Three Resonant Historical Fiction Books for Young Readers

These titles take tween readers on immersive journeys through history.


These three titles take tween readers on immersive journeys through history. In Anne Dublin’s Jacob and the Mandolin Adventure, an orphaned boy in 1920s Poland sets off for a new world with better prospects, while a biracial girl in 1877 Shanghai forges a similar path in Michaela MacColl’s View from Pagoda Hill. In Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours, three friends face the Holocaust in WWII Vienna, and find themselves forever changed.

DUBLIN, Anne. Jacob and the Mandolin Adventure. 160p. Second Story. Mar. 2021. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9781772601626.
Gr 3-7–This historical novel takes readers to 1920s Poland before leading to an adventure in a new land. Thirteen-year old Jacob is a young white boy living in an orphanage for Jewish children. Amid hardship, playing his mandolin provides one source of peace and joy. When a mysterious American man promises the children opportunity in Canada, the group makes the harsh and uncertain trek while questioning whether everything is as it seems. Hunger, bullying, harsh words of persecution, and moments of grief all make the book a resonant prompt for discussing many issues that students face today. The journey itself, a centerpiece in the story, is told as one of hope, but also new dangers. In spite of the difficulties Jacob faces, the presence of music and art are a balm for him and others. As a former teacher-librarian, Dublin knows her audience and it shows; her use of description and dialogue to build character and setting is sure to engage readers. In Jacob, readers encounter a figure whose life is far from easy, but whose passion helps him transcend his circumstances. He is an orphan and an outsider in some regards, but his desire to pursue his dream will be relatable to many. VERDICT A complex journey that may conjure connections to Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Jacob is a character readers ought to meet.–Jason ­DeHart, Appalachian St. Univ., Boone, NC

KESSLER, Liz. When the World Was Ours. 352p. Aladdin. May 2021. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781534499652.
Gr 4-7–Inspired by her family’s history, Kessler tells a story of the Holocaust from the point of view of three children: Elsa, Leo, and Max, best friends who live in Vienna. The story opens in 1936 when the children are nine, and as they age, their thoughts and actions develop in sophistication. At the start of Hitler’s rise to power, Max’s father forbids him to play with his only two friends because they are Jewish. The lives of all three are torn apart when Elsa’s family moves to Czechoslovakia seeking a safe haven, Leo’s father is imprisoned and his family tries to get out of Austria to a safer country, and Max’s father, an SS officer, moves his family to Munich while he works at Dachau. Kessler does not try to paint a pretty picture when Elsa ends up at a death camp and Max becomes a zealous member of the Hitler youth; the once-friends have become teens caught in a situation where suffering and humiliation are daily occurrences. This is a well-researched story that portrays life as it was during the horrors of World War II in Europe. VERDICT A must-have addition to any middle school collection that could easily become a classic like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars.–Elizabeth Kahn, Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Acad., Avondale, LA

MACCOLL, Michaela. View from Pagoda Hill. 360p. Calkins Creek. Apr. 2021. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781629797823.
Gr 5-8–The year is 1877 in Shanghai, China; 12-year-old Ning lives with her Mama, Sun, and their servant, Number One Boy. Due to Ning’s “unusual” appearance, biracial ethnicity, tall height, and unbound feet, her frustrated mother finds difficulty obtaining a suitor for her daughter. Ning believes her physical attributes are what make it arduous for people, particularly her mother, to like her. Seeing no hope for her daughter’s future in China, Sun sends for Ning’s long-lost father to come and take her back to his homeland, which he begrudgingly does. And just like that, Ning is transferred overseas, never to see her mother and Number One Boy again. Trying to maintain optimism on her way to New York, Ning is shocked to realize that the townsfolk have absurd assumptions of her and of China. Readers will take an unnerving journey with the young protagonist as she juggles her two identities, all in the hopes of one day having friends to play with and a family to love her just as she is. MacColl tells the heartbreaking story of a young girl immigrating to a new land and adjusting to different customs. Loosely based on the life of the author’s great-great-grandmother, MacColl’s novel will bring tears to readers’ eyes as they travel in Ning’s shoes, seeing the perspective of someone who faces biases and racism on a daily basis. VERDICT A movingly empathetic tale for readers about prejudice, and the pressure to fit in with scrutinizing societies.–Beronica Puhr, Oak Park P.L., IL

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