The best middle grade novels that make history leap off the page

Who am I?

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is truer.” Frederic Raphael. When I was a child, a relative often told stories of a cowboy gear clad cousin who visited our New York family from Texas and claimed he’d once served in Pancho Villa’s army. These tales were the spark that eventually led to Viva, Rose! and my interest in storytelling as well. There’s something about the combination of lived experience and fiction that I find irresistibly engaging and exciting. I’ve worked as a journalist, ghostwriter, and editor, but my happiest happy place is writing and reading stories birthed from a molten core of real life.

I wrote...

Viva, Rose!

By Susan Krawitz,

Book cover of Viva, Rose!

What is my book about?

When Rose’s brother left their El Paso family, he told them he was heading east, to Brooklyn. But he lied, Rose discovers, when she spots a newspaper photo showing Abe standing with the notorious Pancho Villa and his army!

He must return before their parents find out, but her attempt at contact backfires, and she’s kidnapped by Villa's revolutionaries. In the group of ragtag freedom fighters in Villa’s desert hideaway, she meets an impassioned reporter, sharp-shooting sisters with a secret past, and Dorotea, Villa's tyrannical young charge. As Rose waits for Abe to rescue her, she learns to lie, hide, and ride like a bandit. And when that rescue doesn't come, she’s forced to discover the true meaning of freedom, and what she's willing to risk to get hers back. 

The books I picked & why

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Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna

By Alda P. Dobbs,

Book cover of Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna

Why this book?

This book was inspired by the author’s family stories of the Mexican Revolution. When government armies destroy twelve-year-old Petra’s village and home, she’s forced to lead her grandmother, younger sister, and baby brother through the trackless desert to survive. They encounter kindly monks, ruthless federales, and a band of Villistas who want Petra to join them, but she never veers from her determination to take her family to safety and freedom. This is a powerful read, and I’m thankful and appreciative for the insight it offers into war’s effect on helpless citizens, and the enormous courage, strength, and determination required of every refugee forced to flee their homeland.

One Crazy Summer

By Rita Williams-Garcia,

Book cover of One Crazy Summer

Why this book?

My favorite MG historical novels all seem to have certain things in common. A setting that offers a poignant slice of history. Challenging family dynamics. Protagonists called to be stronger than they ever imagined. One Crazy Summer checks every box and adds a bonus of bittersweet humor and an empathy-rich plot. My heart ached for all of the characters: the little sisters, the Black Panthers, Big Mama and the father, the mother who chose art over mothering, and Delphine, stuck in the middle of them all. A book like this, one that’s able to offer a deeply-immersive experience of slipping your own skin and for a while, wearing someone else’s, feels like a rare, enlightening, incredible gift.

A Slip of a Girl

By Patricia Reilly Giff,

Book cover of A Slip of a Girl

Why this book?

I’m a bit of a Celtophile but hadn’t heard of the Irish Land Wars of the early 1800s before encountering this book. In short: after The Great Famine, poor crop yields forced tenant farmers into a desperate fight to stay on farmland owned by absentee owners. Anna, the book’s protagonist, isn’t a typical mighty-girl heroine, but has a fierce love for her family, and the farm that was theirs long before their landlord claimed it. The author offers her story in perfect verse, weaving in bits of her family’s own history and historic photos as well. Anna’s a girl who knew what she wanted and never stopped believing it could and should be hers until it was. That’s a lesson all children, including this grown one, can really, really use.

The War I Finally Won

By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley,

Book cover of The War I Finally Won

Why this book?

The title offers an important hint that the focus isn’t solely on exterior events. In this sequel to The War That Saved My Life, World War II still rages across the English countryside, though Ada’s actually emotionally safer than she’d ever been when living with her mother. But memories of that time still give her terrible nightmares, and when a crisis makes her feel like they’re coming true, she discovers that there’s a big difference between fear and what you do with it. The horses, the lushly-depicted historical landscape, and a truly relatable and beautifully-wrought battle with the wars we carry inside make this a book I want to read over and over.

We Dream of Space

By Erin Entrada Kelly,

Book cover of We Dream of Space

Why this book?

I was gutting part of an old house when the radio announced the Space Shuttle Challenger’s explosion. Suddenly, I was gutted too. This devastating historical event offers an emotional center to a sensitively-told tale of a family experiencing a more insidious kind of destruction. The three Nelson Thomas siblings orbit elliptically around endlessly bickering parents. Cash isn’t good at anything, Fitch’s temper is growing hard to control, and quiet Bird is the family’s logic board. As her science class counts down together to the shuttle launch, Bird hatches dreams of going to space herself someday. My favorite part of this wonderful book? When the launch goes so horribly wrong, it’s her brothers who help her pick up the pieces of her dreams and start to redraw the landscape of family.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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