The best historical YA fiction books with an emphasis on fantastical history

The Books I Picked & Why

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Book cover of The Book Thief

Why this book?

A deservedly best-selling and beloved book. Bold, unique, yet somehow deeply familiar. In Munich, Germany, 1939, a foster girl waits out the war, finding bedraggled hope in the books she steals and shares with the Jewish man living in her foster parents’ basement. Death tells the story. And Death quickly, strangely, remarkably becomes a sympathetic character. The girl’s connection to books—her need to get outside the confines of her life—feels completely real. We have felt this way, too. What I particularly loved was the complexity and depth of even minor characters. A German townswoman might be both kind and unkind. A child both loveable and selfish. 

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Fever 1793

By Laurie Halse Anderson

Book cover of Fever 1793

Why this book?

A fast-moving plot, poignant drama, wonderful historical details. In Philadelphia, 1793, people first deny that yellow fever is back in town after a thirty-year absence. They try to blame the “dirty refugees” coming in by boat. No one wants their world to be suddenly overthrown like this, their lives torn apart, their parents and children and friends dying. But that kind of change is always possible and always pertinent. Fever 1793 brings this reality to life, with a completely believable main character and compelling verisimilitude.

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A Wish After Midnight

By Zetta Elliot

Book cover of A Wish After Midnight

Why this book?

Two Black teenagers in New York are thrown back in time to the Civil War era. Suddenly the similarities and differences of what it means to be Black in America are also thrown into relief, past and present both converging and clashing. Genna is our first-person narrator, and through her, we live fully in two worlds—one in which she struggles to go to college and leave behind the dangers of her Brooklyn neighborhood and one in which she struggles to stay alive in a volatile society which offers little support to the poor and vulnerable of any race.

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The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Book cover of The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel

Why this book?

A fresh approach, a strong character who is still open and vulnerable. This multiple-award-winning alternate history of women astronauts is set in a very realistic 1950s, with telling scenes and reflections about the treatment of Blacks and women. After a meteor strikes the Earth and warms the atmosphere, there’s a similar resonance re the urgency of global warming. This novel is at the adult edge of Young Adult, with some sex scenes and a certain glorification of drinking—both also very 1950s, especially among test pilots and astronauts. (Full disclosure: my own father was a test pilot who crashed in the X-2 in 1956.)

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Esperanza Rising

By Pam Muñoz Ryan

Book cover of Esperanza Rising

Why this book?

Richly detailed, inspirational, but not at all saccharine. This story of a young girl in a farm labor camp during the Great Depression has all the elements of a reverse fairytale. Esperanza enjoys the privileges of a Mexican “princess” until her wealthy family is forced into the drudgery of migrant work in California. A labor strike adds drama and punch. This book is at the young edge of Young Adult, showing the tremendous range of this genre—which, really, can and should be read by everyone.

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