Since my latest post on the Dear America series, I’ve had several people ask me about other books that creatively engage the reader with the past. As many of the people who asked me are teachers and parents trying to find supplemental ways of teaching history at home and on an online schooling platform, I decided to synthesize some of my favorites into a blog post for easy reference. Rather than post the synopsis of each of them in the body of the blog, I’ve included Amazon links at the end (where there is more than one book in a series or by an author, I have linked to the first book or some of my favorites by said author).
For the Young Reader to Middle Grade Reader
If you like historical fiction written in the form of diary entries from the perspective of children who lived during the time period or event the book covers, check out the Dear America series (and both of its companion series Dear America: Royal Diaries and My Name is America). For more information on the series and a first-hand account of how it helped make history personal for me when I was a young reader, check out my blog post here. One of the things I like about this series, other than what I covered in my last post, is the books cover a wide range of topics and put the reader in the shoes of people of varying social status, backgrounds, and genders.
The Impossible Dreamers by Rebecca Janney is another good historical fiction series that explores some of history’s greatest mysteries such as the lost colony of Roanoke, Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, and the Loch Ness Monster. They are quick, easy reads and provide some interesting conclusions to what might have happened.
For the young to middle grade reader who prefers fiction with elements of history in the narrative, the 39 Clues series is a great place to start. It follows a brother and sister as they compete against their eccentric relatives in a treasure hunt around the world for 39 clues that unlock their late grandma’s family fortune. Each book is written by a different author, including some fairly well-known ones like Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson), Margaret Peterson Haddix (The Missing, which I also recommend for the middle grade reader!), and David Baldacci (Amos Decker).
For the Young Adult/Older Reader
One of my first introductions to historical fantasy (historical fiction that uses fantastical elements, like magic, time travel, or alternative history, in a realistic narrative) was the River of Time series by Lisa T. Bergren. In this case, the fantastical element is time travel. It follows two sisters transported back in time to 14th century Italy during a fierce battle between opposing knights. I enjoyed seeing the way history shaped the girls and vice versa as they interacted with the past and those in it in their efforts to get back home.
My debut novel Crimson Timealso uses time travel to unlock the narrative of history, particularly that of women in the past. It follows Adelaide as she is thrust into the world of the Red Rose Society, a secret order made up of the descendants of historical figures. If Adelaide wants to get into the Red Rose Society and gain the answers she seeks, she’ll have to survive a trip to the past and outwit the other initiates before the clock runs down.
Pam Jenoff is a historical fiction author of several books. One of my favorites is The Lost Girls of Paris. It creatively tells the story of the female branch of the SOE (Special Operations Executive, a covert British World War II organization) and their operations in France. The novel follows three women, one who finds a suitcase filled with black and white photographs of women and journeys to find out who they are, one who runs the female branch of the SOE, and one who is recruited to spy for the SOE across the French boarder. Though the novel jumps between narrators and across years, it flows together quite well and is a great read if you’re interested in female espionage.
Lynn Austin is also a fantastic historical fiction author who has written several books. Two of my favorites are A Proper Pursuit, which takes place during the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and If I Were You, which follows two unlikely friends throughout the rise and fall of manor life with a Downton Abbey-esque feel to it. Her books are always rich in historical detail and beautifully written.
Narrative Historical Non-Fiction
Narrative historical non-fiction is a great happy medium between historical fiction and non-fiction. It is written in narrative style, so it flows just as a fiction book does, but the story it tells and the facts it relays are true.
Karen Abbott is one such author who has adopted this style of writing. She has several books, but one of my favorites is Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which follows four real women who were involved in espionage during the American Civil War. It jumps between each of their stories as they occurred during the progression of the war.
Another great narrative historical non-fiction author is Erik Larson. All of his books are stocked full of well-researched historic detail, including lesser known facts and idiosyncrasies of the past. One of my favorites of his books is The Devil in the White City. It jumps between the story of Daniel Burnham as he plans and designs the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and the serial killer HH Holmes as he uses the rich atmosphere of the Chicago World’s Fair as his hunting ground.
If you’re looking for a straight up nonfiction book and enjoy learning about female espionage or World War II, I recommend Women Wartime Spies by Ann Kramer. It does a deep dive into the female branch of the SOE and the women who were a part of it as well as into other women and agencies who helped win the war through espionage work. I actually read this book simultaneously with The Lost Girls of Paris, which greatly enriched my reading of both books as they helped inform each other. **Side note: I often find it beneficial to read a fiction book and a nonfiction on the same subject at the same time. I find it helps me better appreciate and understand the history unfolding in the fiction and vice versa. Give it a try and let me know what you think!**
Another great nonfiction is Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn. What I love about this book is that it talks about Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart side by side. With this structure, it is easier to see the parallels and contrasts between their two lives and rule, as well as the way their blood relation and the climate of the time they lived kept them in a complicated dance of both friend and foe.
I hope the books above give you a solid foundation to build upon as you discover what types of history-related books most interest you. Happy reading!
Dear America: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0012IYKDC/
The Impossible Dreamers: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1576730182/
39 Clues: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0545060397/
Crimson Time: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DQZDLNT/
The Lost Girls of Paris: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07C9MBL72/
A Proper Pursuit: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0764228919/
If I Were You: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1496437306/
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0062092901/
The Devil in the White City: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0375725601/
Women Wartime Spies: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008KMO9AW/
Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0375708200/
-Emily VanderBent, Junior Girl