Historical fiction was one of my favorite genres as a MG reader and it’s one of my favorite to write now. Here is a collection of new and recent historical books. In these turbulent times I’m finding comfort in seeing the many difficult things humanity has overcome in the past.
What the Eagle Sees: Indigenous Stories of Rebellion & Renewal
by Eldon Yellowhorn & Kathy Lowinger, Annik Press, 2019 This is non-fiction at its finest. Each chapter could be extended into an entire book but the authors have kept it concise and vivid with clear explanations, photographs of artifacts, frequent sidebars and maps. The collected stories of indigenous resistance to colonization and oppression is clearly and fairly portrayed. Their past and ongoing efforts at renewal and repair are inspiring. This should be required reading for every history teacher and will find a welcome place in the hearts of many history-loving students. Science teachers will also appreciate the care taken in describing how archeologist work to give evidence of historic events. This is the best non-fiction book I’ve read in a very long time!
Superman Smashes the Klan
by Gene Luen Yang art by Gurihiru Here’s a rarity, a graphic novel within the realm of historical fiction. Based on a radio show from 1946, it portrays Superman standing up for a Chinese American family who has moved out of Chinatown and into a Metropolis neighborhood. It has all the action and derring do you’d expect from a comic book but it also shows Superman coming to terms with his own status as an alien. Extensive back matter chronicles the history of the KKK, the role of comics in American culture and the treatment of Asian Americans during and after WWII. The Klan is often portrayed as operating only in the south and fueled solely by racial hatred. I appreciated the setting on the west coast where white supremecist organizations have a long history. I also appreciated it when the leader of the racist organization in the story is revealed to be more interested in milking his gullible membership for money than anything—an aspect of white supremicist’s groups that is often overlooked.
Never Caught, the story of Ona Judge, George & Martha Washington’s courageous slave who dared to run away
by Erica Armstrong Dunbar & Kathleen Van Cleve, Aladdin, 2019.
This is the young readers edition of the story of a slave in the George & Martha Washington household who escaped successfully and lived out her days in freedom. This is a balanced story that deals with the Washingtons as slave owners clearly without dwelling over much on violence or degradation. For example, for part of her life Ona was Martha Washington’s favorite slave and so had a room adjoining the Washington’s bedroom. The text says only that it was common for female slaves to be assaulted by their owners, without elaborating. This careful approach gives the reader the option to stop reading and ask for more context or move past the information that might be too overwhelming. There are primary source documents, a timeline, and extensive source notes.
Tooting my own horn here, like the above Never Caught, my title Last of the Name, is a finalist for the 2020 New York Historical Society History Book Prize. If you are a fan of historical fiction set in the US, this is a great place to look for solid titles year after year.
Last of the Name is about Danny and Kathleen, young orphaned Irish immigrants during the American Civil War. It encompasses the events of the Civil War Draft Riots, the most violent race riots in US history and a topic seldom addressed in either fiction or non-fiction. It also touches on the beginnings of vaudeville and the power of traditional ethnic music and dance to give an immigrant community strength and help them find each other in new surroundings.
I confess that I never wanted to be a writer when I was growing up but a career as a circus flyer held great appeal. Orphan Eleven
by Jennifer Choldenko is the book my 11 year old self would have loved. It follows the adventures of four orphans who escape the worryingly named Home for Friendless Children to find work and community in a traveling tent circus. It features a character who is an elective mute and takes place in 1939.
Saving Savanah by Tanya Bolden takes a look at the turbulent year immediately after the First World War through the eyes of a young woman from the African American upper class.The story touches on class conflict within the African American community, womens’ suffrage, and the ravages of Jim Crow laws and the influenza epidemic. Eye-opening reading for older MG readers.
by Linda Sue Park travels the same time and territory as the well-known Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This story follows Hanna Edmonds a Chinese American 15 year old who moves east from California with her widowed father to a small town in South Dakota. There she strives against prejudice to complete her schooling and open a dressmaking shop with her father. Period detail and a middle grade sensibility make this a perfect choice for 9-14 year old readers.