History can get a bad rap sometimes. I know when I was growing up, I hated it. It was my least favorite class (sorry teachers!), mainly because the way it was presented was so boring. We never read any good books about it — in fact, I don’t remember us reading any novels in history, until high school. But thankfully, that’s changed…I hope? There are so many great historical fiction chapter books and novels that bring history to life.
No matter what time period or historical event you want to learn about, there’s something out there for you. My son is going into first grade, and he and I are making our way through the Magic Tree House series, for example — and he loves hearing about all of the different places and times. We mark the time period down in our history timeline notebook, and it inevitably leads to looking things up on the iPad and watching some videos about the time.
History can get bogged down in dates and times, and it can be easy for kids to lose sight of the fact that it’s about people and families and kids and events and so many different stories to explore. In this way, it can remain impersonal and “other.” But historical fiction can change that.
The following historical fiction chapter books are just a smattering of what’s out there, and I’ve arranged them chronologically. Here are more historical fiction for kids, as well as historical fiction for middle schoolers.
Chapter Books Set in the 1800s
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
Inspired by the true story of a Deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard, this is a story about Mary Lambert, whose great-great-grandfather was the first Deaf islander. Many people in her community now are Deaf, and she’s proud of her history. But her brother recently died, and land tensions are brewing between English settlers and the Wampanoag. And then there’s the newly arrived scientist who wants to “study” Mary and her Deafness. This is a compelling book about colonialism, ableism, and racism with themes that are still pertinent today.
Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Slavery is over, but 10-year-old Sugar doesn’t feel free, working in the fields on the River Road sugar plantation, where she lives. She still finds a way to have fun, including playing with Billy, the white plantation owner’s son — whose friendship is forbidden. When Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane, older River Road workers aren’t happy about it. Sugar befriends an elder and a young worker, who teach her about their traditions. She soon realizes that she can bridge the two communities and cultures, and bring everyone together.
Books Set From 1900-1930s
Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna by Alda P. Dobbs
Set in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, this story is about Petra Luna, a 12-year-old whose mom has just died. Before her father is dragged away by soldiers, she promises him that she’ll watch out for the remaining family members — her abuelita and her younger sister and brother — until everyone can be reunited again. They go on the run, toward the U.S. border, where Petra has hopes for a better life for all of them. Timely and important, this is a book you won’t soon forget.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Esperanza lives a pretty privileged life on her family’s ranch in Mexico — and she assumed it’d always be this way. But tragedy strikes, and she and mama have to flee to California, winding up in a farm labor camp. She’s not used to the hard work there, the challenges of the Great Depression, or the exclusion she faces. But she needs to figure out how to push through — her and her mother’s futures depend on it.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
Stella lives in Bumblebee, North Carolina, which is segregated. Though she can’t go certain places, the Klan hasn’t bothered anyone in a long time — except one night, she witnesses an unwelcome harbinger of what’s to come. As her community changes before her eyes, Stella faces failures of her own but also finds strength within to keep moving forward.
Books About WWII
28 Days: A Novel of Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto by David Safier
It’s 1942. Sixteen-year-old Mira lives in the Warsaw Ghetto with her family. When she finds out that the Ghetto will be liquidated — meaning everyone will be killed or sent to the concentration camps — she knows she has to help her family survive. And then she meets a group of people who are planning to resist — the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul live in Korea, but it’s under Japanese occupation. This means they study Japanese in school, and everything about their Korean heritage and culture is forbidden. When WWII arrives, the Japanese expect the Koreans to fight with them. Not only is Sun-hee surprised at that, but she’s even more surprised when her brother enlists to help protect their uncle, who is suspected of being in the resistance. A story of family, survival, and secrets, this is one not to be missed.
Chapter Books Set in the 1950s and 1960s
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell
Regina’s family has always lived on the Grand Ronde reservation, and she’s always been Umpqua. But then the government signs a bill that says her tribe no longer exists. When her father signs up for the Indian Relocation program, they move to L.A. The family struggles to find their way without their tribal community, and questions about identity and belonging arise.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
It’s 1968. Delphine, who’s 11, watches out for her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. She’s had to, since their mother left them seven years prior when she moved to California. When they go to visit her for the summer, their mom is not what they remember at all. While they just want to go to Disneyland, she sends them to a summer camp run by the Black Panthers — and their summer turns out to be nothing like they expected.
How to Find What You’re Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani
Loving vs. Virginia has recently been decided, striking down laws banning interracial marriage. Ariel Goldberg, who is 12, is suddenly faced with changes: her family’s Jewish bakery is having some financial issues, and her older sister has just eloped with a young man from India. She’s observing all of the activism and political events around her, trying to figure out what she thinks about each issue. She misses her sister, and she struggles with a learning disability that her parents don’t understand. She’s exploring her place in the world and where she is, while also confronting antisemitism against her family, as well as racism within her family.
Chapter Books in the 1970s and 1980s
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
Zomorod and her family just moved (yet again), this time to Newport Beach in California, and she’s decided to start fresh with the name Cindy. It’s the late 1970s, and Iran is in the news a lot, with protests and revolution. Despite trying her best to fit in with everyone else, Cindy can’t help but notice anti-Iran sentiment, especially after Iran takes American hostages. Following her over several years, this book is a touching story of family, friendship, and figuring out who you are.
Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Nova is autistic and nonspeaking, and is looking forward to the launch of the Challenger. A love of space is something she had shared with her sister Bridget, but now Bridget is gone and Nova is with a new foster family. Most people dismissed Nova because she doesn’t speak — but Bridget never did. Now, her teachers are realizing how much Nova has to share, and she’s making friends on her own. But what Nova’s looking forward to most is the launch — will Bridget keep her promise and show up?
Chapter Books Set in the 1990s and Beyond
Troublemaker by John Cho
Jordan is 12, and Los Angeles is at a crossroads: the officers from the LAPD who beat Rodney King have been acquitted, and a Korean store owner has shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a Black teenager. Tensions are high, and Jordan, who is Korean American, feels like he can never measure up to his sister. When his dad leaves one night to check on the family’s store, Jordan comes face to face with racism in his community.
Where I Belong by Tara White
Set during the Oka Crisis of 1990, Carrie never felt like she belonged anywhere. Her adoptive parents are strict, and she chafes against that. She meets her Mohawk family for the first time and starts engaging more with her roots. Slowly, she starts to figure out where she belongs in both worlds.
Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin
In this book, set a few days before 9/11, four kids are facing different challenges: Sergio’s struggling with an absentee father, Will’s dealing with grief over the loss of his dad, Naheed is dealing with people’s reactions to her headscarf, and Aimee’s starting a new school while her mom flies to New York for work. When their lives intersect because of that fateful day, none of them could have imagined how things would change.