The best historical fiction for young readers featuring journeys

Glen Huser Author Of Firebird
By Glen Huser

The Books I Picked & Why

I Am David

By Anne Holm, L.W. Kingsland

Book cover of I Am David

Why this book?

When I decided to build a narrative around a teen trying to reunite with the only family he has left, I Am David, a novel I loved when I studied and then taught Children’s Literature, was often in my thoughts. David, the young boy in the story has been interned in a dreadful POW camp in Bulgaria during WW II. Once he escapes, he treks across Europe in search of his mother who he thinks may be alive somewhere in Denmark. It is a journey that helps him regain some trust in mankind even in the presence of evil at his heels. When we watch newscasts today and see the haunted faces of children in refugee camps, David’s story continues to speak powerfully to us.

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The Gospel Truth

By Caroline Pignat

Book cover of The Gospel Truth

Why this book?

This verse novel primarily sets the stage for a crucial journey Phoebe, a sixteen-year-old slave, living on a Virginia tobacco plantation in 1858, decides to make that will take her north to freedom. I like to write poetry myself and have favourites among verse novels that have proliferated in recent years. This is one of them. The poetry here is beautifully-crafted and underlines the power of language Phoebe has discovered, having taught herself to read. Pignat alternates viewpoints as she presents a cast of characters that includes a Canadian doctor posing as a birdwatcher who helps slaves escape. Bird imagery is a motif throughout the book—so apt in detailing a flight to a new world.

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Book cover of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

Why this book?

It amuses me that I’m now old enough to have lived at a time young readers now would consider “historical”. Growing up in Canada in the 1950s and ’60s, the Civil Rights movement in the States seemed distant but, in coming years as I read books about it, literature made it immediate. None more so than this chronicle of the journey a somewhat madcap family makes from their home in Michigan to Birmingham where Grandma Sands lives. The story is narrated by fourth-grader Kenny but his older brother Byron, who attracts trouble like static electricity, figures prominently. Much of the novel is laugh-out-loud funny until Kenny nearly drowns in a river and little sister Joey goes to Sunday school the day the Baptist Church is bombed.

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Days of Terror

By Barbara Claassen Smucker

Book cover of Days of Terror

Why this book?

I’ve read this book several times and I don’t believe I ever manage to get through it without shedding a few tears. Have tissues handy. A Mennonite family living in Ukraine in the 1920s has their village destroyed by Russian soldiers. The central character, ten-year-old Peter Neufeld, makes a decision to help his older brother Otto escape after he’s participated in counter-attacks, going against the family’s adherence to passive resistance. The Neufelds decide to leave a land of oppression and move to Canada where they will make an effort to assimilate rather than live apart as they have in Ukraine. It’s a journey filled with challenges and heartbreak, but always with the strength of love of family and humanity as a sustaining factor.

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Journey to the River Sea

By Eva Ibbotson, Kevin Hawkes

Book cover of Journey to the River Sea

Why this book?

I’m always on the lookout for fiction in which the writing itself is dazzling. Eva Ibbotson’s prose is truly something to savour and this novel is the jewel in her crown. Maia, an orphan, is sent from England to stay with distant relatives, the Carters, in Manaus, Brazil. The family is weird and mean but Maia finds two young friends—Clovis, an actor, and Finn, who is partly a Brazilian native, but heir to his British grandfather’s fortune. Clovis longs to return to England and Finn happily changes places with him. Finn and Maia journey down the Amazon (the “River Sea”) to live with his Xanti people. Expect humour, high adventure, and a richly-detailed look at life in early 20th century Brazil.

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