The best historical fiction books for young readers

Shirley Vernick Author Of Ripped Away
By Shirley Vernick

Who am I?

I fell in love with historical fiction as a child, devouring books like Johnny Tremain and The Door in the Wall. While I always wanted to be a writer, and I always loved history, it took a special discovery to align my two interests. In college, I learned that “real history” had happened in my little hometown in northern New York in the 1920s. A small girl had gone missing, and local anti-Semites accused the Jewish community of murdering her for a ritual sacrifice. It got ugly. Decades later, this incident became the subject of my first novel, The Blood Lie.


I wrote...

Ripped Away

By Shirley Vernick,

Book cover of Ripped Away

What is my book about?

Ripped Away is based on the experiences of Jewish immigrants in London during the Jack the Ripper spree when xenophobia ran high. In the story, a fortune teller reveals that classmates Abe and Mitzy may be able to save someone’s life…and then she sweeps them to the slums of Victorian London in the middle of the Jack the Ripper hysteria. To get back home, they’ll have to figure out how the fortune teller’s prophecy is connected to one of history’s most notorious criminal cases. They’ll also have to survive the outpouring of hate toward Jewish refugees that the Ripper murders triggered.

National Jewish Book Award-winning author Anne Blankman calls Ripped Away “an engrossing adventure” that will make “readers clamor to find out what happens next.”

The books I picked & why

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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak,

Book cover of The Book Thief

Why this book?

A WWII/Holocaust book narrated by Death itself—now that’s getting real about totalitarianism and hate. This courageous novel is about even more than that too. It’s about the capacity of words to open up worlds and minds. It’s about the power of stories to forge relationships, build hope, and create change. In this way, The Book Thief manages to be life-affirming in the face of tragedy, something we could all use a dose of these days. It also offers a suspenseful, masterfully told plot that kept me turning the pages long after bedtime.


Tuck Everlasting

By Natalie Babbitt,

Book cover of Tuck Everlasting

Why this book?

This deceptively simple story, set in a small nineteenth-century town, explores one of the deepest thought experiments I can imagine: the prospect of earthly immortality. A little bit fairy tale, a little bit love story, Tuck Everlasting examines what it might really mean, in all its quotidian elements, to live forever.

I didn’t discover this novel until my kids were assigned to read it in fifth grade. Their classwork culminated in a day at our county courthouse, where the students held a mock trial for Mae Tuck, a character in the book who accidentally kills a man. Let me tell you, the kids were into it, and their involvement with the book’s themes warmed my heart.


When You Reach Me

By Rebecca Stead,

Book cover of When You Reach Me

Why this book?

I love the mystery and the sci-fi twist in this story, which is set in 1970s New York City. More than that, I love seeing my younger self on the pages. I’m right there as the main character dips her toes into grown-up realities like friendship complications, identity, and family drama. And did I mention that she’s reading one of my all-time favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time? What I love most, though, is being reminded how kids during that era—kids like me— had so much more autonomy than today. It was simply safer to roam the neighborhood without adult supervision then. I’m nostalgic for those days and lament that my own kids didn’t get that experience firsthand.


Refugee

By Alan Gratz,

Book cover of Refugee

Why this book?

In telling three stories set in different times and places, Gratz’s compelling, at times harrowing novel is both historical and contemporary, local and global. It’s a perfect way to illustrate the universal, timeless plight of the refugee. This subject is very close to my heart since three of my grandparents escaped to the U.S.—alone, as youngsters—due to anti-Semitic oppression in Russia. Heartbreakingly, one grandmother came here at age 12 when both of her parents were murdered in a pogrom.


Show Me a Sign

By Ann Clare LeZotte,

Book cover of Show Me a Sign

Why this book?

This engrossing book, inspired by the true history of a thriving deaf community on Martha's Vineyard in the early 1800s, triumphantly probes our perceptions of ability and disability. I’m always drawn to stories that explore what it means to be and/or feel different. Too many youngsters (and adults) equate being different with being less than, whether the different person is themselves or someone else. I don’t know if our species will ever fully break free of that false belief, but novels like this one go a long way toward achieving that goal.


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