November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Hook Them with Historical Fiction | Adult Books 4 Teens

At my library’s most recent teen service meeting, the YA librarians and I had to decide on the genres to include in our new and updated “Teen Reads” brochure—a trifold listing of book recommendations for young adults. The most overwhelmingly agreed upon genre was historical fiction—we all continue to get requests from teens who have been tasked with reading the genre by their teachers and seem to have little to no understanding of what that entails. Not all of the titles below are necessarily teacher approved—many educators would probably look askance at the alternate history, for example—but all are fantastic novels, and at the very least, they should provide some recommendations for any teen whose interest is piqued by a historical fiction assignment.

For those seeking more traditional historical fiction, we have a novel set partially in 1970s Brooklyn, a fictional runaway slave narrative set in 1850 America, a rip-roaring pirate tale based on the life of Henry Morgan, and—because how can we write about historical fiction without one?—a World War II story. Jacqueline Woodson’s 2016 National Book Award long-listed title Another Brooklyn picks up in a fictional world where her award-winning verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming left off—and focuses on the young adulthood of a very Woodson-like character growing into a woman in Brooklyn. Expect everything we’ve come to love about the author: poetically beautiful prose, pinpoint accurate attention to detail, and starkly honest portrayals of herself and the lives of young black women. Robert Morgan’s Chasing the North Star features Jonah, another young African American coming of age, but in the much more harrowing situation of 1850s America, as he escapes from slavery and travels to the North. Fans of this new novel should take a look at Morgan’s other historical fiction, including stories of Revolution-era South Carolina and Depression- and World War II–era Appalachia.

On a more swashbuckling note, we have pirates. Robert Hough’s The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan follows the fictional Benny Wand as he is exiled from England to Jamaica, where he makes the acquaintance of one of the most famous pirates. Benny is a chess wizard and con man (not as distantly related occupations as you might think), and he uses both skills to get in good with Morgan. Hough’s close attention to the details of the 17th-century Caribbean should make this one of the more teacher-friendly titles on this list, while the high seas adventures should make it among the most teen-friendly—in other words, a perfect recommendation.

Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres is an excellent entry into that subgenre of historical works, looking at war from a relatively new angle. Domet’s protagonists are four residents of a convent. Each young woman (named Guinevere) has a different, tragic reason for entering the convent. The war connection comes as the four tend to convalescent soldiers being housed at the convent and begin to imagine where their lives might lead if they stayed with “their” soldiers. This is a different sort of war story, a different sort of romance, and an intriguing debut from Domet.

Those are the straight historical novels: our other three titles include an alternate history, a time travel tale, and a mystery. Dan Vyleta’s Smoke takes place in an alternate Victorian England, in which evil thoughts have begun to physically manifest themselves as wisps of “smoke.” A fantastical premise to be sure, but Vyleta focuses less attention on fleshing out this premise and more on deep characterization of his boarding school boy protagonists. Needless to say, in the style of many a boarding school novel, adventures are thick on the ground, and the three heroes soon have more than they can handle. Fantasy, history, adventure, and a bit of philosophy mingle in this wonderful volume.

Depending on how you feel about the science of time travel, fantasy may be the central element in Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another as well. Taylor’s novel was already a hit as a self-published ebook (and already has several sequels), but now that it is finally in print, we have the chance to review it here. Fans of Connie Willis (especially The Doomsday Book) should be clamoring for this one, in which historians study the past by means of time travel. Several historical periods are visited, and much mayhem ensues. And of course teens with less than love for their history class will be tickled to be introduced to Arnold Toynbee’s famous quotation about history, quoted in Taylor’s title.

Finally, mystery fans who need to read a historical novel for class may be able to get away with reading Elly Griffiths’s Smoke and Mirrors, a novel set in 1951 England but more properly regarded as a mystery than historical fiction. This second volume in a series follows DI Edgar Stephens on a search for two missing children during Christmastime. The emphasis on England’s pantomime tradition may be at once the most confusing aspect and the best way for teens to convince their teachers they are learning something. Regardless, this is a dark, fascinating tale for mystery fans everywhere.

FICTION

theguineveresDOMET, Sarah. The Guineveres. 352p. ebook available. Flatiron. Oct. 2016. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781250086617.

Four teenagers, each named Guinevere, find themselves under the strict guidance of the nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Adoration. Although they share a common name, Gwen, Ginny, Win, and Vere all have different and equally heartbreaking reasons for coming to live at the convent. The girls are guided by the dogmatic and controlling Sister Fran and the spiritually inept Father James. Sent to the convent’s convalescent wing as punishment, the young women must take care of five unidentified and comatose soldiers. When one of the soldiers awakens and another girl is sent home with him to help with his recovery, each friend imagines a future with “her” soldier outside the constraints of the religious community. The Guineveres (as the girls call themselves) navigate the liminal spaces between childhood and adulthood, and faith and skepticism through the lens of broken families and intense friendships. Although those used to quick beach reads might find the pace slow, Domet’s debut will lure readers in with well-developed characters, rich language, and small miracles. VERDICT Recommended for students who are looking for weighty romance novels.–Krystina Kelley, Belle Valley School, Belleville, IL

smokeandmirrorsGRIFFITHS, Elly. Smoke and Mirrors. 352p. (Magic Men Mysteries: Bk. 2). ebook available. HMH. Oct. 2016. Tr $25. ISBN 9780544527959.

Tweens Annie and Mark are missing, and DI Edgar Stephens is charged with leading the search in Brighton, England, in the winter of 1951. It is just before Christmas, and that means pantomime play season in England. The “panto” plays are intertwined with the grim fairy tales that young Annie writes and stages in a lonely neighbor’s garage. The girl has been mentored by her primary school teacher, and she enlists the help of her many brothers and sisters and her best friend Mark, who shares a working-class upbringing. It’s lucky for DI Stephens that it is play season, because that means his close friend from the war, magician Max Mephisto, is in town performing. Though very different, Max and Edgar forged a tight friendship during World War II, when they were assigned as “Magic Men” in a covert operation. There are so many trails to follow and so many possible suspects, and as time runs out for the missing children, another victim emerges. While the British colloquialisms about the “panto” will be new to American readers, the focus on child victims; the dark, fairy-tale aspects; and the engaging characters will draw students into this second in the series. Hand this one to fans of Mary Higgins Clark. VERDICT An excellent addition to larger mystery collections.–Jake Pettit, Enka Schools, Istanbul, Turkey

manwhosavedredstarHOUGH, Robert. The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan. 304p. ebook available. Anansi. May 2016. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781770899452.

Twenty-year-old Benny Wand stands before the judge with 10 seconds to decide: Newgate prison or deportment to Jamaica. Jamaica it is, and he is off to the town of Port Royal to start over. Arriving with nothing but the clothes on his back, Benny continues the life that got him arrested: conning money by playing chess. He lives in the back alleys of Port Royal until the infamous privateer Henry Morgan takes him on as a crew member, and they head out on a raid. Surviving high seas, jungle, and heat, Benny perseveres and, at a crucial moment, realizes that their strategy is wrong. The young man attracts the attention of Henry Morgan, and an unlikely friendship ensues as Morgan, an expert chess player himself, compels Benny to join him regularly in a game. Unable to beat Benny, Morgan recognizes him as a master strategist and relies upon him for tactical insight. The protagonist revels in the attention but becomes increasingly concerned as his inherent belief in the goodness of humanity collides with the growing sordidness of their raids and Morgan’s deteriorating health and sanity. Sophisticated teens will appreciate this excellent tale. The sights, sounds, and smells of 1600s Jamaica come alive through Benny’s eyes. Chess players, privateers, prostitutes, gamblers, and the upper crust create the rich environment in which Benny lives while searching for meaning in his life. VERDICT Chess, history, and the art of the con mingle to create a top-notch tale that many mature teens will enjoy.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA

chasingMORGAN, Robert. Chasing the North Star. 320p. ebook available. Algonquin. Apr. 2016. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781565126275.

Jonah becomes a runaway slave on his 18th birthday after his master whips him for supposedly stealing a book. Jonah, who secretly knows how to read, has learned about freedom in the North. His journey from a plantation in South Carolina to freedom in upstate New York is harrowing to put it mildly. In moments of true suspense, this historical novel becomes a page-turner. Along the way, Jonah meets Angel, another runaway slave, and tries repeatedly to leave her behind. Aptly named, this character is an angel of sorts for him, though Jonah also finds her to be a hindrance. Angel’s escape highlights a woman’s perspective and reveals another layer of discrimination. The two characters provide first-person accounts at different points, and the author’s decision to weave these two viewpoints offers readers a full sense of the characters. Young adults will identify with Jonah as he questions this racist system, all the while trying to find some hope in humanity. His odyssey moves him closer to freedom, but he also discovers his life’s meaning and a passion for life. VERDICT A much-needed addition to high school libraries.–April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL

justoneTAYLOR, Jodi. Just One Damned Thing After Another. 348p. (Chronicles of St. Mary’s: Bk. 1). ebook available. Night Shade. Jun. 2016. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781597808682.

St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research is not your average research facility. Which is all right, because Dr. Madeleine Maxwell thrives on the unusual, especially if it’s ancient history. Madeleine knows it’s her kind of place. She is thrilled when she learns that the institute studies “historical events in contemporary time.” In other words, it has time machines. Styled as innocuous stone huts, the time travel pods come complete with a kettle for afternoon tea, without which apparently historians can’t function. Going back in time is fraught with hazards, from rampaging T. rexes to rioting medieval peasants, not to mention nefarious humans. The heroine finds herself in impossible situations almost from the minute she steps out the door in the morning. Teens will love the protagonist’s irreverence toward authority, quick wit, and penchant for trouble. She meets day-to-day and historical challenges with riotous aplomb. Though one of only a few women at the institute, Madeleine more than holds her own. And when she is exiled, her circumstances and despair are so well portrayed that readers practically experience them along with her, hoping against hope that all is not lost. VERDICT This clever and audacious tale will leave readers clamoring for more. Fortunately, there are more books in the series. For fans of historical fiction or science fiction.–Gretchen Crowley, Alexandria City Public Libraries, VA

smokeVYLETA, Dan. Smoke. 448p. ebook available. Doubleday. May 2016. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780385540162.

Set in an alternate Victorian England, this novel opens with a late-night bullying scene in a boys’ boarding school à la Robert Cormier or Charles Dickens. But over several hundred pages, the narrative develops into a story of three teenage friends on a mission to save the world from destruction by deranged adults, all while negotiating their own love triangle and questioning everything they’ve ever been told about the Smoke that streaks or puffs or billows out of people who lose self-control in their world. The religious and philosophical beliefs surrounding Smoke, the physical phenomenon of it, and its relatively short history in this England don’t all quite hang together in terms of world-building, but most readers won’t care, because the grubby mystery of Smoke is intriguing. Teens will find themselves wondering what makes humans human. The lush yet accessible writing style is irresistibly engaging. Most important, the three friends—a cheerfully privileged yet compassionate earl’s heir, a mad scientist’s haughty daughter, and a possibly cursed, ruthlessly honest orphan boy—are a heartbreaking, heartwarming pleasure to root for. This thick volume satisfies on its own, but a sequel would be welcome, too. VERDICT Give this to fans of either historical fiction or dystopian fiction who want to read a bit outside their comfort zone.–Hope Baugh, Carmel Clay Public Library, Carmel, IN

anotherbrooklynredstarWOODSON, Jacqueline. Another Brooklyn. 192p.  ebook available. HarperCollins/Amistad. Aug. 2016. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9780062359988.

Woodson brings us August, a first-person narrator akin to her own remembered self in her verse memoir for young people, Brown Girl Dreaming. In this novel, though, rather than focusing on how childhood foments a writer’s impulse, the author operates dual lenses in relating another brown girl’s experiences becoming a woman in 1970s Brooklyn. August’s voice shifts easily from a wide-angled adult perspective as she returns to Brooklyn after 20 years for her father’s funeral into a telephoto clarity as she recalls her first sight of a magically joyful trio of neighborhood girls from the window of the third-floor apartment her father forbade her to leave when the family moved from their rural Tennessee home. The adult August’s fierce remembrance makes poignant the isolation and novelty of a city life she must enter motherless, so desperate to be the fourth fast friend, to make a perfect quartet of the three who dazzle and need her. The solemn refrains in this poeticized prose sound like the changing colors and cadences of the borough; her family’s imperfect conversion to Islam, including August’s work to resolve her denial of her mother’s loss with a hijab-clad therapist; and the alluring yet dangerous navigation of the waters of girlhood toward the depths of sexual maturity. Teens of the searching sort, particularly those who have read the author’s works for younger readers, may find this offering evocative of what school reunions can reveal: the talented may fly too high in fame, the privileged may not always embrace their advantage, and some raise themselves up and out while others are lost to obscurity. In the character of August, Woodson brings tidbits of research on the funeral practices of world cultures to bear on this keen examination of her Brooklyn in its many incarnations. VERDICT Something to savor for the nearly grown who have acquired a taste for the complexly bittersweet flavor of memory.–Suzanne Gordon, Lanier High School, Gwinnett County, GA

Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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Comments

  1. As a retired teacher and author of historical fiction for reluctant readers, I’ve thrilled to see these recommendations in Historical Fiction for high schoolers. Thanks!