QuickPicks: Historical Fiction that Doesn’t Seem Like Historical Fiction

At least once a year, some poor, defeated looking kid will come in with a list of assigned historical fiction titles. I don’t know, but could any two words sound less appealing to a 10-year-old than “historical fiction”? My first goal is to rename this genre. To, uh….hmmmm. This is hard. If you have any spiffy suggestions, let me know.

My second goal is to identify and keep a list of historical fiction titles that are appealing to a wide range of readers- both voracious and reluctant. Good historical fiction shouldn’t feel like non-fiction ‘cleverly’ disguised as fiction. The character development, the plot lines, the setting, should be just as vibrant and engaging as any work of pure fiction.

Just plucking titles off my shelves this morning- here’s a quicklist of historical fiction that doesn’t quite feel like “historical fiction”:

Our House by Pam Conrad….. Each chapter features a story from a different decade- starting in the 1940’s and ending in the 1990’s about a child growing up in Levittown, Long Island.  The 10th anniversary edition features beautiful illustrations by Brian Selznick.  The first person narratives, the evocative setting (especially for native Long Islanders), and Selznick’s almost kinetic illustrations have allowed this book to age well. 

First Test: Book 1 of the Protector of the Small Quartet by Tamora Pierce….. Tamora Pierce was one of those authors I knew about, could recommend to certain readers, but had never actually read myself.  I know- bad, bad librarian!  A new paperback copy of First Test came across my desk and I thought the cover art was so lovely and intriguing that I had to read it.  (I’m still not sure what that fabric is. Gauze?  Tulle? )  Although the story takes place in the fantastic land of Tortall, Pierce nevertheless manages to weave in some historical references to medieval life.  Granted, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one as a school assignment- there just isn’t enough fact to balance the fantasy- but for kids uber-resistant to historical fiction, this series may eventually lead them to Crispin or The Midwife’s Apprentice.  Speaking of…….

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman….. In medieval England, a young homeless girl is given shelter by a short-tempered midwife.  Cushman’s plucky, independent, and utterly determined (stubborn) female leads, quirky supporting characters, and tightly packed action allows her to weave in tremendous amounts of historical fact without sacrificing plot development or readability. 

Chronicles of Ancient Darkness Book One: Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver….. This book was so not what I was expecting.  I had picked it up thinking it was going to be a werewolf story.  It’s not.  It is, however, pretty awesome.  It is set in the Stone Age (I think that may be a first for children’s historical fiction.  No?) and follows the adventures of a young boy and an orphaned wolf cub on their journey to save their clan.  Oh, and there’s a bear possessed by an evil spirit.  Need I say more?

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman….. What can’t Karen Cushman do?  Francine Green is a 13-year-old girl living in Hollywood in 1949.  She wishes she were a glamourous movie star, but she can’t quite seem to find her voice when it matters.  Her world gets shaken up when she meets the new girl in school, Sophie Bowman- who embodies everything Francine is not and everything she wants to be. 

The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton….. An oldie but a goodie.  Part mystery, part history, part spooky old house story.  I would say because of the length and vocabulary, it would work best with a voracious, as opposed to reluctant, reader. 

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz….. An orphan girl child, a couple of con-women psychics, and an eerie, intimate glimpse into the Spiritualism beliefs of the early 20th century.  This one is fast-paced and absorbing, and features some of the best villians you’ll love to hate since the aunts in James and the Giant Peach.  This never feels like “historical fiction” and Schlitz brings New England in 1909 to life. 

Trouble Don’t Last by Shelley Pearsall….. The tale of two slaves- a young boy and a very old man- making their escape from the deep South to Canada on the Underground Railroad.  Quick moving and suspenseful- and packed (packed!) with historical detail.


8 thoughts on “QuickPicks: Historical Fiction that Doesn’t Seem Like Historical Fiction

  1. I was just thinking about historical fiction the other day–don’t remember why. But now I want to come up with a hip alternative name for the genre . . .

  2. Pingback: Library & » Library & Literary Miscellany

  3. Pingback: Library & Literary Miscellany Links of the Week » Library & Literary Miscellany

  4. “It is set in the Stone Age (I think that may be a first for children’s historical fiction. No?)”

    Fire Hunter, by Jim Kjelgaard. An expanded version, The Hunter Returns, with additional chapters by David Drake, is also available.

  5. Have you read Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson? Or Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko? Both would be great for reluctant readers.

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