In my experience, most teens won’t even look at hist. fic. unless they have to read it for a school assignment. You know, stuff like My Brother Sam is SO Dead, or Johnny TREmain (as in TREmendously booorrrriiinnggg!) Oh, trust me, my adolescent friends, I have been there, and I know your pain. That’s why I’m sending some stories your way that promise action, mystery and in some cases, some good old fashioned gore. Sure, you may not know much about history, but learning it from these juicy fictional accounts is way more fun than memorizing any old, dry textbook. And won’t you impress Mr. or Mrs. “I’ve-Been-Teaching-History-Since-Before-WWI” when you display your dazzling knowledge of Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, or pagan Iceland in the time of the Vikings. Don’t be afraid to shout out to some of those dried-up, monotonous-monotone history teachers just what kind of hist. fic. you want to read: the kind that doesn’t put you to sleep! And maybe, just maybe, between all of you and me, we can start a revolution of revised historical fiction reading lists. Viva la Hist. Fic. for Hipsters!
Historical Fiction for Hipsters
What if the Underground Railroad was actually a REAL railroad? That’s the question author Colson Whitehead asks in this allegorical historical fiction about one slave woman’s quest for freedom in a twisted version of America that is both fantastical and horribly real. Cora is only a teenager. But she feels a thousand years old, due to the brutal living conditions she must endure as a field slave on the Randall plantation. When another slave named Caesar asks her to run away with him, she refuses at first, thinking of how her own mother escaped the plantation and left her alone to fend for herself. But after she is savagely whipped for trying to save a child from being beaten, she decides she has nothing left to lose. Through an abolitionist network, Cora and Caesar are given passage on the Underground Railroad, a secret subterranean railway that carries runaway slaves across the Southern states to freedom. But not always safety, as the two soon discover. Instead of the liberty she imagined, Cora instead experiences nightmarish scenarios at each stop that mirror actual historical events, from insidious medical experiments to celebratory Friday lynchings. And all the while, she is being ruthlessly stalked by the slave catcher Ridgeway, who has sworn to bring her back to Randall no matter what, because her mother was the only slave who ever escaped his clutches. Each time Cora thinks she has found a place of safety, it is viciously snatched away. Does she have any chance in this merciless world where black girl’s lives are worth less than a crate of rum? Cora may just be a teenager. But she is also a survivor.
This beautiful, devastating novel may have been published for an adult audience, but the powerful, precise prose reads like a timeless classic that should be experienced by everyone over the age of 14. I have no doubt that this book will find it’s way onto hundreds of high school reading lists and college syllabi by the end of next year, alongside the writings of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. But despite it’s insta-classic feel, readers can also easily draw parallels between Cora’s endless trials and our current racial and social ills, including Stop and Frisk, hate speech and anti-immigrant rhetoric. While this book often made me soul sick, I couldn’t wait to finish it to discover how Cora’s extraordinary journey concluded. And because The Underground Railroad is the latest pick for Oprah’s Book Club, you should have zero problems getting a copy asap from your local library, bookstore or on your e-reader. Want more? Listen to this outstanding interview between Colson Whitehead and Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Three tweens walk into a tavern: a Christian, a Jew and an African. Too young to drink, they instead make miracles and take on the King of France with their devoted dog, a resurrected greyhound named Gwenforte. What sounds like the beginning of a classic joke or a superhero origin story is actually a fresh, irreverent all-ages take on the Middle Ages by A Tale Dark and Grimm author Adam Gidwitz. Jeanne, William and Jacob meet unexpectedly at a tavern in France when each has been expelled from their respective communities. Peasant Jeanne is arrested by mercenary knights who suspect she has raised her dog from the dead, monk-in-training William is forced to leave his monastery after losing his temper and splitting a solid stone bench many times his weight, and Jacob, a young Jewish boy with healing in his hands, is on the run after vengeful Christians burn his family’s village to the ground. Their talents are recognized by a giant red headed monk named Michelangelo di Bologna, who convinces the three miracle workers to join him on a secret quest to save thousands of copies of Talmuds, a Jewish holy book, that have been ordered to be burned by the Christian King of France. Can they do it? Three kids, a dog and a crazy monk? The only people who know the answer to that question are the folks gathered at the tavern bar who are taking turns telling the parts of the tale that they know or have witnessed. Lean in, pull up a ginger beer and listen close as they share the story of Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. This Canterbury Tales meets X-Men is a raucous, incredibly well-researched story that includes everything from flatulent dragons to meaningful and enlightening discussions about history and religion. With a detailed author’s note and gorgeous illustrations from artist Hatem Aly, you couldn’t find a better action/adventure intro to medieval religion than this book! (Except maybe this one🙂 Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you September 2016.
Noah Keller, a pretty ordinary kid except for his “Astonishing Stutter,” is stunned when he comes home from school one day and his parents announce they are leaving their hometown of Oasis, Virginia and heading to one of the grimmest places on earth in 1989: East Berlin behind the Berlin Wall. While his mother explains that the family is going to Germany for six months so that she can study German children’s speech problems for her graduate degree, Noah is suspicious. If his mother is just conducting research, why do they all have to change their names? Why aren’t they allowed to talk about anything serious within the walls of their new apartment? And why can’t he go to school with other East German children? The less information his parents share, the more Noah’s doubt grows until he decides to investigate the strict boundaries of his new world on his own. With the help of his downstairs neighbor Claudia (who he dubs “Cloud”) Noah begins to ask some questions whose answers may put his entire family in terrible danger. Because in Noah’s new reality, no one is who they seem. Who are Noah’s parents, really? Who is Claudia? And how can Noah find out the truth without hurting everyone he loves? This unusual, fable-like mystery, set in the near past and chock full of fascinating facts about the claustrophobic, formally Communist East Berlin will captivate readers with it’s intriguing premise and cryptic characters. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you October 2016.
In 1241 medieval France, the all-powerful Catholic Church doesn’t take kindly to anyone who questions its authority. So when Dolssa de Sigata, an eighteen year old noblewoman begins healing people by channeling the divine energy of Jesus, who she calls her “beloved,” the Church hands down a death sentence: she and her mother are to be burned at the stake as heretics. But just as Dolssa is about to be thrown on the pyre, her ropes are miraculously loosened and she is told to “RUN!” Believing she has just been saved by her beloved, Dolssa flees into the countryside, only to sicken and starve as she has no idea how to live outside the walls of her villa. Enter Bottile, a bawdy barmaid/matchmaker who finds Dolssa on the side of the road and brings her back to her tiny seaside home of Bajas, where she hides Dolssa in the tavern she runs with her two sisters. As the gentlewoman begins to heal under the peasant’s tender care, the Church dispatches a team of priests and even a knight to find Dolssa and bring her back to be burned. Once Dolssa regains her strength, she wants to help those who have helped her. But when word of her miracles reaches the Church, their retribution is swift and it may be that instead of helping, Dolssa has doomed the entire village of Bajas to suffer her fiery fate. This delicious doorstop of a historical fiction is chock full of mystery, suspense, romance and setting details that will make your mouth water and your nose fill with the smell of roasted fish, sun-ripened grapes and sea salt. Frantic to find out what would happen to sweet Dolssa and saucy Bottile, I raced through the pages but look forward to going back and savoring the fascinating medieval vocab and spot-on historical detail. A thorough author’s note at the back will help you appreciate both, as will a character list, glossary and bibliography. Honestly, I was SHOCKED at how geeked-out I became about female heretics in medieval France! And I think you will be too when The Passion of Dolssa wings its way to your nearest library, bookstore or e-reader April 2016.
It’s the middle of winter in 1977 upstate New York, and seventeen year old Nick has decided he’s OVER being a burnout banger. So he ditches his pot-smoking friends, trades in his ratty concert tees for a shirt and tie and memorizes his new mantra: STAND OUT. STAND UP. STAND BY. STAND FAST. When his best friend makes a break for Florida, he makes a tentative plan to join once he has the cash. He starts logging serious hours at his crappy convince store job, but at a minimum wage of $2+ an hour, he’s hardly making any bank. Just as it looks like his beach dream may not come true, he is seduced by a Joan Jett look alike named Dawn who convinces him to dip back into the druggie world for one last big score. If Nick can pull it off, he will make enough for both he and Dawn to ride south into the sunset. Can he convince Dawn’s unstable drug lord boyfriend to trust him long enough to steal his stash AND his girl? This slow-burning thriller is full of twists and tension, with a setting that really captures the white 1970’s in rural/suburban America. I felt like I knew Nick and his crew pretty well, as they resembled the guys I stood next to at the school bus stop and watched trade cigarettes in the art and shop rooms at school. If you’re not entirely sure what I’m talking about, check out these 1970’s film gems about being a kid and teen back in the day and read SNOW JOB when it hits the library and bookstore shelves March 2016.
It is 1945 and WWII is coming to a messy, brutal end. Germany is being squeezed by the Allies on both sides (British and American troops from the west, Russian troops from the east) and panicked civilians and refugees are desperate to escape the war torn country. Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse haunted by the loss of her family, is trying to save anyone who crosses her path, no matter how impossible their circumstances may be. Florian, a Prussian assistant curator, is traveling to the coast with a precious object that if discovered, could topple the entire Third Reich. Emilia, a sixteen year old Polish girl, is looking for a savior even as she hides a secret that could either ruin or redeem her, depending on who she trusts with the truth. And Alfred is a vain young Nazi in training, trying to hide his cowardliness behind a gruff curtain of superiority, even as he finds his slim grip on sanity slipping away. These four young people find their fates intertwined when they all board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German refugee transport ship that is supposed to carry them to safety. But the unlucky Gusloff is torpedoed by Russian submarines and sank on January 30th, 1945. Over 9000 people perish. Who among the four fleeing teens survives the icy waters and overcrowded lifeboats to start a new life in a new land–if any? Award-winning author Ruta Sepety‘s historical fiction could not be more timely as countries around the world wrestle with the question of how to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria today. Told in four intense, original voices, this masterful and heartrending tale about a little known WWII tragedy will help readers empathize with the plight of refugees throughout history. Don’t miss this boat when it comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2016.
It’s the summer of 1977 in Queens, New York and situations both inside and outside seventeen-year-old Nora Lopez’s life are threatening to explode. Outside the tiny apartment Nora’s single mom works day and night to hold onto, it is the hottest summer on record. Arsonists are setting random fires around the city that are keeping the firemen like Nora’s best friend Kathleen’s dad busy day and night. There is a serial killer on the loose calling himself “The Son of Sam” who murders young couples in their cars and sends terrifying letters to the newspapers that give Nora nightmares. A city-wide blackout encourages a wave of crime that causes tempers to flare and feelings of fear and racism to flourish. Meanwhile, closer to home, Nora’s younger brother Hector, always a troublemaker, seems to be getting worse. A violent drop-out with a drug addiction, Hector rages at Nora, physically strikes their mother and rarely comes home at night. Nora is worried that he is possibly one of the city’s destructive arsonists. But she stuffs her misgivings deep inside, afraid of what telling the truth will do to her already fractured family. “How can you make people understand about brothers who hit and spit? How do you explain why you listen at your own door before going in? How do you explain that it’s not only parents who beat kids, but sometimes the other way around, too?” Nora longs to ask her father for help, but he has a new family in Manhattan and only calls on holidays to hear good news, not problems. The only bright spot in Nora’ life is her blossoming romance with her deli co-worker Pablo. His dreamy good looks and positive attitude give Nora hope. But when Hector takes his brutality to a new level and her mother loses her factory job, Nora pulls away from Pablo, afraid to draw him into her family drama. She’s never felt so alone, and wishes her mother didn’t always expect her hold everything together. “Shouldn’t she be able to take better care of us? Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do? Take care of their kids? Shield them from stuff? Pay bills? Why is everything the other way around for us?” Can Nora learn to ask for the help she needs before her entire world combusts? The novel takes it’s title from a well known disco song, but while Nora escapes to the club to forget her problems, the music can’t save her. I have deep love for Meg Medina’s books because they are set in my beloved Queens (my neighborhood of Forest Hills gets a shout out for it’s historical Tudor houses and because it was sadly a notorious site of one of the Son of Sam murders) and her teen characterizations are spot on. The feelings she conveys are honest and authentic, and her descriptions of NYC back in the day will make the 70’s come alive for you. Nora is a complex, original character who will bring your summer to its knees when you get your hands on this hotter than hot novel in March 2016.
What do a brother and sister in 1935 Nazi Germany, two homeless boys in 1935 Philadelphia and a young Latino girl in 1942 California have in common? A magical harmonica and the hope that lives within it. In Pam Munoz Ryan’s epic, all-ages novel, the power of music unites these young people across time and space as they each awaken the sleeping enchantment that is embedded in the deceptively simple instrument.
Twelve-year-old music prodigy Frederick and eighteen-year-old nursing student Elisabeth were once the closest of siblings, but they have grown apart due to Elisabeth’s new found fascination with the German chancellor Adolf Hitler. Elisabeth believes in Hitler’s propaganda about about a “pure” race with no physical or mental flaws and Frederich, who was born with a large purple birthmark on his face, wonders how his sister can accept an idea that essentially brands him as an outsider in his own country. When their father is picked up by Nazi soldiers while Elisabeth is away, Frederich must embark on dangerous journey to save him, his only comfort the strange and beautiful harmonica he found in an abandoned warehouse.
Mike and Frankie have been living at The Bishop’s Home for Friendless and Destitute Children since their Granny couldn’t take care of them anymore. Their only solace is each other and the old piano that Mile knows how to play from Granny’s many lessons. When a rich stranger arrives and offers to adopt them both because of Mike’s musical talent, the boys think their ship has come in. But when the situation turns out to be more complicated than Mike thought, he decides to sacrifice his own happiness in order to save his brother by auditioning for Hoxie’s Harmonica Wizards, a traveling harmonica band that takes in young musicians and pays for their keep. Maybe the family will love Frankie more if Mike leaves. But before his final audition, Mike learns a secret that threatens to destroy the plan riding on his skill with the beautiful harmonica he found in an old music shop.
Ivy is devastated when she learns that her family is leaving Fresno for a new home outside of Los Angeles. She was supposed to play her beloved harmonica in a radio show with her class, but now she must leave all her friends and start over at a farm that her father is taking care of for a family that has been sent to a Japanese internment camp. When she is pulled into a frightening situation where she must come to the aid of the Japanese family who provided her family with their new home, the only thing that soothes her fear is the music she plays on her harmonica.
The three stories converge on one night in 1951. How do Frederick, Mike and Ivy find each other and what brings them together? I wouldn’t dream of denying you the incredible satisfaction of finding that answer out for yourself. A hopeful, lyrically written story about the magic of the everyday and how one person, no matter how young, can make a difference. Whether you are six, sixteen or sixty, everyone should read Echo.
Ruth would do anything to get out of Gran’s “old person smelling” house, but the results are disastrous when cute Ray Stevens offers a sleepover with benefits. Dora wishes she had a place she could call home because no matter how kind Dumping’s parents are, she can never forget that she is a guest in their house due to her father’s inability to stay away from the bottle. Dumpling always wears a red ribbon on the end of her braid for luck, but it doesn’t save her from what fate has in store. Alyce is torn between the two worlds of professional ballet and commercial fishing, and making a choice means disappointing one of her divorced parents. Hank is forced to take his two younger brothers on the run in order to find out where he truly belongs. This group of disenfranchised Alaskan teens living on the edges of their white, Athabaskan and Inupiat communities in the 1970’s end up coming together in complicated and unexpected ways that will delight and surprise readers. Based on the debut author’s own experiences growing up in Alaska, this character-rich, poetically-written, all-ages read will be available at a library, bookstore or e-reader near you February 2016.