Historical fiction takes readers back in time to spark an interest in an era or search for meaning in the past. Pick up these titles to travel to times long and not so long ago and get immersed in stories of America’s history through the eyes of relatable, realistic characters.
Give Me Liberty by L.M. Elliott
When thirteen-year-old Nathaniel Dunn, a white indentured servant on a tobacco plantation in colonial Virginia, is sold at auction he is separated from his only friend, Moses, a Black teenaged slave. Nathaniel finds a new master in the gentle Basil, a teacher who rescues Nathanial from the cruel man who bought him at auction. In Williamsburg, Basil hires Nathaniel out to Edan Maguire, a Loyalist carriage maker, but continues to share music, books, and big ideas with Nathaniel. Nathaniel is also learning more about equality, life, and liberty from Ben, an apprentice to the carriage maker, and is inspired by Patrick Henry’s words “give me liberty or give me death.” When Basil decides to join the 2nd Virginia Regiment and releases Nathaniel from his indenture, Nathaniel decides to join him in the infantry as a fifer. But when he meets his old friend Moses, who has joined the British Royal Ethiopian Regiment to earn his freedom, on the battlefield, Nathaniel is forced again to think about the meaning of liberty in a country that keeps people in slavery’s chains.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
In Chains, the first title in the Seeds of America trilogy, Isabel, a Black enslaved thirteen-year-old, and her sister Ruth were promised freedom upon the death of their white owner, Miss Mary Finch. Instead, the sisters are sold by her heir to the cruel and abusive Locktons, a Loyalist family living in New York City. When Isabel is befriended by Curzon, who is enslaved by one of the chief law enforcement officials for the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners with the loose promise that sensitive information could help her buy freedom for her and Ruth. Isabel is unwilling at first, until Madam Lockton separates her from Ruth. But her efforts to help the Patriots do not bring her and her sister any closer to freedom. Ruth is sold away and when Isabel confronts Madam, she is arrested and branded with the letter I for Insolence. This, along with the hypocrisy of both the Patriots and Loyalists, fuels Isabel’s growing defiance and courage to pursue her freedom.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
On August 16, 1793, fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook is waking up (much too late according to her mother) in Philadelphia where she helps her white mother and grandfather run a coffeehouse. Eliza, a free Black woman, is the coffeehouse cook. When the serving girl Polly doesn’t show up for work that morning, it’s because she’s died from yellow fever. Rumors about the fever and the disease itself spread quickly throughout the city. Mattie’s mother falls ill and insists that Mattie and her grandfather leave the city for their safety. Mattie and her grandfather don’t get far before they both fall ill and end up at Bush Hill, the city hospital set up to help cope with the outbreak. Both recover and return to find their coffeehouse has been looted. When thieves return, Mattie’s grandfather is injured and dies. Now on her own, Mattie learns how to survive and begins giving help to others in a city turned desperate from disease.
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
Eleven-year-old Mary Lambert is Deaf. So are many of the residents of Chilmark, her village on Martha’s Vineyard made up of descendants of English colonists, Irish families, native Wampanoag people, and Black freedmen, where she lives with her white parents. Mary’s father is Deaf, but her mother is not, and neither was her brother George who recently died in accident that Mary secretly feels was her fault. Nearly everyone Deaf and hearing on the island uses a sign language to communicate. When scientist Andrew Noble comes to the island to investigate the evolution of the Deaf community there, he kidnaps Mary and takes her to Boston as a specimen to study. Shocked at being treated as less than human and unable to communicate that she is a prisoner, Mary despairs of ever seeing her father and mother again yet continues to fight to be understood.
Lyddie by Katherine Paterson
A run-in with a hungry bear is seen as a sign by the mother of white thirteen-year-old Lyddie Worthen to leave the Vermont farm her husband has already abandoned and go to live with her sister. Lyddie’s mother rents out the farm and hires out Lyddie to the local tavern and her brother Charlie to the mill. While Charlie does well with his new mill family, Lyddie is soon fired from the tavern. She decides to go to the textile factories in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the hopes of making enough money to pay off the debts on the farm, return to it with Charlie, and reunite the rest of her family. In Lowell, Lyddie takes on backbreaking work in the weaving room for the Concord Corporation and becomes obsessed with making money, leaving little time for the friends she makes at her boarding house or reading, which her friend Diana has helped her learn to do. When the family farm is sold by her uncle and her mother dies, Lyddie has to figure out what she’s really working towards.
Soldier’s Heart: Being the Story of the Enlistment and Due Service of the Boy Charley Goddard in the First Minnesota Volunteers by Gary Paulsen
In June of 1861, white fifteen-year-old Charley Goddard is excitedly making plans to join the First Volunteers of Minnesota to fight in the Civil War and have a great adventure. Arriving at Fort Snelling, Charley claims to be eighteen and gets a uniform and some very basic training. He corresponds with his mother, who urges him to come home. He’s bored until his unit leaves camp with much fanfare and heads off to his first fight in Virginia—the Battle of Bull Run. Surrounded by men shot to pieces all around him, Charley’s eyes are opened to the cold realities of war. As he takes part in more fighting and experiences more of what war offers on and off the battlefield, he grows more and more detached and enraged. Wounded at Gettysburg, he’s certain that this is his end.
Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden
Mariah, her younger brother Zeke, and other Black people enslaved on the Chaney plantation are emancipated when white Captain Galloway and his squad arrive as part of General Sherman’s march through Georgia. Mariah packs her belongings, her brother, and a shattered woman named Dulcina into a wagon driven by Caleb, a free Black man working for Captain Galloway. Over the next twelve days, Mariah and Caleb become close, and he protects those who are close to her as travel toward Savannah becomes difficult and some of the Union troops grow more abusive and disrespectful to the hundreds of formerly enslaved individuals following the march. In Caleb, Mariah has found someone who can help her carry her pain and sadness. But Caleb is forced to leave her behind when he must cross with the troops at Ebenezer Creek and Mariah is left on the opposite bank, trapped as Rebel forces draw near.
Three Rivers Rising: A Novel of the Johnstown Flood by James Richards
In this novel in verse, multiple white narrators tell their stories leading up to the catastrophic flood: Sixteen-year-old Celestia is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist spending the summer at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club who falls in love with Peter, a hired hand at the hotel from Johnstown; Maura, whose husband is devoted to his work on the railroad, struggles to raise their four children; Kate, a nurse who is still reeling from the drowning death of her fiancé; and Whitcomb, Celestia’s father, who goes to great lengths to find and rescue his daughter. All the characters’ fates become intertwined when the South Fork Dam fails and releases 20 million tons of water into the valley below and onto Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Diary of a Waitress: The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Harvey Girl by Carolyn Meyer
Nearly seventeen-year-old Kitty Evans (who is white) has big plans for the fall. She’s all ready to head to the University of Kansas in Lawrence to study to become a journalist. But because business is slow at her father’s clothing store, it turns out there’s not enough money to send both her and her brother to school. Rather than sell shoes and live at home, Kitty answers an ad to become Harvey Girl, signing up for what she hopes will be an adventure working at one of the many Harvey House restaurants along the western railroad lines. After a month of strictly supervised unpaid training to learn “the Harvey Way” of friendly service, Kitty is sent to the Harvey House in Belén, New Mexico. Between waitressing, drama with her waitress friends, and the occasional admirer, Kitty still finds time to write and take real steps toward becoming a journalist.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
In depression-struck Spokane, Mississippi, the Black, close-knit Logan family has preserved ownership of some four hundred acres of land, despite the efforts of Harlan Granger, a descendant of the former white landowner, to reclaim it. Nine-year-old Cassie Logan narrates a year that starts with hearing about some white men burning three Black men. When the Logan’s learn that the Wallace family, the proprietors of the local store, are responsible for this horrifying and gruesome act, they boycott the store. While as landowners, the Logans have more independence than others in their community, as the year progresses their boycott leads to threats, losses, and lives put on the line.
Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, being half Japanese makes thirteen-year-old Koji Miyamoto’s life even more difficult. He encounters racial slurs and restrictions on every corner and is labeled an “enemy alien.” When American-born Koji is ordered to a “relocation” camp, his white mother is sure it is a mistake. When nothing can be done to change the situation, Adeline reports with him to the Alameda Downs assembly center. Prejudice follows Koji to the camp where being half white now makes him suspect and kids in the camp see him as gaijin—an outsider. As he searches for his identity and tries to work through his worries and anger behind the barbed wire, Koji gets into trouble with a gang of teens and risks losing what he most wants—the comfort and love of his family.
Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac
Navajo grandfather Ned Begay shares with his grandchildren the story of how Navajo Marines helped win World War II. He begins with his childhood at a mission boarding school where he was forced to cut his hair, given a new name, and told to forget his language and traditions. He learns English, and does well, but also continues to secretly honor his own culture. Soon after World War II begins, bilingual Navajos are recruited for classified special duty. Now sixteen and eager to serve, Ned enlists in the Marines and becomes a Code Talker, sending messages back and forth in an unbreakable code that used his native Navajo language. He participates in some of the most important and deadly battles in the Pacific Theater, and carries the burden of war home with him, unable to speak until 1969 about the still classified code that he and his fellow Navajo Marines used to save so many lives.
Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell, artwork by Shadra Strickland
This free-verse novel written in alternating first-person points of view, starts with Mildred Jeter entering sixth grade at the “colored” school in Central Point, Virginia. Richard Loving, who has dropped out of the white high school, is working as a bricklayer. As the years pass, a romance between the two eventually blossoms amidst segregation and prejudice in their small community. When Mildred is eighteen, they marry even though their union violates Virginia’s interracial marriage ban. Arrested, jailed, then later exiled from their home, the Lovings move to Washington, DC. Their desire to be with their supportive families moves them to pursue help from the American Civil Liberties Union which took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Shot and killed by a white police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat, the ghost of Black twelve-year-old Jerome lingers to watch his family grieve. In the afterlife, Jerome meets the ghost of Emmett Till, a young Black boy killed in 1955. Emmett shares the story of his life and death, helps Jerome see other “ghost boys,” and shows him how racism cost them all their lives. Jerome also discovers a living person who can communicate with him: Sarah, the daughter of the cop who shot and killed him. Though she still loves him, Sarah is distressed and heartbroken about what her father has done. When her father escapes prosecution, Sarah grows angry with him and channels her anger into becoming an advocate for social justice. Jerome appreciates her working to keep the memory of those killed by racism alive but wants her to forgive her father and work to change his views.
This is Just a Test by Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg
It’s the Reagan-era ’80s and 12-year-old David Horowitz, who is Chinese and Jewish, is preparing for his bar mitzvah. He and two friends are also prepping for their participation in a trivia tournament. But David still has plenty of time to worry about how to talk to the girl he likes, his fear of nuclear war, and the cultural battle that wages at home between his Chinese and Jewish grandmothers. So, when his popular trivia teammate Scott wants to spend more time together, hoping for some coolness by association, David jumps at the chance, leaving his other teammate and best friend Hector behind. But David’s time with Scott turns out to be more about helping Scott try to dig a secret fallout shelter in case of nuclear holocaust and David’s not sure he finds the idea of being holed up alone with Scott all that cool.
Rachael Walker has more than 30 years of experience developing partnerships and educational products with nonprofit organizations, corporations, and public agencies to benefit at-risk children and families. She launches national campaigns, coordinates special events, and develops original content for the National Education Association, Random House Children’s Books, PBS, and WETA’s Learning Media initiatives (Reading Rockets, Colorín Colorado, and AdLit.org).