Beginning Chapter Books: Historical Fiction
Historical fiction books show kids a glimpse of the past through the relatable eyes of a story. Kids learn so much about history when reading these types of chapter books. Here are some of my favorites.
The Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne (ages 6 – 9)
A MUST-READ series for all kids! These combine mystery, history, magic, and adventure as siblings Jack and Annie adventure through time.
I Survived by Lauren Tarshis (ages 6 – 9)
Wow – these are one of my favorite discoveries this year! They’re excellent, fast-paced adventures set during significant historical events. Your kids will zip through these fascinating adventures. The books always are about a young boy trying to survive the historically important, life-changing event. GREAT for reluctant readers since these are more easy to read than the other books on this list.
Secrets of the Manor: Claire’s Story, 1910 by Adele Whitby (ages 7 – 10)
I loved this book — it’s a captivating story about an orphan girl who moves to France to live with friends of her family. She befriends a servant girl and the duo realize there are mysteries that must be answered — like what happened to the daughter of the manor and why did her parents send her to this family. Excellent first book in a new series for early readers!
Ranger in Time #1: Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner, illustrated by Kelley McMorris (ages 6 – 9)
Ranger, a golden retriever trained for search-and-rescue, travels back to the Oregon Trail to help a family in need. It’s a simple story that introduces the ups and downs of traveling on the Oregon Trail. The pacing is a bit slow but I’d still give it a chance.
John Lincoln Clem Civil War Drummer Boy: Based on a True Story by E.F. Abbott (ages 7 – 10)
Johnny leads home at age 9 to fight in the Civil War. He begins as a drummer boy and later fights. This is such an exciting, well-written story made even more interesting because it’s based on a real story. This is the only book I have read in the series thus far — and it was a great choice.
Middle Grade Chapter Books: Historical Fiction
Secret of Midway: Ghosts of War #1 by Steve Watkins (ages 8 – 12)
Three kids discover the navy peacoat of a WWII soldier and when they do, the soldier’s ghost appears. They think there’s a reason the ghost hasn’t moved on so the kids are determined to discover his story and what really happened at Midway. Interesting, especially for history enthusiasts.
The WAR That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (ages 9 – 12)
Ada and her brother escape their mother’s abuse when the London children are evacuated during WWII and go to live with a grieving woman in a small country town. It’s difficult for both the woman and children to trust but slowly the trust grows and all three regain something lost – hope and love. “I slipped my hand into hers. A strange and unfamiliar feeling rand through me. It felt like the ocean, like sunlight, like horses. Like love. I searched my mind and found the name for it. Joy.” I can’t recommend this book enough, it just touched my heart at such a deep level.
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and A Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson (ages 9 – 12)
Wow. I not only learned a TON from this historical fiction novel, but it was thoroughly mesmerizing! Eel’s an orphan who turns one of his odd jobs into saving live when he helps a real historical person, Dr. Snow, determine if the water pump in Eel’s neighborhood is the source of the deadly cholera.
Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra de Winter and Bram Broen by Eve Yohalem (ages 8 – 12)
Petra escapes her abusive Dutch father by disguising herself as a boy and stowing away on a merchant ship. She’s befriended by a boy but soon discovered. The adventure of the two friends set amidst the history is absolutely fascinating. It’s a great book!
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (ages 8 – 12)
An award-winning historical fiction adventure set in the late 1800s about Manjiro, a shipwrecked 14-year old Japanese boy who is rescued and adopted by an American ship’s captain. Americans are very prejudiced against Japanese but when he returns to Japan, he’s rejected as an outsider there and imprisoned. Excellent.
Running Out of Night by Sharon Lovejoy (ages 8 – 12)
I highly recommend this powerful story of two maltreated girls who hope for a better future. The narrator is a white girl in the south who is nothing more than a slave to her family, she doesn’t even have a name. She meets and joins a runaway slave who is escaping the horrific brutality of slavery and separation from her family. Together they find kindness and hope with a Quaker family. “You just keep mending and darning, stichin and stichin. At first, things look all pieced together, but after a while, you don’t even notice the stitched-up spots everywhere; they just look all of a piece. Never like new, but all of a piece and good enough to last a life.”
The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts by Avi (ages 8 – 12)
Refugee by Alan Gratz (ages 8 – 12)
Wow. This book is a tween must-read book. Not only are the stories compelling, it’s vitally important for kids to learn what it’s like to be an immigrant, particularly a refugee. Why? Because empathy is learned from stories like these. Follow three distinct, alternating stories to experience being displaced from your country, on the run, and in danger. First is a young Jewish boy who escapes from Nazi Germany on a ship to Cuba, only to be turned away from the Cuban port and sent back to Europe. Next is a Cuban girl in the 1990s who, with her family and neighbors, flees in a homemade raft to the United States at great peril. Finally is a Syrian boy whose home is bombed in a country at war. He and his family travel a great distance to find a country that will allow them shelter. Gatz skillfully connects all three stories with a satisfying, realistic conclusion.
Ahisma by Supriya Kelkar (ages 8 – 12)
The Player King by Avi (ages 8 – 12)
It’s England in the 1400s with a usurper king on the throne, King Henry VII. When a friar spots kitchen boy Lambert Simnel, he tells him that Lambert is really the next in line to the throne, that he is the missing Prince Edward. So begins Lambert’s journey from poor pauper to heir-in-hiding. Based on true events, Avi skillfully weaves a believable story of this little known historical event. Fascinating.
Betty Before X by Ilyasha Shabazz and Renee Watson (ages 8 – 12)
Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil (ages 8 – 12)
Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai (age 8 – 12)
Anne of Green Gables (A Graphic Novel) adapted by Mariah Marsden, illustrated by Brenna Thummler (ages 8 – 12)
Having just watched this series on Netflix (“Anne with an E”) with my daughter, we liked this adaptation of orphan Anne’s life in Canada at Green Gables but longed for the details that only the show or, even better, the actual novel could provide. However, this is a great introduction to the series and hopefully the stories selected in this graphic novel will inspire kids to read the original books by L.M. Montgomery.
My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson
The Dollmaker of Krakow by Rachael Romero
It All Comes Down to This by Karen English (ages 8 – 12)
Experience the 60s in Los Angeles, a turbulent time of racism and burgeoning activism, from the perspective of Sophie, a sweet black girl who lives in an all white neighborhood. Her parents’ marriage is in trouble, her sister is about to leave for college, and her best (white) friend has moved on. Surprisingly, Sophie’s strict, disapproving housekeeper becomes an ally, something Sophie needs during the challenges of life and growing up. Well-crafted story and characters.
The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby (ages 8 – 12)
The wild west plus fantastical elements combine in this marvelous adventure of an expedition to find the lost people of the Welsh Prince Madoc. This is the wild west like you’ve never imagined. And you’ll love it.
The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett (Great pick for a Newbery) (ages 8 – 12)
Tissue alert – this story made me weep. A lot. Racking sobs, I’m not kidding. It’s a breathtaking story; a fable about life set in Nazi Germany. We follow three Gypsy siblings who have witnessed the capture of their family and friends. While walking and searching for food, they find an abandoned zoo, with talking animals. That’s all I’ll reveal. You NEED to read this beautiful story. It will change your life.
The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (ages 8 – 12)
I LOVE this fantastically developed historical fiction story for several reasons – the girl-centric history is really interesting (and empowering), the characters are so well-developed you feel as if you know them, and the plot is a grand adventure! The author imagines a friendship between Ada Byron, genius daughter of Lord Byron and the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science-fiction author who almost could have been friends in real life but for about a decade of years. Mary joins Ada to study with Ada’s tutor and the duo form a detective agency. In this first adventure, Mary and Ada learn about another historical figure who invented hypnotism and solve the case of a stolen heirloom.
The Girl in the Torch by Robert Sharenow (ages 8 – 12)
I admit to not liking the cover and being reluctant to read this book because of that. (I know, shouldn’t judge and all that . . . ) Luckily, I did read it and it was a great book. The Girl in the Torch is a touching middle-grade historical fiction novel that follows an orphaned girls journey to America and struggle to stay. For awhile she hides out in the Statue of Liberty, then the watchman finds her and lets her stay at his boarding house. This is very well-written and shows a glimpse into the history of immigrants. I didn’t want to put it down once!
Wild Boy and the Black Terror by Rob Lloyd Jones (ages 8 – 12)
This second book in the series makes me so eager to read the first book — it’s really a fascinating story with it’s absolutely excellent character development and an intriguing plot. Wild Boy is literally covered in fur — yes, literally. He now lives with the Gentlemen who rescued he and his best friend, Clarissa, from the circus and the crazed Londoners who believed him to be a dangerous murderer. The Queen of England ask Wild Boy to solve the mystery of a most frightening terror that scares people to death — again, seemingly literally. Is is a really a demon’s curse or something more human at work?
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams Garcia (ages 8 – 12)
It’s a typical southern summer in Alabama 1969 and Delphine and her two sisters are visiting their extended family. Daily life means minding their grandmother, Big Ma, a crotchety matriarch, getting extra loving from their much sweeter great-grandma, Ma Charles, hanging out with neighbor, JimmyTrotter, and working at the tricky business of growing up. No matter what happens, a Vonetta-stealing tornado included, this is a strong family that loves each other and God with all they’ve got. It’s a powerful book that transports you into Delphine’s world, if only for the summer.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III, illustrated by James Mark Yellowhawk (ages 8 – 12)
Jimmy McClean’s grandfather takes him on a road trip where he shares the stories of Crazy Horse — his life and battles up to his death. They travel from the Dakotas (home of the Lakota) to Wyoming and other places significant to Crazy Horse’s life. I thought that following the duo traveling to the sites and then hearing the grandfather’s mesmerizing stories made this book easy to follow and very interesting. I actually wish they had included a map so I could picture it in my head and maybe take my own kids. It’s a sobering true story and one that will stick with me.
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan (ages 9 – 12)
The writing, plot development, and characterization are masterfully done but I honestly think this should have been a shorter novel. It’s broken up into three shorter stories because the three stories tie together at the end but wow it was long — almost 600 pages. That being said, this book takes place during different years around the second world war time period. The thread that ties the characters together is a most magical harmonica. (I loved that!) I do recommend this book, it was lovely and very well-written.
The Watcher by Joan Hiatt Harlow (ages 9 – 12)
American-raised Wendy’s Nazi-spy mom takes her to live in Germany during World War II. Wendy doesn’t even speak the language, and feels overwhelmed with her mother’s zeal for Hitler. Her mom gives her a bracelet to symbolize “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” At first it seems to be a good plan considering all the horrible things that might be happening. But when Wendy starts working at Lebensborn, the place where only Aryan children live — many who were forcibly removed from their parents — she learns from her new friend, a Jehovah Witness, that maybe this philosophy isn’t right and that you should stand up for what’s right. I couldn’t put this book down — it made my stomach hurt to learn about the Lebensborn, and wanted to know more because the author didn’t go into too much detail about the horror of this place, thankfully since it’s a children’s book. I really, really love this book for middle grade readers – it’s so good! (And don’t worry, Wendy escapes Germany for America in the end.)
The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan by Patricia Bailey (ages 8 – 12)
13-year-old Kit is angry about everything. It’s 1905 in a Nevada gold mining town, her mother’s just died of the flu, her classmates and teachers mock her, and her dad gets murdered by his mining boss. Kit is determined to bring Mr. Granger, the mine boss, to justice. Her grit lands her a job at a newspaper where she can investigate more about the mine and Mr. Granger’s misdeeds. The author skillfully sets the historical stage with interesting details like the only motor car’s constant flat tires. Smart writing, an interesting plot, plus a compelling main character combine to make this a great read.
Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine by Caroline Starr Rose (ages 8 – 12)
Jasper chases after his older brother Melvin who is sailing to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush. The brothers, once reunited, start out with nothing except determination. Their goal is to figure out the clues to a sure-thing gold mine. But nothing is easy, danger from the harsh Alaskan climate and other miners surround them, not to mention the constant hunger and worry. This is a worthwhile adventure with interesting history and appealing characters with gumption.
Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson (ages 8 – 12)
You might ask yourself, why read one more book about the unjust life for African Americans in the southern United States. Here’s why: This author has her own story, her own style of writing, and masterfully brings the two together in a story that makes the history of the 1950s in Mississippi come to life through her compelling characters. Rose Lee Carter is a girl who is raised by her grandma and father, works in the cotton fields, and is best friends with the preacher’s son. She dreams of leaving Mississippi for the north like her mom and aunt, especially after the white men who killed Emmett Till are found not-guilty in a real-life historical trial.
The Dagger Quick by Brian Eames (ages 8 – 12)
Young boy, Kitto, must go with his pirate uncle when his dad is murdered. The story is suspenseful as Kitto tries to discover his family’s secret history and survive life among pirates. I loved the action!
Melody: No Ordinary Sound by Denise Lewis Patrick, illustrated by Juliana Kolesova
This story is set in the 1960s in Detroit, Michigan during the times of the Civil Rights Movement. Melody is excited to sing a solo for her church inspired by inspirational words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When a horrible tragedy happens in the South, Melody feels like she has no voice. How will she overcome the unfairness and unjustness to sing once again?
The Watson’s Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (ages 8 – 12)
The Watson family drives from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama to visit relatives in the 1960s where they hope to set Bryon straight. The car trip builds up to the deeply disturbing church bombing where Grandma goes to church. This is a moving story filled with hope and humor. Newbery Award Winner.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (ages 8 – 12)
Sent to live with the mother that abandoned them, the sisters are in Oakland, California for the summer where they go to a Black Panther day camp and try to connect with their mother. Newbery Honor Book.
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine (ages 8 – 12)
Two good friends are separated by segregation in 1958 Arkansas. But their friendship is becoming dangerous with the KKK, phone threats, and a police force that does nothing.
P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man by Carolinen Lawrence (ages 8 – 12)
12-year old P.K., a private-eye, lives in the wild west and is a brilliant individual who is hired to solve the murder. P.K.’s characteristics will make adults think of Aspergers – brilliant, prefers to be alone, collects cigars. It’s an entertaining mystery with a fun historical bent.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (ages 8 – 12)
Lowry does an excellent job at writing about WWII in a way that isn’t too scary or inappropriate for kids. Annemarie’s best friend hides Annemarie’s Jewish family. The tension is high as the Nazis are everywhere looking for Jews or Jewish sympathizers. It’s challenging to hide knowing that every day you could be caught and sent to a death camp. Finally, the family escapes to Sweden where they will be safe from the Nazis.
The Quilt Walk by Sandra Dallas (ages 8 – 12)
I’m a big fan of Sandra Dallas’ adult historical fiction so I couldn’t wait to read this book for middle grade readers. It didn’t disappoint. The story follows Emmy and her parents from Illinois to Colorado by covered wagon. Dallas does a great job of character development, so we become just as concerned as Emmy when we see a fellow traveler being mistreated by her husband. We worry when Emmy finds a dog – and hope her father lets her keep it. I found this absolutely engaging and informative about the historical period, too.
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban (ages 9 – 12)
It would be hard as an author not to vilify this country for sending thousands of Japanese Americans to prison camps. But this author doesn’t. She just skillfully shares the evocative story of 10-year old Manami of Washington State, who is sent with her family to a dusty camp, leaving behind her beloved dog, Yujiin, and everything else they owned. Devastated, Manami stops speaking. Her story is painful, sprinkled with hope, and all too real. Please read this with your kids– it’s important.
Chains, Forge, Ashes (Seeds of America) by Laurie Halse Anderson (ages 10+)
I’m writing this after just closing Ashes, the final book of this historical fiction series about the time of the Revolutionary War as experienced through the eyes of an African-American girl named Isabel and her friend, Cuzon. Enslaved, escaped, or enlisted, these two are determined survivors. The writing is amazing and the stories, captivating. I love and highly recommend these books!
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly (ages 8 – 12)
This is a wonderful adventure, fantasy, mystery, historical story of three children in medieval France who are being hunted by the King. The storytelling is brilliant & it tackles big issues such as faith, God, prejudice, friendship, and familyThe writing, the story, the characters, and the themes all pack a big punch adding up to a compelling novel that will make you think deeply and leave you better for reading it.
The Midnight Tunnel: A Suzanna Snow Mystery by Angie Frazier (ages 8 – 12)
My 12-year old says this is a GREAT mystery. Set in 1905 in New Brunswick, Suzanna works at her family’s inn. When a young guest disappears, Suzanna’s detective uncle arrives for the search. But, Zanna finds clues of her own that lead her to think there is more than one mystery going on.
Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart (ages 8 – 12)
After losing his entire family, the last straw happens when his horse is sold without his permission. Joseph begins a journey to find and buy back his horse, Sarah, the only family he has left in the world. Along the way he develops a friendship with a Chinese boy who speaks no English, wins a horse race, helps deliver a baby, and fights an outlaw. Excellent writing — I couldn’t put this book down. Plus, I grew up where this story takes place, right near Yakima, Washington, so it held special meaning for me.
Gladiator School Book 1 Blood Oath by Dan Scott (ages 8 – 12)
The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan (ages 8 – 12)
Neil’s Aunt Kate, based on a real historical figure, works as the first female detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. She has no interest in letting newly orphaned Neil stay with her so Neil determines to become invaluable to Kate. The history, as well as the intrigue of each new case, kept me highly entertained.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (ages 8 – 12)
Written in verse, Woodson shares her experience of growing up as an African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s. Newbery Honor Book.
Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood (ages 8 – 12)
It’s the summer of 1964 in Mississippi. Glory’s older sister ignores her, things are awkward with her best friend, Frankie, and the town is in an uproar about the segregated pool, closing it down for “repairs”.
The Outcasts: Brotherband Chronicles, Book 1 by John Flanagan (ages 8 – 12)
I’m a new John Flanagan fan — this was such a well-written story of a young, father-less boy named Hal whose mom was an Araluen slave. To survive the town’s prejudice against him, he is helped by another outcast, his dead father’s former shipmate, a one-armed recovering drunk. When it’s time for his Brotherband training, he becomes the leader of a rag-tag group of boys. They’ll complete against better, stronger teams who don’t always play fair . The stakes are high and Hal must win even with his group of misfits.
Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier by Ying Chang Compestine and Vinson Composting (ages 8 – 12)
If your kids aren’t interested in Chinese history, they will be after reading this novel. Ming lives in rural communist China with his father, who finds artifacts for the museum. A discovered terra-cotta soldier who comes to life and befriends Ming. They must work together to protect the soldiers and Emperor Qin’s tomb. I like how the authors wove in historical photos and information. It sounds like a silly premise for a story but it worked — and was very good.
The Chess Queen Enigma A Stoker & Holmes Novel by Colleen Gelason (ages 13+)
I thoroughly enjoyed this 2nd book in the Stoker and Holmes series. The two compelling main characters, Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes, become entrenched in the mystery of a missing chess queen that is thought to unlock treasures and power.
The Boy Who Dared by Susan Cambell Bartlett (ages 12+)
Based on a true story, this is about a Polish – Morman boy who decided to stand up to the Nazis — he sneaks an illegal radio to listen to the BBC news and writes it up, distributing flyers. It’s sad but inspirational.
Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen (ages 13+)
Set in historical Rome we follow the life of a slave abandoned by his mother in the mines. After he accidentally discovers Julius Cesar’s magical amulet and it’s protector griffin, he’s in constant danger. It’s an exciting adventure with an unexpected revelation that will have you eager for the next book. (Yes, it’s a cliff-hanger.)
Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, the Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau (ages 8 – 12)
Based on the true story of a plantation slave named Gabriel, this story imagines his childhood growing up with the master’s son, learning the blacksmith trade, and later planning a rebellion. It gives readers a glimpse into the grim realities of slavery and growing up in the most difficult of circumstances.
Calico Girl by Jerdine Nolen (ages 8 – 12)
Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet (ages 10+)
I was hooked by this mysterious plot about a boy named Noah whose parents one day tell him they’re moving to East Germany, he has a different name and birthdate, and they must never talk about what’s going on or what they really feel. It’s 1989. Once there, Noah who is now called Jonah meets a sad little girl named Claudia. While there are some plot holes that are never addressed, this story gives us a glimpse into the fearful environment of this communist country just before the Berlin Wall comes down.
Young Adult Chapter Books: Historical Fiction
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen (ages 13+)
Overnight a fence with armed guards divides Berlin. Gerta is stuck on the east side with her brother and mother while their father and other brother already escaped to the west. Greta’s father gets her a message that set her on a course to dig a tunnel to the west. It’s dangerous but Greta’s determined. Really interesting!
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (ages 12+)
I was hooked from the first page — and highly recommend this novel. This is a well-written story about a real life historical event when Philadelphia was the U.S. capital city and yellow fever killed thousands of citizens. We follow Mattie, a brave young girl, who struggles to survive in an abandoned and diseased city. She’s lost her grandfather to looters and doesn’t know where her mother has gone but fortunately finds help from their coffeehouse’s former cook, Eliza.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (ages 13+)
Part historical (think Rome) and part fantasy, Elias and Laia live in a world that enslaves them both in different ways — Elias to fight and Laia to serve and spy. This is an epic page-turner with lots of mystery, action, and a hint of romance.
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee (ages 13+)
A slave girl and a Chinese immigrant girl flee west, disguising themselves as boys. Fortunately for them, three cowboys allow them to travel with them. We see the dangers of the Oregon Trail, racism, as well as the bonds of friendship in this beautiful historical book for young adults.
Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden (ages 13+)
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