Contributed by Karen Sandler
History can be a hard sell for teens (and many adults). Kids ask, “Why do I have to learn this stuff? It happened a long time ago.” They don’t feel a connection between themselves and what they read in history books. The kind of historical fiction that is required reading in high school classrooms doesn’t help matters, and often leaves teens glassyeyed and even less inclined to look into the past.
But there are plenty of great teen and middle grade novels out there that are both rich with historical details and captivating to young readers. The three I’ve chosen are all exceptional diverse picks. They all provide an entertaining and thoughtful read, with characters teens can connect with. These three books are my personal recommendations, and I hope you’ll check them out.
Mildred D. Taylor is an awardwinning icon of children’s literature. Her classic novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, won the Newbery Medal in 1977. The 40th anniversary of the book’s release will be celebrated in January 2016 with a beautiful new cover. Roll of Thunder is one of a series of books about the Logan family and is set in southern Mississippi during the depression when Blacks were at the mercy of white vigilantes.
Roll of Thunder is told from the point of view of 9yearold Cassie Logan, who lives in a three room house on land her family owns and farms. They have to walk to school in the mud because the school bus is for whites only. They’re given school books that are worn and damaged rejects from the white students. When they can, they steer clear of whites entirely since those encounters can be frightening or even deadly.
Why you’ll love this book:
It gives a frank, nonsugarcoated view of the South for Blacks. No romanticizing here.
The characters are complex and real. Taylor doesn’t fall into tropes for either the Black or
The rich detail of the setting, encompassing all the senses, thoroughly pull the reader into
the book and the era the story depicts.
While it’s a difficult read at times with the injustices that the Logans experience, it makes
Roll of Thunder an excellent pick for a window or mirror book, reflecting the ways the world has changed as well as the ways it has remained the same.
If you want to tempt a teen to explore history with a compelling read, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a great pick. Even better, there are several other books in the series as well to keep reading about the Logan family.
Under a Painted Sky is the newest of the three books on my list, but the time period of the story is farthest in the past—1849. This debut novel by Stacey Lee packs adventure, romance, history, and humor in a fun, fastpaced story.
After a tragic accident dashes Samantha’s dreams of being a professional musician—already a long shot for a Chinese girl in the 1840s—she becomes a wanted person and must escape with Annamae, a runaway slave. Samantha and Annamae disguise themselves as boys, renaming themselves Sammy and Andy as they take to the Oregon Trail, bound for California. Along the way, they cross paths with a band of young cowboys, and while it’s safer to travel with others more experienced in the wilderness, Samantha and Annamae risk discovery by the boys even as they dodge the law coming after them.
Why you’ll love this book:
Plenty of authenticity in the details of traveling the Oregon Trail
Wonderful chemistry between Annamae and Samantha as the bond between them
The dangers of the undiscovered wilderness keep the story on a razor’s edge
There’s a nice love story between Samantha and her cowboy, even as she plays the part
of a boy
A great combination of adventure, romance, and true friendship, Under a Painted Sky will paint a vivid and entertaining picture of the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush. A sure winner for reluctant readers of history.
My Name is Not Easy’s author, Debby Dahl Edwardson, is not Iñupiaq as her character Luke is, and she makes that clear in her bio. She’s writing the experience of others, including her husband (she based Luke’s experience on her husband’s). It’s a compelling read, and both the characters’ experience and the stark setting seem authentic, but I can only speak as an outsider to that indigenous community.
The book takes place in the 1960s, when Iñupiaq in Alaska had no options close to home for furthering their education after grammar school. It was customary to fly children down into the lower 48, hundreds of miles away to Catholic boarding schools. While Luke is as much the main character as any of the several who tell their stories, the experience in the cold desolation that is Sacred Heart school is interwoven of various threads. There are no definitive representations of good and evil in the authority figures Luke and the others encounter. There is good and bad and shades in between, a lot of loneliness and grief, isolation and displacement. Just like Roll of Thunder, this book can be hard to take at times, but despite the heartbreak along the way, the ending satisfies.
Why you’ll love this book:
Utterly fascinating characters. Three dimensional, complex, surprising
Beautiful prose, a strong sense of place and time
A revelation of a part of our history you might not have known—that until 1976, when
Alaska was required to build and staff high schools even in small rural villages, children were sent away from their homes and forced to live far away from their families to receive secondary education
My Name Isn’t Easy is one of those books that will stick with you, as if you’d experienced that desolation and loneliness yourself in the course of reading it. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks history should be left in the past. The book’s immediacy will pull you in.
Karen Sandler is the author of nineteen novels for adults, as well as TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION, a YA science fiction trilogy from Lee & Low/Tu Books. Just a few felines short of being a fullfledged Cat Lady, she loves chocolate, horses, and folk dancing. She is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books.