Four Historical Fiction Novels for Tweens and Teens
FOUR HISTORICAL FICTION NOVELS
FOR MIDDLE GRADE AND YOUNG ADULT READERS
by Marcella Pixley
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
A 2020 National Book Awards Longlist Selection
A Shelf Awareness Best Book of 2020
A Reading Group Choices Best Book of 2020
A Mighty Girl Best Book of 2020
★Starred Review – Kirkus
Marcella Pixley’s middle-grade book, Trowbridge Road, opens with Jenny Karlo’s loud, beat-up car disturbing a sleepy Boston suburb. Jenny’s music and personality add to the unrest as she deposits her son, Ziggy, at Nana’s for an indeterminate stay. June Bug Jordan, the unofficial neighborhood watcher, takes this in from a safe distance. It’s 1983 and June Bug’s world has recently been shattered by AIDS.
Outcasts of sorts, June Bug and Ziggy (and Matthew, the ferret, who’s often perched atop Ziggy’s unruly red hair) meld into a comfortable friendship where their imaginations transport them from everyday troubles. Matthew’s antics add levity as the truths for both kids begin to unfold. While Ziggy’s grandmother and June Bug’s uncle are steady and trustworthy, other adults struggle with mental illness and domestic violence making them incompetent caregivers who provide love alongside complicated pain.
Pixley does an amazing job bringing such difficult topics to a middle-grade audience. Problems are laid out from a child’s viewpoint and not explained away—simple answers don’t exist. Filled with complex characters, Trowbridge Road delivers an emotional journey, proving hope exists even on the darkest days. My favorite scenes include ones where the kids lose themselves in larger-than-life, fantastic journeys. The escapism offers them moments of freedom to work through personal traumas.
This beautifully written book is one I recommend to friends. There’s so much here, you’ll want to read it again. I congratulate Pixley on her craft which brings to life endearingly flawed characters during an important historical time.
THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY
by Amy Hest
(Candlewick; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
★Starred Reviews – Book Page, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
Eleven-year-old Julie Sweet and her six-year-old sister, Martha, are “summer people” at Belle Beach, Long Island, taking a break from the city with their writer dad. The book opens with the girls finding a baby left on the steps of the library and the story spins backward from there. Told from three viewpoints (the sisters’, plus that of their neighbor, twelve-year-old, Bruno Ben-Ali), the reader pieces together what happened to cause a myriad of events, including the breakup of Julie and Bruno’s friendship. World War II concerns are deftly incorporated, such as Bruno’s brother being drafted and the increasing number of funeral services for overseas casualties; a nearby army hospital also factors in.
In The Summer We Found the Baby, Amy Hest, weaves together a fast-paced plot with levity, where stories at times overlap as we discover what each character discloses or conceals. Historical details take a backseat to friendship concerns, sibling squabbling, and familial issues. Seeing the happenings from three perspectives works well to uncover the kids’ fears and losses. This likable tale captures a few scenes in a summer where lives come together and move apart, and how, sometimes, specific moments bring about change. And, yes, we eventually unwind the mystery behind the abandoned baby.
MAGIC DARK AND STRANGE
by Kelly Powell
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)
In the nineteenth century, grave robbers supplied medical schools with corpses. While this does happen in Magic Dark and Strange, Catherine Daly leaves home to take a respectable job at the city’s newspaper, knowing her family needs the income. Though at night, she earns a bit more digging up graves to briefly enliven the dead so they can spend a while longer with their loved ones. In exchange, for each hour granted, she loses an hour of her life. On a special expedition to collect a unique timepiece, she somehow brings a teen boy fully to life. Since he has no memory, they question who he is, why he died, and what resurrected him. Somewhat reluctantly Guy Nolan, the watchmaker’s son, houses the boy he names Owen and sets about seeking answers with Catherine. While a budding attraction develops between Catherine and Guy, their encounters focus more on mystery-solving than romantic interludes.
I knew I’d like this book from its first line: “Waking the dead wasn’t nearly so unpleasant as having to dig them up in the first place.” This sums up Catherine well: that she perform small magic is a given, but it’s hard work and she must avoid being caught by a watchman. The story’s turns will keep you guessing at Owen’s true identity, especially once the murders begin. Readers who appreciate historical details blended with fantasy will find this a fascinating read. I was unsure until the end whether Owen was innocent or hiding his dark past. See if your sleuthing can figure it out before it’s revealed.
LUCK OF THE TITANIC
by Stacey Lee
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)
Available for pre-order now
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Connection
The Titanic sinks; I’ve heard many of the stories, but Stacey Lee’s YA novel, Luck of the Titanic, illuminates the unjust treatment of the few Chinese aboard that dreaded voyage. In reality, six of the eight Chinese passengers survived (whereas only 25% of the other passengers survived), yet, rare mentions “vilified them as cowards who took seats from women and children or dressed as women in order to sneak aboard lifeboats, all of which were unfounded rumors.” The US’s Chinese Exclusion Act in place in 1912 ensured that all of these men—who likely did not speak English—were shipped off within twenty-four hours of arrival, their stories lost.
From these facts, Lee weaves a tale about brother and sister acrobats, the Luck twins. Val makes an action-packed, stowaway entrance to join her brother, Jamie. Her haphazard plan involves finding and impressing the influential circus owner, thus gaining access to America. Yet, Jamie has given up such sensational aspirations. Strong-willed Val tries to right him to her course but, along the convoluted, shenanigan-filled way, discovers much about herself, family, and the meaning of true love.
This seven-day voyage sails by quickly. Val is an interesting character who quickly won me over with her endearingly persistent flaws. Knowing about the fateful iceberg didn’t make the plot any less suspenseful. Instead, the concluding chapters are nail-biters, through the unpredictable ending.
Lee’s book begins a much-needed conversation that will, hopefully, result in finding information about the actual Chinese survivors so their stories can be added to the history books. I appreciate the care with which she writes historical fiction and, previously, enjoyed her 2019 YA, The Downstairs Girl, set in 1890 Atlanta, which also tackles issues of inequality shown from a strong, female lead character’s perspective.[ATTENTION WRITERS: Catch her Sat. April 10, in “Hitch Up Your Petticoats: Stacey Lee Reveals How to Write Historical Fiction.” Registration link here. Non-SCBWI members, email Natasha Yim at email@example.com.]
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com