16 Moving & Emotive 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 16 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.
In The Tunnel
During the Korean War, a young boy named Myung-gi grapples with caring for his mother and younger sister after his father gets arrested. With his country embroiled in a devastating war, uncertainty and hardship surround Myung-gi. He will do whatever it takes to survive, find his father, and protect his family. His emotional story is both harrowing and inspiring. If your kid loves this book, pick up the companion novel, Brother’s Keeper.
A Seed in the Sun
Aida Salazar’s historical novel about a young farm worker introduces readers to the fight for worker’s rights in 1965 California. Lula spends her days caring for her family and working at a vineyard. When the farm workers go on strike, Lula must choose between the meager but steady income her job offers and the opportunity for something more.
The Night Diary
Keep a box of tissues nearby as you read this Newbery Honor-winning novel about a girl who must leave her home behind during India’s partition in 1947. With her country divided, Nisha’s father decides they must leave Pakistan. Together, Nisha and her father embark on a journey filled with sorrow, hope, and new beginnings.
We often learn about historical events from a one-sided perspective, but there are two sides (or more) to every story. This book gives readers a glimpse into the effects of World War II on Japan, especially the bombing of Hiroshima. As 12-year-old Nozomi learns about that day, she also learns about family, loneliness, loss, war, and peace.
Come See the Fair
Spirits, mystery, and the World’s Fair in Chicago combine into an unforgettable novel that historical fiction lovers will devour. This story transports readers back to 1893 and follows young medium Eva Root as she travels to Chicago and gets tangled in a web of magic, deceit, and sinister plots.
A Crack in the Sea
Three sets of siblings and their stories collide in this gorgeous, fairytale-like historical fantasy novel. Whether they’re rescuing a kidnapped brother, escaping a slave ship, or fleeing a war-torn country, each character heads for the crack in the sea — a portal to another realm. Readers who enjoy magic and adventure will love this book!
The Bluest Sky
This fascinating novel about escaping communist Cuba is based on the author’s relatives’ experiences in 1980. The Cuban government designates one day for citizens to leave the country if they wish, and Héctor’s mother wants to flee to the United States. But leaving is a perilous, one-way street with no guarantees of freedom. Kids will sit on the edge of their seats while reading this gripping story.
Kids who love learning about North American history and Indigenous culture will enjoy this historical novel about the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy. When his friend gets kidnapped by a rival nation, Okwaho wants to rescue him and get revenge. However, he meets someone who shows him that peace is the best way forward. Set in 1142, this novel is a beautiful story of hope, resilience, and working together to become stronger.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
This classic historical novel is the most well-known installment in the Logan Family Saga. It’s about a girl named Cassie who faces injustice and racism during the Great Depression. Memorable characters and vivid prose create a reading experience that stays with you long after you’ve finished the book. Readers who enjoy this novel should also check out the rest of the award-winning 10-part series.
The Blackbird Girls
This heartfelt adventure novel about two Jewish girls after the Chernobyl power plant explosion combines family secrets, war, and friendship. Valentina and Oksana leave home to stay with Valentina’s grandmother in Leningrad. The girls must lean on each other as they learn about the lies and secrets their families kept from them. This powerful, award-winning novel is a must-read!
The War That Saved My Life
When World War II comes to London, Ada and her younger brother Jamie get sent out of the city to live in the countryside. The siblings feel relieved to get away from their cruel mother, and they find a loving home with a woman named Susan. But the evacuation program was supposed to be temporary. If they have to return to their mother in London, Ada and Jamie could lose the peace and happiness they found.
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.
My Own Lightning
Readers who loved the Newbery Honor-winning novel Wolf Hollow will love the sequel. The story picks up a few months later, with Annabelle still recovering from the bullying she experienced. Now, with a missing dog to find and an old rival returning, Annabelle learns that life and people are more complicated than she thought.
The Shakespeare Stealer
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.
White Bird: A Wonder Story (A Graphic Novel)
Readers everywhere have fallen for this graphic novel from the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling novel Wonder. It follows Julian’s grandmother as a young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied France. With full-color artwork and interesting characters, this story is a beautiful tale of friendship in the face of peril.
Turtle in Paradise
Kids who prefer reading graphic novels will enjoy this adaptation of Jennifer L. Holm’s modern classic. Follow Turtle as she adapts to life in Florida with her cousins, has adventures, makes friends, and learns family secrets. This heartwarming book is an excellent way to transport young readers into the past.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated in 2023.