Tween

Connecting with the Past: 10 Moving Historical Novels for Tweens

by Jennifer Garry

When my not-quite-12-year-old hears the phrase “historical fiction,” her nose immediately crinkles as if she just smelled bad milk. You can almost see the curtain of disapproval drop in front of her eyes as she starts to tune the rest of the sentence out. Boring.

But then I remind her that historical fiction only means that you’re reading a book that takes place in the past. It doesn’t force you to learn things (I leave out the “…but you will” part). It doesn’t mean dry and boring. It doesn’t mean you’ll have nothing in common with the characters. On the contrary, it makes you realize that some things — especially coming-of-age things — don’t change much with the passage of time.

The ten books below are great examples of moving historical fiction for tweens that will connect them with the past and make them empathize with characters who aren’t so different from them after all.

  • Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth

    by Sheila O’Connor

    When Reenie moves to a new town after her mom dies, the transition isn’t so easy. Her new paper route gives her something to look forward to as she starts meeting all of her new neighbors — all of them, that is, except for Mr. Marsworth, the town recluse. Determined, Reenie leaves him letters and they become pan pals. When Reenie tells Mr. Marsworth (a pacifist) that she’s trying to stop her brother from enlisting in the Vietnam War, he helps her come up with a plan to keep her brother home. The unlikely friendship and unexpected plot twists will hold kids’ attention, while opposing viewpoints on war and politics are timely and certain to make them think.

  • One Crazy Summer

    by Rita Williams-Garcia

    It’s the summer of 1968 and 11-year-old Delphine and her sisters are being sent to Oakland, California to stay with the mother who abandoned them seven years ago. When they get there, their mother wants nothing to do with them. She makes them eat Chinese takeout, doesn’t let them go in the kitchen, and sends them to a summer camp sponsored by the Black Panthers. Both heartbreaking and funny, this Newbery Honor book features issues like racism, slanted media coverage, and activism that readers will be able to compare to current events.

  • She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)

    by Ann Hood

    While the Vietnam War rages, Trudy’s life is taking a nose dive. Her best friend is becoming a cheerleader, her dad is growing more and more distant, and her beloved Beatles fan club has dwindled down to her and three of the least popular kids in middle school. With hopes of regaining popularity and proving herself to her dad, Trudy and her Beatles crew take a secret trip to Boston to see their favorite band. With themes like grappling with a rapidly changing world, connecting with unexpected people, and growing up, this one is incredibly relatable for today’s tweens.

  • Woods Runner

    by Gary Paulsen

    Thirteen-year-old Samuel spends his days hunting for food for his family. He has grown up on the frontier in colonial America, with no news of the war that has been started by American patriots. But the war comes to them when British soldiers and Iroquois attack, and Samuel’s parents are taken as prisoners. Determined to rescue them, Samuel follows and learns that he must go deep into enemy territory to find his parents: all the way to British headquarters in New York City. Woods Runner touches on the tragedy and horrors of war while keeping violence off the page.

  • Esperanza Rising

    by Pam Muñoz Ryan

    This book, which is based on actual events, tells the story of Esperanza, a privileged Mexican girl who is forced to flee to America with her mother after a sudden tragedy. Once in California, they settle in a Mexican farm labor camp which could not be more different from the life they were accustomed to. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard work, the financial struggles or the lack of acceptance she faces. Readers will learn about the Great Depression while empathizing with a character who is forced to find a way to rise above difficult circumstances. The book also touches on issues like racism, immigration, and deportation.

  • The Watcher

    by Joan Hiatt Harlow

    It’s 1942 and Wendy’s mom, who is apparently a Nazi spy, has kidnapped her and brought her from America to Berlin. In this completely foreign land, Wendy is expected to speak a language she doesn’t understand and support a cause she doesn’t believe in. There are allies watching over Wendy, though, and the more she learns, the more she knows she has to find them. Featuring a protagonist who is trying to find her place in the world and making big decisions in the process, Wendy’s story is one that readers will be able to relate to — even if their lives aren’t quite so dramatic.

  • The Shakespeare Stealer

    by Gary Blackwood

    Widge is a 14-year-old orphan in Elizabethan England. His fearsome master, a theater manager, orders Widge to steal Shakespeare’s unpublished play “Hamlet” — or else. Widge has no choice but to follow orders, so he works his way into the Globe Theatre and becomes friends with Shakespeare’s players along the way. While rich in period detail and colorful characters, the story comes down to friendship — something tweens from any time period can connect with.

  • Stella by Starlight

    by Sharon M. Draper

    Stella lives in the segregated South. There are stores she can’t step foot in and people who aren’t so nice to her family. One night, she and her brother are out much later than they should be and witness a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. The meeting signals a major change happening in their town — one that Stella and her family face with bravery. Filled with hope, uncertainty, and a strong sense of community, readers will be drawn to Stella.

  • The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan

    by Patricia Bailey

    It’s 1905 in a Nevada mining town and life for 13-year-old Kit Donovan has taken a turn for the worse. Her mom has died from a fever and, after Kit convinces her dad to speak out about his corrupt mine-owning boss, her dad has been murdered. Kit is convinced that she must save her father’s reputation and the town. Armed with a printing press, Kit stands up to threats of violence and does what she thinks is right. With themes of love, friendship, and betrayal, young readers will cheer for the smart and spunky heroine.

  • Talking Leaves

    by Joseph Bruchac

    When 13-year-old Uwohali’s father, Sequoyah, returns to the village after many years away, Uwohali can’t wait to reconnect. But Sequoyah’s new obsession with making strange markings causes tribe members to wonder whether he is crazy, or worse — practicing witchcraft. Uwohali discovers that Sequoyah’s strange markings are actually an alphabet representing the sounds of the Cherokee language. Although the novel is set 200 years ago, themes like blended families, an absent father, and figuring out your identity will resonate with modern readers.

What historical novels would you recommend for middle grade readers? Let us know in the comments below!

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