The best young adult historical fiction books about growing up in the racially charged Jim Crow South

Trudy Krisher Author Of Spite Fences
By Trudy Krisher

The Books I Picked & Why

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

Although I was a child of the Jim Crow South, this is the first book I ever read that brought home the cruelty of the injustice suffered by African-Americans in a world similar to that in which I grew up. What I admire most is Lee’s use of young Scout as the narrator, for her innocence and childhood grasp of truth makes for a brilliant ironic contrast to the racism that abounds in Macomb County. Although her portrait of Atticus Finch may be a bit unrealistically heroic, that depiction is chastened by Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman. This is the very best YA American novel of historical fiction ever written.


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The Nickel Boys

By Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

Why this book?

Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Florida, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reform school, the Nickel Academy. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel appealed to me for three reasons: (1) because I was only glancingly aware of the horrors of these nightmarish reform schools found not just in Tallassee, the setting of The Nickel Boys, but elsewhere across the country. (2) because my heart went out to sweet, naïve Elwood and his friend Turner, another delinquent who, in contrast to Elwood, is entirely cynical. (3) because, as the terrifying events at Nickel and the tension between these misfit-friends intensifies, the story culminates in a decision with historical repercussions. This is what is known as a YA/Adult crossover more appropriate for older youth because of its mature themes.


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The Lions of Little Rock

By Kristin Levine

The Lions of Little Rock

Why this book?

I had long been familiar with the events of Little Rock Central High, having read books, articles, and online accounts of the attempt to integrate this Arkansas school. I found The Lions of Little Rock an accurate and compelling novel that provides young adults with a masterful introduction to how attempts to integrate the Jim Crow South impacted its children. Built on the seminal events to integrate Arkansas’s Little Rock High in 1958, the friendship of young Marlee and Liz portrays how segregation damages not just communities, but friendships. Young adults will be pulled in by Levine’s blend of plot, humor, and emotion to make this a memorable work of historical fiction that may inspire young readers to engage in the cause of civil rights. 


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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

By Mildred D. Taylor

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Why this book?

Threats thunder across the young lives of Stacey, Christopher-John, and Cassie Logan. It is 1933 during the Depression in rural Mississippi. The novel, part of Taylor’s Logan Family Saga, is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Cassie. Through a plot covering the landscape of the racist Jim Crow South, the Logan children face threats involving property rights, sharecropping, substandard schools, racial epithets, servitude, and the prospect of “night men” bent on lynching. 

I admire the way this tightly plotted Newbery-winning novel offers a comprehensive portrayal of childhood in Jim Crow Mississippi, ringing with compelling truths about white-and-Black relationships. In addition, I love the way Taylor creates concrete details to bring the setting to life: peanuts roasting over hickory fires, red mud oozing between toes after a sucking rain, schools that were a makeshift conglomeration of throwaway desks, paper, and blackboards. I’m in awe of the way Taylor helps you see, feel, and smell the rural South in this deserved classic of Young Adult historical fiction.


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The Bluest Eye

By Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye

Why this book?

This work of historical fiction was Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s first novel, published in 1970. I was a newspaper book reviewer at the time, and I read it for my column. I instantly recognized Morrison’s early genius for poetic language and unflinching truth-telling, which blossomed into her mature masterpiece Beloved. The story captivated me, for I ached for the struggles of Pecola Breedlove, an African-American girl struggling not only to grow up but to survive racism during the Depression. Most moving to me were her prayers for blue eyes, underscoring how standards of physical beauty can damage a young person’s self-image. 

This is a YA/Adult crossover novel with strong themes of brutality and sexuality, so it is most appropriate for mature youth.


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