7+ Middle-Grade Historical Fiction Recommendations
by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Last week, our episode focused on Middle-Grade Book Recs, and other than two Ashley briefly mentioned as her bonus picks—George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy (Bookshop.org | Amazon) and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again (Bookshop.org | Amazon)—we didn't talk much about historical fiction. So, I wanted to share a few recommendations to fill in that gap.
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's The War that Saved My Life (Amazon | Bookshop.org) and The War I Finally Won (Amazon | Bookshop.org) - Here are my review from 2019, when I was reading the books before Brubaker Bradley's visit to my son's school!
Book One - I loved this so much! Bradley weaves an amazingly empathetic story of Ada, who was born with a club foot, and her little brother Jamie. At the beginning of the novel, they live with Mam, who is ashamed of Ada and holds her captive inside their small apartment in World War II-era London. When the government starts evacuating children in anticipation of the German invasion, Ada and Jamie find themselves in the country, placed involuntarily with Susan Smith, an unmarried woman who is grieving the death of her friend and roommate. The coming of age tale that follows, which focuses on Ada learning to trust and figuring out who she can be, is moving and so, so relatable.
Book Two - This is gorgeous. Brubaker Bradley builds a brilliant ending to Ada's story as she continues to learn how to exist in a world that is safe from her mam but in danger from World War II. It's a moving, thoughtful story of this girl's fight against fear and of the way she moves into a family cobbled together by odd circumstances.
Alan Gratz's Refugee (Amazon | Bookshop.org) - Ashley, Sara, and I used this one in the classroom (actually with sophomores, who loved it), and it's such a strong foundation for discussion. It's composed of three, intertwined refugee stories: Josef, a Jewish boy fleeing 1930s Germany; Isabel, a Cuban girl leaving Cuba with her family in 1994; and Mahmoud, whose family is fleeing Syria in 2015. Gratz alternates between the three, and the narratives brilliantly reinforce each other—the structure also serves to build suspense. (We covered this one on episode 39, "Global Read Aloud with LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS, AMAL UNBOUND, and REFUGEE," which you can access on our website.)
Veera Hiranandani's The Night Diary (Amazon | Bookshop.org) - Here's my review: Veera Hiranandani's The Night Diary is a beautiful, sad middle-grade novel. Set in India in 1947, this is an epistolary novel in which protagonist Nisha writes each night in her diary to her mother, who died giving birth to Nisha and her twin Amil.
Early in the novel, twelve-year-old Nisha is most concerned with why she finds it so difficult to speak up or why her grandmother, Dadi, and her father don't show affection easily enough. She's comforted constantly by Kazi, who knows her best. Kazi has been with the family since her parents moved to their home, and he has taught Nisha how to cook, her favorite thing.
The world starts changing when the family learns that the British are ending their colonial rule in India. Though that seems like good news, it also means new divisions that affect the family. Nisha and Amil's father is Hindu, but their mother was Muslim, and that fact suddenly seems more important than ever. Then, they find out that the location of their home will soon not be part of India but of a newly formed country, Pakistan, and they realize that they can't deny the changes of the world around them.
I learned so much while reading this book, and I absolutely loved Nisha and her family. Watching her contend both with coming of age and the upheaval of all that has been stable in her life is heart wrenching, but her inner strength and strong family connections are beautiful.
R. J. Palacio's White Bird (Amazon | Bookshop.org) - Here's my review: R. J. Palacio's White Bird is a lovely graphic novel, a prequel of sorts to her brilliant book Wonder, one of the books I've loved sharing both with my students and my children. White Bird tells the story of Sara, the grandmother of Julian who was the boy in Wonder who led the bullying. In this new novel, Julian has moved on, has learned his lesson, and is now eager to learn the story of his French grandmother. After the framing of the novel sets up their video call, the book flashes back to Sara's childhood during World War II when she and her Jewish family lived in France. Sara tells Julian of her family's initial sense of security as the Nazis encroach on their hometown and their gradual realization that they, too, are in danger.
The book—both the story and the art—is just beautiful, and it doesn't flinch from telling the truth about the horrors of the war while also presenting them in a way that is appropriate for children to read. I am going to share this with both of my boys, big fans of Wonder and of Auggie and Me (the sequel in novellas).
Pam Muñoz Ryan's Echo (Amazon | Bookshop.org) - I read this one before I was writing reviews regularly, so here's the publisher's description: "Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica. Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo. Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, Echo pushes the boundaries of genre, form, and storytelling innovation to create a wholly original novel that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck."
Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now (Amazon | Bookshop.org) - This is another one from my pre-bookstagram days, so here's the publisher's description (fair warning: have some tissues ready!): "Beloved author Gary D. Schmidt expertly blends comedy and tragedy in the story of Doug Swieteck, an unhappy "teenage thug" first introduced in The Wednesday Wars, who finds consolation and a sense of possibility in friendship and art.
"At once heartbreaking and hopeful, this absorbing novel centers on Doug, 14, who has an abusive father, a bully for a brother, a bad reputation, and shameful secrets to keep. Teachers and police and his relatives think he's worthless, and he believes them, holding others at arm's length. Newly arrived in town, he starts out on the same path—antagonizing other kids, mouthing off to teachers, contemptuous of everything intimidating or unfamiliar. Who would have thought that the public library would turn out to be a refuge and an inspiration, that a snooty librarian might be a friend, or that snarky redheaded Lil would like him—really like him? With more than his share of pain, including the return of his oldest brother from the Vietnam War, shattered and angry, will Doug find anything better than 'okay for now'?"
Lauren Wolk's Beyond the Bright Sea (Amazon | Bookshop.org) - Here's my review: Lauren Wolk's Beyond the Bright Sea is a gorgeous, middle-grade read that unveiled a new segment of American history for me: it's 1925 on the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts. Twelve-year-old Crow lives there with Osh, the man who found her when she was an infant, tied into a tiny boat. Since then, he has raised her with the help of Miss Maggie, a local woman who has managed Crow's education.
Crow is happy, but she's also curious about where she came from, and her curiosity leads her to a nearby island that was a leper colony and that may hold both the key to her past and to a current mystery that will change everything for Crow and her family.
I really loved this novel, both because it's fabulous historical fiction and because Crow is such a fully realized, compelling character. I loved watching her navigate the definition of her identity and what it means to have a found family.
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