14 Novels Set in the Past for Middle Grade Fans of Historical Fiction | Summer Reading 2020

Featuring vivid settings, relatable characters, and absorbing narratives, these moving titles will inspire readers to learn more about these eras—and to question whose stories still go untold.

The Challenger explosion, the Chernobyl disaster, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Civil War are among the historical backdrops for these middle grade novels. Featuring vivid settings, relatable characters, and absorbing narratives, these moving titles will inspire readers to learn more about these eras—and to question whose stories still go untold.

The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman. Viking. ISBN 9781984837356.

In 1986 Ukraine, Valentina and Oksana are sworn enemies who find themselves thrown together when the Chernobyl power plant where their fathers work explodes. Told from both girls’ perspectives, with a third perspective from a Jewish girl in 1941 fleeing Kiev and the advancing German army, these tales intersect, presenting a deeply affecting testament to the power of unlikely friendship in the face of bias, tragedy, and distance.

Orphan Eleven by Gennifer Choldenko. Random. ISBN 9780385742559.

In 1939, Lucy, an elective mute, flees the Home for Friendless Children with Bald Doris, her big brother Eugene, and clever Nico; the four find their way to the circus, where Lucy bonds with the elephants. The plot races with fascinating glimpse of life in the Thirties as the children all search for love and stability.

Call Me Floy by Joanna Cooke. Yosemite Conservancy. ISBN 9781930238992.

Cooke fictionalizes the real-life story of Florence “Floy” Hutchings (1864–81), the first European American child born in what would become Yosemite National Park. As Floy, now 12, returns to the valley where she has spent summers blissfully exploring nature, she realizes that everything has changed—she must pursue more “ladylike” pursuits, and her friend Sally Ann fears that her Indigenous family will no longer be able to call Yoesmite home. Both a vivid history of Yosemite and a stirring portrait of a determined young protagonist, this is an ideal choice for young nature lovers.

Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank. HMH. ISBN 9780544826083.

This story of an unlikely friendship alternates between the points of view of two boys from disparate backgrounds in 1970s Los Angeles: Charlie, who is Jewish, and lives in the Hollywood Hills with parents who are mourning the death of his older brother; and Armstrong, who is African American and lives with his parents and sisters in South Central. This uplifting, vivid work sees the two protagonists confront racism, grief, and bullying.

Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman. illus. by author. Lerner/Graphic Universe. ISBN 9781512440003.

The Confederate Army sees Grace, a young transgender woman, as a worthy soldier, but she has other plans, and when she meets up with Flor, a legendary bandit also known as Ghost Hawk, romance blossoms as the two bond over their shared yet different manifestations of gender nonconformity. A charming, poignant queer romance set against a Civil War–era backdrop.

The Magic in Changing Your Stars by Leah Henderson. Sterling. ISBN 9781454934066.

When 11-year-old Ailey dons his grandfather’s special tap-dancing shoes, a gift from the legendary Bojangles, Ailey is transported back to 1930s Harlem, where he might have the chance to change both Grampa’s life and his own. Ailey’s quest is full of twists and turns, and his tale will have readers eager to visit Harlem to tap alongside him, Grampa, and Bojangles.

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Louder Than Words by Kathy Kacer. Annick. ISBN 9781773213552.

In this third installment of “Heroes Quartet,” a series that follows the real-life stories of unsung heroes who risked their lives to save Jewish families during World War II, Nina, a housekeeper, works to rescue the family she works for when Nazis invade their Ukrainian town. Kacer honors Nina Pukac’s story with this powerful account of the importance of understanding and love.

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. ISBN 9780062747303.

In 1986, siblings Bird, Fitch, and Cash cope with problems such as poor grades and bickering parents, all while anticipating the Challenger shuttle launch. With lyrical but direct writing, relatable characters, and a vivid historical setting, Kelly offers a thoughtful, realistic tale of three young protagonists learning that by joining forces, they have the power to form the family they want.

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine. HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780062878199.

Loma, a Jewish girl living in late 15th-century Spain during the Inquisition, accompanies her grandfather on his travels, witnessing firsthand King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s attempts to “defeat the infidel” (Spain’s Muslim people). Levine skillfully juxtaposes the larger religious battles taking place in Spain with Loma’s dreams for her future.

Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338255812.

Free-spirited, inquisitive Mary Lambert is deaf, as are many others on Martha’s Vineyard—no one knows why, but a visiting scientist is determined to find out, and to make Mary his “live specimen.” LeZotte crafts a moving tale of 1805 Martha’s Vineyard, highlighting racism, ableism, prejudice, and other issues still relevant more than 200 years later.

Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell. Tu Bks. ISBN 9781620148396.

Regina and her family are Umpqua, living on the Grande Ronde Tribe’s reservation in Oregon, but when the U.S. government enacts a law saying their tribe no longer exists, the family must move to Los Angeles. Her father thinks the 1957 Indian Relocation Program will help them, but her grandmother is doubtful. Readers will be moved as they become invested in Regina’s predicament.

Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis. illus. by author. Disney-Hyperion. ISBN 9781536204988.

The fates of a deposed queen and a lowly orphan raised by nuns intertwine in this lush graphic novel loosely inspired by Tudor England and the life of Elizabeth I. Meconis’s illustrations are delicate and sumptuous, and her blend of political intrigue and quotidian details makes for a vivid reimagining of 16th-century British history.

Freedom Fire by Daniel José Older. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. ISBN 9781338268843.

In this second installment of “Dactyl Hill Squad,” a series set in an alternative New York City where dinosaurs and humans coexist against the backdrop of the Civil War, Magdalys Roca and her friends attempt to find her wounded Union soldier brother in New Orleans. Older blends meticulous research with fast-paced action, likable characters, and fantastical twists on history.

How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316484008.

Ella learns about her mother, the father she never knew, and the stark realities of race relations in 1944 America when she spends Christmas with her mother in Boston. Ella returns home to learn a boy in her small South Carolina community is charged with killing two white girls. This historical coming-of-age novel tackles racism, sexuality, and family secrets as it deftly handles Ella’s difficult life lessons.

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