My Top Ten Historical Fiction Novels: Middle Grade Edition

Today’s post was originally supposed to be about how I named the characters in EVERY DAY AFTER. But…after reading Jess’s awesome post on Monday, and coming to the realization that our processes were quite alike, I decided to go in another direction.

Instead, I am going to share with you my Top Ten Favorite Middle Grade Historical Fiction Novels. I can recall exactly where I was when I read each one of them for the first time. If you haven’t yet had a chance to read these titles, I strongly encourage you to try and make space on your to-be-read pile. They are phenomenal. And just in case my encouragement isn’t enough, I’ve included the first lines from each book to further entice you. Sneaky, right?

1. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD–(Alabama, 1932)

(Disclaimer: Yes, I know this is widely considered to be adult historical fiction, but it is also widely read in the upper middle grades all across America, and by high school it is generally required reading. So I cheated and included it anyway. Hey, this is my list after all!)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This one needs no formal introduction. It is a classic. And, truth be told, any introduction I could provide would fail to do this book justice. Scout Finch and Boo Radley. Enough said.

First line: When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

2. A SINGLE SHARD–(Korea, 12th century)

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

This is a gorgeous, quiet book. The language is tight and disciplined, perfectly reflecting the discipline required of the book’s protagonist, Tree-ear, as he learns to craft celadon pottery in a twelfth-century Korean village.

First line: “Eh, Tree-ear! Have you hungered well today?” Crane-man called out as Tree-ear drew near the bridge.

3. BUD, NOT BUDDY–(Michigan, 1936)

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

When I first began to consider writing middle grade novels, I went straight to my local library and checked out a stack of precisely those.  And what better guide could a writer have than Newbery-winning books? They formed the better part of my stack. BUD, NOT BUDDY was the first book I read. It made me stop considering and start writing. It is the book that pushed me head-over-heels for middle grade historical fiction.

First line: Here we go again.

4. OUT OF THE DUST–(Oklahoma, 1934-1935)

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse’s free verse beautifully depicts the barren, bone-dry landscape of Dust Bowl Oklahoma. It also elegantly conveys the bitter pain Billie Jo Kelby and her father endure after a tragic accident alters their lives forever. I read this in one afternoon, weeping in the middle and at the end.

First line: As summer wheat came ripe, so did I, born at home on the kitchen floor.

5. JACOB HAVE I LOVED–(Chesapeake Bay, 1941-1946)

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Some of you may already know that this is my all-time favorite book. The same disclaimer used for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is applicable here as well. Though Sara Louise (aka Wheeze) and her twin sister, Caroline, are thirteen when the story begins, they have entered adulthood by the novel’s close. Today, this would likely be considered YA as there are a few situations and themes that seem a tad heavy for most middle graders. But, as I said earlier, this is my list. And this is my all-time favorite book. So here it is.

First line from Chapter One: During the summer of 1941, every weekday morning at the top of the tide, McCall Purnell and I would board my skiff and go progging for crab.

6. PENNY FROM HEAVEN–(New Jersey, 1953)

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

To me, the most exceptional thing (though there are many exceptional things) about this novel is the characterization. Protagonist Penny (birth name Barbara Ann) Falucci enters our reading life complete with a large family—white American on one side, Italian on the other. Each and every character in this book is expertly drawn, each with their own unique backstory, personality, and quirks. And with so many characters, that is quite a feat. After reading Penny’s story, I felt as though I’d just gained a whole new family all my own. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I still think about the people inhabiting this book. Jennifer L. Holm, you are a marvel.

First line: Me-me says that Heaven is full of fluffy white clouds and angels.

7. A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO–(a small mid-western town, 1929-1942)

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck

I adore Richard Peck. He’s prolific, infinitely wise, and one h*** of a writer. He’s crafted many great stories and countless great characters throughout his career, but my favorite story is this one, and my favorite characters are these. You cannot beat Grandma Dowdel. As Mr. Peck might write, she sure is a hoot. This isn’t a novel with a classic plot leading straight through, but more a series of humorous vignettes leading up to an overall theme. I find “Shotgun Cheatam’s Last Night Above Ground–1929” the most hilarious, and I’ll often pick up the book just to read that chapter.

First line: You wouldn’t think we’d have to leave Chicago to see a dead body.

8. HATTIE BIG SKY–(Vida, Montana, 1917-1918)

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Hattie is so good. Not just the book, but Hattie herself. She’s strong, independent, a survivor. She’s a feminist of sorts, bucking the system of her day to strike out on her own and stake her claim on the Montana prairie. If you haven’t, read HATTIE BIG SKY. I promise you’ll love Hattie too—the book and the girl. And once you finish, you’ll have the good fortune to be able to dive straight into HATTIE’s long-awaited sequel, HATTIE EVER AFTER, which released a few weeks ago. I happen to be reading it as we speak. Brava, Kirby Larson!

First line: Dear Charlie, Miss Simpson starts every day with a reminder to pray for you—and all the other boys who enlisted.

9. SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL–(the Kansas prairie, 1910)

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan’s use of language and imagery in this small but powerful book is brilliant. Her prose is quite spare, the story quite simple, the book quite short, but she manages to weave a vivid and very satisfying tale of a grieving family’s life on the prairie and their search for a new beginning. Distinguished indeed.

First line: “Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb.

10. AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS–(Alcatraz, 1935)

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Last, but in no way least, is Gennifer Choldenko’s story of twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan and his struggle to come to terms with his new life on Alcatraz and to find peace with his autistic sister, Natalie. I can’t recall skimming a single page in this funny and touching book. Also, in my ever-so-humble opinion, this boasts the best final page ever.

First line: Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.

So there you have them. My picks for the best historical middle grade novels. Enjoy! Which books are your top picks?

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Laura Golden is the author of EVERY DAY AFTER, a middle grade novel about a young girl learning to let go and find her own way amidst the trials of the Great Depression. It is set to release from Delacorte Press/RHCB on June 11, 2013. You can find out more about Laura and EVERY DAY AFTER by visiting her website or following her on Twitter and Facebook. Laura would be delighted if you added EVERY DAY AFTER to your Goodreads reading list.

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11 thoughts on “My Top Ten Historical Fiction Novels: Middle Grade Edition

  1. Jenn McGowan says:

    What an amazing list! Thank you for posting this!

  2. Laura Golden says:

    You’re welcome, Jenn! Have a fab Wednesday. 🙂

  3. Faith Hough says:

    I love ALL of these. 🙂 My list would also have some classics like “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” and the “Betsy-Tacy” books…and I’m still in awe of Laura Amy Schlitz’s “Splendors and Glooms.” (It’s not straight historical fiction, since there’s a pretty big fantasy element, but the world is so vividly imagined!)

    • Laura Golden says:

      Can you believe I haven’t yet read THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND or SPLENDORS & GLOOMS (though the latter is on my bookshelf…)? But, I did love Elizabeth George Speare’s THE BRONZE BOW. From what I can gather TWOBP is her most popular book by far. I must get around to reading it!

  4. It’s funny. I don’t even think of “To Kill A Mockingbird” as historical fiction because it is so vividly real (and of course, it is loosely based on Harper Lee’s life). But Scout and Jem and Atticus and all the rest — they are real people as far as I’m concerned, and that book might as well be the best piece of non-fiction ever written.

    The “Little House” books made a huge impression on me growing up. To this day, when I’m sweeping, I hear Ma Ingalls’ voice in my head: “Draw the broom, Laura, don’t flick it. That raises dust.” No kidding.

    • Laura Golden says:

      You’re absolutely right about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The characters are so well-drawn that one tends to forget they are indeed fictional. Though, as you say, Harper Lee borrowed heavily from people in her life–her own father for Atticus, Truman Capote for Dill, etc.

      I love that you still hear Ma’s voice when you’re sweeping! I do the same with other books and characters. I think that’s proof of exactly how affected children are by the books they read. Life changing at times.

  5. What a great list! I can’t help thinking too about how, until its recent resurgence, historical kidlit was considered to be “dead”, and yet every one of your selection other than “Mockingbird” has an award stamped on it! Hmmm…what does this tell us?

    • Laura Golden says:

      Thanks, Kit! Yes, the general consensus that HF was “dead” used to severely wear on my nerves. But Harold Underdown once said that while HF wasn’t exactly “hot” (and never had been), it wasn’t “dead” either. He believed it’d always been a rather steady genre, maintaining it’s place somewhere in the middle of “in” and “out”. That comment was immensely comforting to me, especially since he used to be an editor.

      I too have noticed that historicals tend to do quite well when awards season rolls around, but I don’t think they sell as well as other genres. Pros and cons to everything I suppose.

  6. shannonhitchcock says:

    Great list! I also love Turtle in Paradise, Love, Ruby Lavender, and can’t wait for Hattie Everafter.

  7. Denise Lampe says:

    Have you ever considered “Yankee Girl” or “Walking to the Bus Rider Blues”? I love love these two HF books during the Civil Rights Era.

  8. Michele says:

    Great list. Just read “The Adventures of Silas Freethorn: A Puritan Tale”. Great for use teaching early North American colonization.

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