The Pains and Perils of Historical Middle Grade Fiction

i survivedfiggavijohnnynightjohnjane yolen

Everyone who works at RoscoeBooks is an adult (I think). However, I spend a lot of my day reading, researching, and recommending children’s literature, from the most bizarre board books to the latest Harry Potter/ Percy Jackson wannabe middle grade readers. You could say it keeps me young. But honestly, most days it keeps me frustrated.

It’s not that I don’t love great young literature. I do, often more than new fiction. Some of my favorite books were discovered as a 10 year old, seeking in books the adventure and orphan-ness I lacked in my real life.

Instead, frustration sets in when I’m trying to find a specific genre for a certain type of reader…and keep coming up empty handed. I feel like a Western settler paning for gold, only to realize my claim had dried up long ago. In case I need to further explain this metaphor, I’ve been watching a lot of Deadwood.

Still, the message remains.

I cannot tell you how many times I have a parent come up with a pained look in their eyes, before they utter the following words: My kid’s just not a reader.

So what’s a parent, or a bookseller for that matter, to do?

Well, with a little probing, you can typically put reluctant readers into two camps: readers who need a frantic, fast-paced hilarious caper to get them back on track and out of the slow, emotional novel doldrums OR

…readers who need a great piece of historical fiction.

Now, at this point, you might be shaking your head. “I’ve tried this,” you say, “and all they want to read is Weird but True, no. 45.”

Well, the great and challenging part of historical fiction is that these novels are just as specific and unique as their reader’s tastes. If they’re into World War II novels, they probably won’t feel compelled to stick with Jacqueline Woodson’s highly-acclaimed Brown Girl Dreaming. The wrong historical setting can be just as negative a reading experience as anything they’ve tried, and disliked, before.

And this says nothing of how much bad historical middle grade fiction there is out there. Just because WWII is so hot right now (haven’t we all read All the Light We Cannot See yet?) doesn’t mean that every novel set during WWII is going to be compelling or even well-written!

The thing is that as your reader starts to believe they’re “just not a reader,” the more the next book they read is going to become of vital importance. Ask any parent of a former non-reader and they’ll tell you the same thing…

“It took one book, and suddenly, they couldn’t get enough.”

So here are a few historical fiction middle grade novels that just might turn your non-reader into a bookworm just like you!

The I Survived Series by Lauren Tarshis

With everything from the Japanese Tsunami to the Destruction of Pompeii, consider this 11 part (and growing) series the gateway drug to exciting historical fiction. These tales are told through the eyes of a young boy who lived during the time periods if a disaster, war, or otherwise devastating event. And though I wouldn’t hate to see a young girl spearhead the next installment, these are great, manageable stories for early to more advanced readers. Plus, the latest addition is about the Chicago Fire!

Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick

Homer P. Figg is about as hilarious an orphan protagonist as you’re going to find. Add to that a handful of Civil War battles, a search for a brother, and more than a few spies, scallywags, and mean uncles, and this novel sparkles, both as fiction and historical interest. I love Philbrick’s writing style: it allows early readers access to some heavy subject matter without making a big deal about it.

Anything by Avi. Period.

Avi is the Madonna of middle grade historical literature. He’s worked on a number of eyewitness-esque books that jump around between historical time periods. If your reader is into battlefields and wars, I recommend Avi’s The Fighting Ground which takes place during the Revolutionary War. If your reader likes the intrigue without the battles, I recommend Iron Thunder: the Battle Between the Monitor & the Merimac all about a young boy forced to work in a metal yard on a ship made of Iron after his father is killed in the Union army.

But now for something completely different (and completely NEW), I totally recommend Avi’s latest: Catch you Later, Traitor. If you need any encouragement besides the title (c’mon), this is the story of a young boy growing up in New York in the 50s whose father is accused of being a Communist. If you guessed terror, intrigue, and some hard truths about fear, you would be right!

Johnny Tremain: A Story of Boston in Revolt by Esther Forbes

The one. The only. Johnny Tremain. Most of you already know about Esther Forbes classic middle grade novel about the start of the Revolutionary war in Boston so I’m not going to harp on it. Needless to say, this is a classic addition to the canon of middle grade historical fiction.

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

My love for Jane Yolen knows no bounds, and this middle grade historical novel is no exception. A hard-hitting look at our memories of the holocaust. A Young girl, who is pretty much over listening to her grandparents tell her stories about WWII at Passover seder, is transported back to just about the worst place you could possibly be transported back to: a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. A hard read, but an important one that your young reader will never be able to say doesn’t matter.

Nightjohn by Gary Paulson

Gary Paulson didn’t just write Hatchet (although it’s such a good book, he could have just thrown his hands up in the air, proclaiming himself the king of Middle Grade and none of us would disagree!). He also wrote this touching tale of a young slave girl named Sarny who is inspired by a new slave to learn to read, despite the abuse and danger it threatens on her and all her compatriots. A riveting, emotional perspective on early American History.

Ivy Takes Care by Rosemary Wells

I might term this one “soft historical fiction.” It’s a fabulous book for animal enthusiasts as well as nonfiction readers. Ivy is growing up in a small renting lodge in 1949 Nevada where couples live for 6 weeks before leaving separately, if you get my drift. Divorce, early American style. Ivy becomes an apprentice for the town vet and learns to heal turtles, horses, dogs, and everything else all while handling a particularly annoying boy at camp. Sensitive, touching, with gorgeous illustrations.

Shooting Kabul by N. H Senzai

Because as my friend put it, “with kids, 9/11 IS history!” A family forced to flee Afghanistan resettles in California in the days leading up to September 11th, 2001. Fadi must find his sister, who was accidentally left in Afghanistan, and negotiate the difficult terrain of American racism, all while avoiding bullies and finishing homework.

Al Capone Does my Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

My fabulous fellow bookseller Katie (who I consider my personal Young Adult translator) reminded me of this fun, fast-paced alternative historical fiction. Set on Alcatraz Island in 1935, the story follows the family of Moose, whose dad, much to his chagrin, has accepted the position of electrician for the infamous prison. It’s only a matter of time until he has a run in with the even more infamous Al Capone…and a money-making scheme is born.

Okay, I could go on and on, but these are a few titles to start. If none of these hit the spot for your reluctant reader, give us a call or drop in and we’ll find them the perfect match for their nonfiction tastes. And ultimately, there are worse things they could be reading than “Weird but True.”

About Emily

Emily is a veteran in the customer service field, waiting tables, making coffee, renting videos (remember those?), and selling books since she was 15 years old. She enjoys glitter pens, drinking wine, critiquing horror movies, and planning vacations that may or may not come to fruition. Perhaps the most accurate thing ever said about Emily is that she is "crafty to a fault." She has a master's, but probably isn't using it the right way. When it comes to reading, Emily is always searching for narrative children's books, multidimensional board books, middle grade novels that make her cry and adult novels centered on concepts of home.
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