30 Fascinating Historical Fiction Books for Middle School Readers

Was anyone else obsessed with reading historical fiction as a middle schooler? Like Marley Dias, I lamented that most of the historical fiction we read in school featured white boys going to war or bonding with their dogs (I’m looking at you Johnny Tremain and Where the Red Fern Grows). But at home, I devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s charming but problematic Little House books and the Scholastic Royal Diaries series. There is still a long way to go to diversifying all categories of books. But we are definitely seeing progress in the kinds of historical fiction books for middle school being published today. Here’s a list of thirty historical fiction books ranging from Medieval China to the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat.

Ancient History

Pharaoh’s Daughter by Julius Lester

The story of Moses, a Jewish boy born into slavery and eventually adopted by an Egyptian princess, is well-known. His sister Almah’s journey is less familiar. As she sacrifices again and again to protect her baby brother, Almah begins to feel more connected to the Egyptian gods than her own Hebrew religion. Told in alternating perspectives, this middle grade novel brings Ancient Egypt to life.

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney

Set against the backdrop of the events leading up to the Trojan War, Anaxandra is taken from her home as a young girl to serve as companion to King Nicander’s daughter, Princess Callisto. But when her new island is invaded by pirates and she is the only survivor, Anaxandra impersonates the princess and is taken in Menelaus, the king of Sparta, and his wife, the beautiful Helen.

Medieval History & The Renaissance

crystal ribbonThe Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

In Medieval China, twelve-year-old Li Jing is the daughter of a poor tea farmer. After a particularly bad harvest, she is sold as a bride to help her family survive. When she’s treated poorly by her new family and then sold into an even worse situation, Li Jing runs away with the help of a spider and a nightingale.

 

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, Illustrated by Hatem Aly

In a novel reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, three travelers meet in 1241 France and begin to tell the intersecting stories of three children on a quest with their holy greyhound. William is on a mission from his monastery. Jacob is a Jewish boy escaping persecution. And Jeanne is a peasant girl who must hide her prophetic visions. Together they will work to save a precious holy texts from being burned.

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras

One night in Medieval Scotland, Drest’s life is changed forever when knights invade her father’s castle. They capture her entire family. Drest is the only one they leave behind. Her father is a famous warrior and her five older brothers make up a renowned war-band, but now it is Drest’s turn to save them. But on her wild journey, her loyalty is challenged when she befriends a wounded invader and learns of the atrocities her brothers committed.

The Ugly One by Leanne Statland Ellis

In a fifteenth-century Incan village, twelve-year-old Micay is shunned by the other villagers for the prominent scar on her face. But when a stranger gives her a baby Macaw to care for, she begins to develop confidence. Her new self esteem leads her on a journey to become one of the shamans in Machu Picchu’s Sun City, working together to end the debilitating drought threatening their people.

Leonardo’s Shadow: Or, My Astonishing life as Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant by Christopher Grey

Giacomo works as a servant in the home of the master painter Leonardo da Vinci. The year is 1497. And da Vinci has been working on his painting Last Supper for almost two years. If he doesn’t finish—and get paid—soon, the shopkeepers of Milan may rise up against him because of his debt. But Giacomo comes up with a plan to save his master. He just needs to convince him to go along with it first.

The Second Mrs. Gioconda by E.L. Konigsburg

Another Leonardo da Vinci story! This one twists together mysterious narratives of the famous painter, an invented apprentice named Salai, and a Florentine duchess to answer the questions of why the most famous painter in Europe would paint the second wife of a relatively unknown merchant and why the painting became one of his most famous.

 

The 18th & 19th Centuries

Attack of the Turtle by Drew Carlson, Illustrated by David A. Johnson

Set against the backdrop of the American Revolutionary War, fourteen-year-old Nathan works with his older cousin David Bushnell to create the first submarine. But if Nathan really wants to help his people win independence he will need to overcome his fear of water and investigate his suspicions that his neighbors are Tory spies.

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Based on the actual 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia, fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook must deal with the death of her childhood playmate and the fever that’s overtaken the city down by the docks. At first the illness means prosperity to her family’s small business and makes Mattie dream about someday running her own coffee house. But then the fever spreads, threatening Mattie, her family, and the future she’s imagined for herself.

Juba! by Walter Dean Myers

Peppered with photographs and maps, this account of the life of dancer William Henry Lane mixes intensely researched fact with an imagined personal account. Lane, better known as “Master Juba,” was a famous black dancer in the U.S. and UK in the 1800s. His style of minstrel dancing got him noticed by Charles Dickens, helped him travel the world, and influenced today’s step dancing, jazz, and tap.

cover of birchbark house by louise erdrichThe Birchbark House  by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich wrote these stories about a seven-year-old Ojibwa girl named Omakayas in direct contrast to the pioneer life depicted in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. The only survivor of a small pox epidemic on her island, Omakayas is raised by a neighboring Ojibwa community on  Lake Superior’s Madeline Island. We see Omakayas and her adoptive family move through the daily life of four seasons, from tanning moose hides to encounter bear cubs and sharing ghost stories around the fire.

Clover Moon by jacqueline Wilson, Illustrated by Nick Sharrat

Clover is a young girl living in the London slums during the reign of Queen Victoria. Her stepmother despises her and beats her often, despite Clover’s help raising her younger half siblings. And her father is factory worker who becomes more and more distant. Clover’s imagination and love of drawing help her escape the drudgery of her daily life, until one day she meets a kind stranger with a plan to help her escape for good.

CaliCo Girl by Jerdine Nolen

Twelve-year-old Callie Wilcomb is a slave living with her family when Abraham Lincoln is arrested. And when Virginia succeeds from the union, the contraband law means that if her family can get to Fort Monroe, they won’t be returned to their owners. With new freedom comes new dreams for Callie, but her new life isn’t free from hardship or the lingering trauma of her time working as a slave.

Silent Thunder by Andrea Davis Pinkney

The title of this novel refers to the process where enslaved children learn to hold their thoughts and questions inside in order to survive. This is particularly difficult for eleven-year-old Summer, who has questions about everything from who her father is to why her mother seems so upset most of the time. Her older brother Roscoe conceals questions and secrets of his own. In the era of the Civil War, both siblings are determined to make a better life for themselves despite the danger.

The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

Eleven-year-old Nell only has one person between her and the orphanage. She needs to convince her aunt to take her in. But her aunt is Kate Warne, the first female detective who worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency during the Civil War. To persuade her aunt to let her stay, Nell tries to make herself useful solving mysteries, including one mission to save President Lincoln.

The 20th CenturY

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

It’s 1900, and thirteen-year-old Lizzie is enamored with  the excitement of San Francisco’s Gilded Age. But she’s stuck in a boring finishing school where no one understands her passion for science. Her only escape is when she can convince her physician father to take her along on house calls. During these outings, Lizzie’s exposed to a darker side of her city: one with rat infestations, cramped living quarters, and people dying of a mysterious illness. Her father and all the newspapers deny the plague’s existence. But when her best friend Jing goes missing and she learned that Chinatown is under quarantine, Lizzie begins to investigate to satisfy her curiosity and save her friend.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

An account of World War One imagined through the eyes of a horse, Joey. After Joey is sold to the army, he tries to act courageously in battle and give the soldiers hope. But in his heart, through witnessing the atrocities of war and being captured by the Germans, he just wants to get back to his first owner Albert, the fifteen-year-old who trained him.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Set in the 1920s on a small island off Massachusetts, twelve-year-old Crow is an orphan who washed up alone in a boat as an infant. Some of the islanders ostracize her, assuming she’s from a nearby leper colony. But Crow is raised by an eccentric fisherman named Osh and loved by their neighbor Miss Maggie. But she longs to discover who her birth parents were and what happened them. And once she convinces Osh and Maggie to help her, the trio embarks on a journey to find the answers together.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

Things have been peaceful in eleven-year-old Stella’s small North Carolina town for awhile. Peaceful doesn’t mean equal. In the Jim Crow South, Stella notices the nicer white school building and the fact that the white doctor doesn’t treat African Americans. But the KKK hasn’t been active in a long time. Until in 1932, with the Depression making finding work hard for everyone, the Klan resurrects itself. And when Stella’s Dad decides to vote with two other black men, Stella’s family and her entire community are in danger.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza lived a privileged life in Mexico, with a protective father, servants, and a closet full of beautiful dresses. But when her father dies, she and her mother must leave everything behind. They settle in a Californian camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza must learn to adjust to a life of hard physical labor. The poor working conditions cause many Mexican workers to strike. Esperanza believes in their cause, but also wants to earn enough money to bring her Abuelita to America.

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul CurtisThe Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

Twelve-year-old Deza loves school and has big dreams for what she wants to accomplish in life. But when the Great Depression makes her father lose his job and leave Indiana in search of work, Deza dreams of her family being together again. Then her mom loses her job, and they become homeless. Deza must find an inner resilience while looking for her dad and adjusting to a new life in Flint, Michigan.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

When World War Two break out, nine-year-old Ada has never been outside of her one-room apartment in London or had a moment away from her abusive mother. Ada has a club foot and only experiences the world through her little brother and the window she stares out. But when she’s evacuated to the countryside, Ada experiences love and proper care for the first time. But when the war ends, will she and her brother have to return to their dreary former existence?

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins & Stan Yogi, Illustrated by Yutaka Houlette

Fred Korematsu was born in the United States. And his parents have lived in the country for over two decades. But in 1941 when the U.S. goes to war with Japan, the government forces all people of Japanese descent to move into prison camps. Fred’s family wants him to follow orders and go with them. But he refuses and is put in jail, where his case eventually goes to the Supreme Court.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

Yuriko loves growing up in Hiroshima with her father. But with World War Two coming to an end, the future of Japan is uncertain. Yuriko is used to sirens and air-raid drills, but real news about the war is censored by the government. But in 1945, the bomb hits Hiroshima and her life and hometown will be changed forever.

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz & Renée Watson

Written by the daughter of the civil rights icons Malcom X and Dr. Betty Shabazz with the acclaimed novelist Renée Watson, this novel explores Betty’s life as an eleven-year-old living in Detroit in 1945. The connection Betty longs for at home is instead filled by her activist church.  This eventually leads her to volunteer with the Housewives League, an organization advocating for black-owned businesses.

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Nisha is twelve in 1947 when India becomes independent from Britain and splits into two countries: India and Pakistan. The divide is supposed to reduce tensions between Hindus and Muslims. But Nisha is both, half Muslim and half Hindu. She’s not sure where she belongs. She writes her accounts of civil unrest and danger in a diary full of letters to her dead mother—hoping that she can find a way to feel whole again.

The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

Cammie has grown up inside a prison and without a mother. She’s not a criminal. She’s just the daughter of the warden of the small-town Pennsylvanian prison. In 1959, at the age of thirteen, Cammie becomes desperate for a maternal figure in her life. She begins to evaluate her most convenient options for a mother stand in—the women living in her father’s prison.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín, translated by E.M. O’Connor

Eleven-year-old Celeste Marconi has lived an idyllic existence filled with family and friends in Valparaiso, Chile. But in 1973, a new government takes over, declaring that anyone involved in art or political protest are dangerous dissidents. With an increased military presence and classmates “disappearing” without explanation every day, Celeste is scared. Her parents go into hiding and send Celeste to America to be safe. She adjusts to a new life in Maine, but never stops dreaming of Chile and missing her parents.

One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

In 1977 North Carolina, the people in Allie and Sam’s town are not accepting of same sex relationships. The two girls witness the hatred spewed at their two lesbian teachers. As a result, they decide to hide their mutual romantic feelings. Although they have different reasons to avoid straying from their families’ expectations, both girls try to find ways to be true to themselves.

 

And if you are looking for even more historical fiction novels for a slightly older set or mature middle schooler, check out this list of 100 YA historical novels. 

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