolution of China, led by Mao Ze-dong.



The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
If you haven’t read this book yet, put it on your to-do list and get on that! This is WWII from a perspective not often considered in YA lit: that of an average small German town, with average German citizens. I learned so much about a side of the war that we weren’t taught in school. Tissues needed.


Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Set in the Stalinist Soviet Union, this book was a natural pick for me. My favorite English class in college was Slavic literature, so I already knew something about gulags, Siberian work camps, and Stalin’s purges. (If you think YA books are dark, try some Eastern European/Russian authors. They know dark.) However, I wasn’t aware of the full extent to which Stalin also committed ethnic cleansing. Wonderful book; tissues needed.



Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
Set in Ireland during “The Troubles,” this novel tells two stories: one of a teenage boy in 1981, and one of a girl from a civilization 2000 years prior.

A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk by Jan Coates
Based on the true story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, this book follows a child’s journey from his village to a refugee camp and beyond.


Obviously, my list is heavily biased toward the US. I have no South or Latin American titles on here, only one from the whole continent of Africa, and none from Australia (not to mention that my Asian coverage is sorely lacking). I promise I have read more historical fiction from these places, just not recently. I definitely welcome any and all suggestions!

— Whitney Etchison, currently reading The Death Cure by James Dashner

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Whitney Etchison

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  1. Thanks for including my book among such luminaries! And for your observation about novels being a good resource for learning history!

  2. Sarah Nelson Sarah Nelson

    I would also recommend the picture book by Eleanor Coerr and illustrated by Ed Young called “Sadako.” It is about a girl who leukemia from exposure to radiation from the bombing of Hiroshima, and her dream of making 1,000 paper cranes so her wish to get better comes true. It is a true story about a girl named Sadako Sasaki, and there is a statue of her in Hiroshima dedicated to all of the children who were killed by the bombing of Hiroshima. Here is a link to Amazon with a review from School Library Journal. I hope this helps.

    Sarah Nelson

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