Read Harder: A Historical Fiction With a POC or LGBTQ+ Protagonist

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Rachel Rosenberg

Senior Contributor

Rachel Rosenberg has been writing since she was a child—at 13, she was published alongside celebs and fellow teens in Chicken Soup For the Teenage Soul 2. Rachel has a degree in Creative Writing from Montreal’s Concordia University; she’s been published in a few different anthologies and publications, including Best Lesbian Love Stories 2008, Little Fiction, Big Truth’s Re/Coded anthology and Broken Pencil magazine. She also appeared on the Montreal episode of the Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids podcast. Her day job is as a Children’s Librarian, where she digs singing and dancing with small humans.

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Historical fiction gives readers a glance into the past and, truly, we could all probably use a break from the modern world right now. These eight historical fiction works feature POC or LGBTQ+ protagonists and take readers on absorbing journeys to Mexico, the U.S., Ireland, Haiti, Japan, Berlin and Paris for this task of the Read Harder Challenge. While many of them tackle issues such as racism, colonialism, and classism, they also introduce strong and resilient characters who do their best to fight against volatile and dangerous circumstances. 


The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Set in a Dublin maternity ward, Julia Power is a nurse working amidst the influenza epidemic of 1918. Doctors and nurses are getting sick and no longer able to come into work, so one day Julia finds herself alone in the ward with three sick expectant mothers. Not for long, thankfully, as two women come into her life to provide support: Bridie, an untrained volunteer, and Dr. Lynn, a Sinn Fein rebel. If you can bring yourself to read about a pandemic while living through one, it’s unputdownable. 


Remembrance by Rita Woods

Using magical realism, Remembrance is a page-turner that addresses slavery, colonialism, and racism. Gaelle, Abigail, Winter, and Margot are four women united in history, with connecting narratives set in 1791, 1857, and now. In essence, the story brings to life the delicious idea that there was a magical, safe space on the Underground Railroad where whites could not gain access.


Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 

Setting: Yucatán, Mexico, during the 1920s. Cassiopeia Tun’s beloved storyteller father has died, leaving her alone with her depressed mother and cruel grandmother. Used by her resentful family as a maid, circumstances are not promising for Cassiopeia. Eventually, in a rebellious moment, she opens a locked chest in the house and releases an imprisoned Mayan god of death, Hun-Kame (ss you do). From there, this Mexican folklore–infused story will take you on a spellbinding quest.


Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

I haven’t read this yet, but the official description is written like they wanted to get my attention: “It’s 1942 and Willowjean “Will” Parker is a scrappy circus runaway whose knife-throwing skills have just saved the life of New York’s best, and most unorthodox, private investigator, Lillian Pentecost.” Plus, Will has an affair with a sexy lady who might be her downfall. Say no more, book, you had me at “scrappy circus runaway.”


Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

Set in 1948 Kyoto, 8-year-old Noriko has been trained by her mother to be complacent and not to fight back (not useful when she is then immediately dumped into a horrible situation). After Noriko, who is biracial, is left alone at her abusive grandparents’ estate, she is hidden away and beaten by her family. She doesn’t defend herself until the arrival of Akira, her older half-brother. Finally, after developing a bond with her brother, she begins to fight for her future.

Half-Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

This novel weaves together two timelines—one set in 1992, while the other brings readers to Paris and Berlin during World War II. In 1939, Sid and Chip are living in Berlin and playing in a successful jazz band with Hiero, who is trumpet prodigy and Sid’s main rival. As the Nazis begin occupying Europe, Hiero, who is a Black German citizen, vanishes after being arrested in Paris. Many years later, in 1992, Sid and Chip are pulled back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary about Hiero, and their trip stirs up memories of their friend.

Ring Shout_Clark

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Ring Shout promises an original and timely fantasy adventure. In a dark fantasy set in Georgia during 1922, D.W. Griffith is a sorcerer who created The Birth of a Nation as a spell out of people’s anger and fear, and it has led to the creation of monsters called “Ku Kluxes.” The good news, though, is that Maryse Boudreaux is a magic sword-wielding whiskey bootlegger, and she’s down to kick some evil Ku Klux Klan ass in this paranormal delight.

Plain Bad Heroines

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

This spooky queer romance meets supernatural mystery bounces between a cursed boarding school for girls in Victorian-era New England and the modern day efforts to create a Hollywood film about it. Additionally, almost every main character is on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, which makes for a delightful change from the usual hetero-centric storytelling. Overall, Plain Bad Heroines is a fun and engrossing read, full of romance, horror, and amusing narrative asides.