Let’s talk historical fiction. Specifically, YA historical fiction and all the books in the genre that you have to read. You might consider this a primer on which books are absolute must-read YA historical fiction novels. Including both newer releases and some historical YA I read myself in my teen years, these books span centuries and continents, unveiling the wide world of history for teens.
These 20 novels cover pivotal moments in history, revealing instance of both tragedy and triumph. I continue to find that books are often my very best education, filling in the gaps that were often *cough* intentionally *cough* left in my history textbooks. Maybe that’s not surprising, but I still remember the shock I felt when I first realized the history I had been presented was so flawed there were whole chapters of it that were inaccurate or missing altogether. Maybe you find yourself in the same place. And while I certainly won’t claim these books will teach you everything you need to know about history, they are a pretty good place to start — at least when it comes to the vast world of YA historical fiction.
So whether you’re wanting to correct or simply expand your understanding of the past, these 20 must-read YA historical fiction books are here to teach you a thing or two while also being absorbing and entertaining reads in their own right.
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
Ashley Bennett is living the charmed life in 1990s Los Angeles, where she and her friends are spending more of their senior year on the beach than in the classroom. But when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a Black man named Rodney King half to death, the city descends into riots. Ashely wants to continue life as if everything’s normal, but it’s not. Her sister is getting dangerously involved in the riots, her friends are spreading rumors about a fellow Black student that could derail their life forever, and her family’s model Black family façade is beginning to crumble. Ashley’s world is splintering, and no matter how much she might want to deny it, life will never be the same.
We Are Not Free by Traci Chee
Weaving together fourteen perspectives, We Are Not Free is the story of a group of Nisei, or second-generation Japanese Americans, whose lives are forever turned upside down when they’re forced into internment camps during WWII. It’s a story of racism and terrible injustice, but also community, family, and friends who must pull together as they face unrelenting hatred that seems determined to keep them down.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
This National Book Award winning novel from the author of Ash is like a window into the past and, in particular, the parts of it often forgotten about. But for Lily Hu, living in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown, she can’t escape the Red Scare and the anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the city. The threat of deportation looms large, despite her family’s citizenship. So falling in love with a girl is about the last thing Lily should be doing. Lesbian bars like The Telegraph Club are raided frequently, and while Lily is enjoying the thrill of her new nightlife — and her feelings for Kathleen — she can’t escape the fact that as a gay Chinese American teen, she has twice as much to lose.
The Silence of Bones by June Hur
June Hur is one of my all-time favorite historical fiction authors (YA or otherwise), and in her debut novel, an indentured servant working for the police bureau becomes wrapped up in a murder investigation that strikes a little too close to home. Seol knows servants are meant to stay invisible, but she’s never been very good at keeping quiet. And with a possible serial killer stalking the streets of the capital in 1800s Joseon-era Korea, she can’t just sit back and wait for someone else to be murdered.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief was one of the first YA historical fiction novels I ever read, and it’s become a modern classic of the genre for a reason. Liesel learns to love — and steal — books by her brother’s graveside when she uncovers a copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook. It’s a passion that continues to flourish through book bans and Nazi book burnings. But when her foster family begins hiding a Jewish man in their basement, Liesel’s world is opened up in ways she never could’ve imagined even as the increasing danger forces them to hide more and more.
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
In 1969 Kuala Lumpur, race riots tear apart the city and threaten the lives of everyone who lives there, whether Chinese or Malay. And Melati Ahmad, a Beatles-loving teen with OCD, is on the wrong side of the city, separated from her mother by a city in flames. With a curfew in place and all lines of communication down, Melati must rely on a Chinese boy named Vincent to make it to safety. Doing so will call in to question her own prejudices and require all her courage, but it’s the only way to get back to the one person who matters to her most.
Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink
Angel of Greenwood highlights an important (and often ignored) moment in history. In 1912, the area of Tulsa, Oklahoma known as Black Wallstreet was burned to the ground. Isaiah and Angel are total opposites on the surface. Isaiah is a bit of a trouble-maker, while Angel is a bit of a goody-goody. When their teacher offers them the chance to work at her mobile library, they begin to see each other differently. Soon, Isaiah can’t get enough of his time with Angel each day. But it’s not until a vicious white mob attacks Greenwood, leaving the town destroyed and thousands displaced, that Isaiah and Angel realize their similarities matter more than their differences, and that the true enemies are the people who did this.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
A spy captured by the Vichy French regime is tortured for information about her mission. She goes by Verity and intricately weaves a confession that may or may not be true about two girls fighting for the British and how they came to be on a spy plane that crashed in France. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking, and that’s just about all I can say without giving everything away. Just writing about it makes me want to go back and read it all again.
Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden
As the daughter of an upper-class African American family in 1900s Washington D.C., Savannah knows she is fortunate in many ways. But when she befriends a working class girl named Nell, who introduces her to the suffragette and socialist movements, she begins to want to fight for change. Joining in on these movements might just be Savannah’s chance to finally make a difference in the world, but with many of them more focused on the plight of white people, she’ll have to figure out for herself what exactly that looks like.
Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
The AIDS crisis is ongoing in 1989 New York City, and the three young teens in Like a Love Story are all too aware of that fact. Reza knows he is gay, but all he’s ever known of gay life are the men he sees dying on TV. He lives in fear of his family discovering the truth about him. Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who idolizes her uncle, a gay man with AIDS who spends his time working as an activist for ACT UP. Her best friend, Art, it the only out and proud teen at their school. And as he grows closer with Judy’s new boyfriend, Reza, Art hopes for some way out of all these complicated relationships that won’t break his best friend’s heart.
The Deep Blue Between by Ayesha Harruna Attah
Set in the late 18th and early 19th century, this story follows teenage twins, separated after a raid on their village. One sister finds a new life with her older sister on the west coast of Africa while the other sister escapes terrible circumstances and flees to Brazil. With a whole ocean between them, the sisters still dream of each other nightly. But will fate ever draw Hassana and Husseina back together again?
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
Ida Mae Jones grew up dreaming of a life in the sky. Her father was a pilot, and being Black never stopped him from flying. But being Black and a woman? Now, that’s a different story. But when the U.S. enters World War II, WASP is created. The Women Airforce Service Pilots might just be the answer Ida has been looking for. But even they won’t accept a Black woman. In order to achieve her dreams and help fight for a better future, Ida will have to pass as white, something she never thought she’d do. Getting to live out her dreams means everything, but is it worth pretending to be someone she’s not?
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lai
In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to get to safety in the final days of the Việt Nam War, Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, hoping to find a flight that will take them to America. Instead, Linh is ripped from her arms, and Hằng is left behind. Six years later, she finally makes it to Texas as a refugee, determined to find her little brother. But when she she does, he doesn’t remember her, their childhood together, or Việt Nam. Hằng has come too far to give up, though, and will do what it takes to keep her little brother in her life, even if it’s not how she imagined.
The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
This book by the author of Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea paints a picture of post-war Spain under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. The photographer son of an oil tycoon, whose family has come to Madrid on the promise of business opportunities, hopes to capture the city’s beauty, but soon learns the the lingering conflict of the Spanish Civil War continues to haunt the country. And the photographs he snaps show a side of Spain that others might not want to get out.
Travelers Along the Way by Aminah Mae Safi
This incredible retelling of Robin Hood features sisters trying to protect Jerusalem from Faranji invaders during the Third Crusades. Rahma al-Hud followed her sister into war, and she would follow her into death, too — but she really hopes she won’t have to. As they travel toward Jerusalem, the sisters gather a merry band around them, including a Mongolian warrior, an Andalusian scientist, a spy, and an English chaplain abandoned by his peers. Together, they take on the false queen herself, Queen Isabella, one of several powers trying to claim the Holy Land in this bloody war. It’s a story of adventure and found family among the unlikeliest of comrades in the unlikeliest of times and places.
One for All by Lillie Lainoff
A fencer who longs to be seen as anything other than the “sick girl” she is so often brushed off as follows in her father’s footsteps in this genderbent Three Musketeers retelling. L’Académie des Mariées is no ordinary training school, and when Tania honors her father’s dying wish to attend, she discovers it is actually a training ground for an entirely new sort of Musketeer. Now Tania can become the fighter she’s always wanted to be with her newfound sisters by her side.
This Rebel Heart by Katherine Locke
Csilla once believed the river at the center of her beloved Budapest was magic. It protected her family from the Nazis, after all. But now the war is over. Her parents are dead, murdered by the Soviet Police. And she knows things about her father’s legacy she wishes she could forget. It is 1956, on the eve of the Hungarian Revolution, and escape seems like the only option. But when her parents are publicly exonerated and whispers of revolution fill the air, Csilla will have to decide if it is worth risking her life for a country that never loved her like she loved it.
As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh (September 13, 2022)
At the start of the Syrian Revolution in the spring of 2011, Salama Kassab was just another pharmacy student. Now, she volunteers in a hospital, tending to the wounded and secretly hoping for some means of escape before her sister-in-law gives birth. Her anxiety has even manifested in an imaginary companion who haunts her every move and implores her to leave. But as Salama contends with bullets and bomb and the reality of an ongoing conflict, she begins to question if she can leave her country behind before she has the chance to see it free.
Lioness of Punjab by Anita Jari Kharbanda (September 17, 2022)
In the winter of 1705, the Sikhs are under attack from the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. With their forces isolated and outmatched, 40 men decide to desert. This is not their story. Instead, it is the story of the young woman who led the 40 deserters back into battle. Mai Bhago has been preparing all her life for this moment and is determined to use her skills with the sword to honor her people and her faith. And this is how she does.
A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar (December 13, 2022)
It doesn’t get much more exciting than a heist on the Titanic, dramatic irony and all. But the cast of characters at the heart of Book Riot contributor, Adiba Jaigirdar’s story don’t know they’re in for something even more daunting than trying to steal a jewel-encrusted book before their voyage is over. And when that fateful disaster comes, they’ll have to set their sights on an even more ambitious goal: survival.
Need even more must-read YA historical fiction? Check out these other lists: