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The FYA Beginner’s Guide to Historical YA

Want to start exploring the world of historical YA fiction, but don't know where to start? We've got you covered.

The FYA Beginner’s Guide to Historical YA

Historical fiction is a hell of a drug. I can't count the number of times I've learned about a specific era or person from a historical novel, only to find myself going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole after the book is over. It's the equivalent of coloring black-and-white photos: when done well, it brings long-past eras and people to vivid, emotional life. The best part about YA historical fiction is that it is not hard to find stories about and from historically marginalized people, making them a nice complement to otherwise staid history textbooks.

Here's a handy guide to some of our favorite historical YA. It's by no means exhaustive, but it is designed to be a good starting point for exploring the genre, from straight-up history to books interwoven with fantasy and sci-fi.

CriteriaIn order to be categorized as a "historical" YA book, we looked for books that were set 20 or more years before the book was published, in which the setting was a major part of the plot. That's why books like Eleanor & Park and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe can take place in the 80s, but because the time period itself wasn't integral to the story, they're not listed here. Of course, reasonable minds may differ, so feel free to chat with us in the comments!

Own Voices: When you see a book or author marked as "#ownvoices," that refers to when an author from a marginalized group writes about that same marginalized group. For more information and recommendations, please see the Twitter hashtag

THE SUPERSTARS

These are some of the most beloved YA historical fiction books available.

The Book Thief (Printz honor) by Marcus Zusak (October 2011 FYA Book Club pick)

Published: 2006
Setting: Germany
Era: WWII
What You’ll Love: Death narrates this heartbreaking story of a girl trying to survive WWII. This book will wreck you, and in case there are still little pieces of you left, there’s a movie, too.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Published: 2011
Setting: Lithuania
Era: WWII
What You’ll Love: Another WWII-era YA with a soon-to-be-released movie (!), this book instead focuses on the forced migration of Lithuanians to Siberian work camps. Yes, it’s depressing, yes, it’s heartbreaking—but it’s gorgeously rendered, like all of Sepetys’ books.

Code Name Verity (Printz honor) by Elizabeth Wein (January 2013 FYA Book Club pick)

Published: 2012
Setting: A French Nazi prison
Era: World War II
What You’ll Love: “It’s like falling in love, discovering your best friend,” writes Wein. As Verity gives her confession to the Nazis, she tells the story of how she met her best friend, Maddie, in the Resistance. Would you go to the lengths that Verity and Maddie do, for friendship? What if you had no choice? Wein stomps on all our hearts, but in the best way possible.

Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet (October 2012 FYA Book Club pick)

Published: 2011
Setting: England
Era: WWII/Cuban Missile Crisis/21st century
What You’ll Love: Mal Peet covers three distinct areas of history and multiple generations in this darkly funny, occasionally harsh book, slyly confiding in the reader as if the narrator, Clem, is giving them the “inside scoop” about what’s really happening. It’s the story of fumbling teen years, yes, but also the world in crisis.

Out of Darkness (Printz honor, #ownvoices) by Ashley Hope Perez (November 2016 FYA Book Club Pick)

Published: 2015
Setting: West Texas
Era: 1930s
What You’ll Love: This Romeo-and-Juliet story, set during the New London school explosion, is clearly not going to end well—but Perez writes characters and settings which come alive, even in racially oppressive and tragic times. It can be downright sexy, thanks to a cheerful love interest, but don’t expect to come away with your heart intact.

The Passion of Dolssa (Printz honor) by Julie Berry

Published: 2016
Setting: Provence, France
Era: High Medieval (1240s)
What You’ll Love: This book is wholly unlike anything else I’ve read in YA—a medieval female mystic who receives visions of God is hunted by an Inquisitor, and shielded by three sisters she meets during her exodus. The practical sisters see something spiritual and holy in Dolssa; Dolssa sees God’s work made concrete as the three sisters take care of her.

THE REPRESENTATIVES

There are a few authors out there who write historical YA almost exclusively--which can lead to some serious binge-reading. Here are a few of our favorites.

Jennifer Donnelly

Books: A Northern Light (Printz honor), Revolution, These Shallow Graves
Signature Style: Massive attention to historical detail, gently broken protagonists, and vivid settings
Why You’ll Love Her: Whether it’s her adult books or YA, Donnelly has a talent for building worlds around the reader before they even realize what’s happening. She’s heavy on detail and social custom, but it never feels overwhelming with her deft touch. 

Stacey Lee (#ownvoices)

Books: Under a Painted Sky (January 2016 FYA Book Club pick), Outrun the Moon, Dear Miss Sweetie (upcoming)
Signature Style: Self-possessed, kind heroines, and warm friendships
Why You’ll Love Her: Lee has a talent for writing books that are the historical fiction equivalent of hugs. Her settings are distinct without an overabundance of description, and her diverse cast of characters almost always value friendship and family as much as independence and justice.

Ruta Sepetys

Books: Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy, Salt to the Sea
Signature Style: Using tiny details and images to illustrate heart-rending pieces of history
Why You’ll Love Her: Sepetys is amazing at drawing out the stories of the underrepresented, even in otherwise “famous” world events. They’re heart-wrenching, but you’ll be so caught up in the historical lessons that you’ll be sobbing before you even realize what has happened.

Elizabeth Wein

Books: The Lion Hunter series, Code Name Verity (January 2013 FYA Book Club pick), Rose Under Fire, Black Dove, White Raven, The Pearl Thief (upcoming)
Signature Style: Sharply-drawn young female characters who love flying planes almost as much as they love their families and friends
Why You’ll Love Her: Wein has an almost legalistic attention to detail, but her books really shine as soon as the characters start flying. It’s clear that flying is her escape, and she demonstrates it with characters who come alive when they’re in the air.

Cat Winters

Books: In the Shadow of Blackbirds, The Cure for Dreaming, The Steep and Thorny Way, Odd and True (upcoming)
Signature Style: Paranormal plots with detailed historical settings and headstrong heroines
Why You’ll Love Her: Winters’ books all have eerie elements that benefit from historical settings, but it’s not all supernatural: she writes about the suffragette movement in Portland, OR, San Diego during the flu epidemic, and the backwoods of Oregon during the height of the KKK’s influence.

SELECTED FAVORITES

Whether you're new to the genre or have been reading historical YA for awhile, make sure you give these books a try!

 The Royal Diaries series (multiple authors)

Published: 1999-2005
Setting: Various
Era: Various
What You’ll Love: These twenty nostalgic “diaries” from royal women all over the world include old favorites, like Queen Elizabeth I, as well as far lesser-known queens and empresses. They skew toward younger readers, and if you like them, there’s also the Dear America series, which covers vignettes from American history.

In the Time of the Butterflies (#ownvoices) by Julia Alvarez

Published: 1995
Setting: Dominican Republic
Era: 1960
What You’ll Love: This is the fictionalized, but true story of the three Mirabal sisters, who were murdered for their involvement in a plot to overthrow the government. Although the tragic circumstances loom large, the writing is lovely.
—Recommended by Stephanie

In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap

Published: 2011
Setting: London/Crimean Peninsula
Era: 1854
What You’ll Love: Molly is a plucky young servant in a posh London home when she gets the opportunity to become a nurse during the Crimean War. She jumps at the opportunity to study under Florence Nightingale. Before long, there’s a love triangle—which is well-done—and despite the heavy subject matter, the ending will leave you feeling good.
—Recommended by Stephanie

Annie, Between the States by L.M. Elliott

Published: 2004
Setting: Virginia
Era: Civil War (1860s)
What You’ll Love: Annie is the daughter of a Confederate family, who has never questioned her loyalty to the South—especially when she risks life and limb to conceal soldiers and spy on the Union. Throughout the course of the war, she begins to question just why Virginia is involved, and what’s really at stake.
—Recommended by Stephanie

Fallen Angels (#ownvoices) by Walter Dean Myers

Published: 1988
Setting: The trenches of Vietnam
Era: 1960s
What You’ll Love: This is a haunting tale of black troops in Vietnam—from the fear and confusion of war, to the realization that no one really knows why the United States is there at all. (And to this day, it’s the only book that was officially challenged in Brian’s library—for language.)
 —Recommended by Brian

Flygirl (#ownvoices) by Sherri L. Smith

Published: 2009
Setting: Texas
Era: WWII
What You’ll Love: Ida Mae Jones makes the difficult decision to “pass” as a white woman so that she can join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots during WWII. She loves being in the air, but the tension on the ground includes sexism, racism, and the looming threat of war.

A Tyranny of Petticoats (#ownvoices), edited by Jessica Spotswood

Published: 2016
Setting: United States (various locations)
Era: Pre-colonial to 1970s
What You’ll Love: This anthology is written by a diverse cast of women, including several #ownvoices authors and stories. Look for the companion, The Radical Element, coming in 2018.

Three Day Summer by Sarvenaz Tash

Published: 2015
Setting: Woodstock
Era: 1969 (I got your free love right here!)
What You’ll Love: This incredibly-researched story of the three-day Woodstock festival (which is coming up on fifty years ago now—yikes) involves sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and coming of age, all in one groovy package.
—Recommended by Brian

HISTORY WITH A TWIST

Sometimes the historical setting is only part of the fun. These books weave history with magic, the supernatural, and sometimes alternate timelines.

My Lady Jane by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodie Meadows (February 2017 FYA Book Club pick)

Published: 2016
Setting: England
Era: 1550s (Pre-Elizabethan era)
What You’ll Love: Until someone figures out time travel, it's impossible to change history ... unless you're an author who decides to take such change into her own hands. In the case of My Lady Jane, there are three such authors, all who determined that the true story of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine-Day Queen, was much too sad, and would benefit from fewer executions and more people who spend half their days as (literal) horses.
—Recommended by Mandy C.

The Gemma Doyle series by Libba Bray

Published: 2003
Setting: England
Era: Victorian
What You’ll Love: You love boarding school books, don’t you? Well, this is what happens if you combine a stuffy Victorian boarding school, a magical land, terrifyingly bitchy friends, and a swoony Indian romantic lead.

The Diviners series by Libba Bray (October 2013 FYA Book Club pick)

Published: 2012-present (two released; two upcoming)
Setting: New York City
Era: 1920s
What You’ll Love: Flapper Evie O’Neill is an antiheroine of epic proportions. She tries to be nice, but there’s so much gin and self-interest to indulge in! And wouldn’t you know it, she’s also psychic—so she’s special in a way that fascinates half of America and is feared by the other. Add in some ghostly serial killers, beautiful descriptions of historic New York City, and a diverse cast, and you’ve got yourself one delicious series.

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Published: 2016
Setting: America
Era: 1937
What You’ll Love: Love and Death have a game in which they pick two mortal champions to either fall in love or break apart. This time, Love chooses a wealthy white Seattle orphan, and Death chooses a black female pilot and jazz singer. Against the background of racism, world tragedies, looming war, and the birth of jazz, the two humans play their roles. But can anyone win?
—Recommended by Brian

His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers

Published: 2012
Setting: Fantastical Britain
Era: Medieval
What You’ll Love: The god of death’s human daughter, Ismae, is a poisoner and undercover agent, sent to protect a twelve-year-old duchess. It’s full of historical detail alongside a fantasy-driven plot, and oh, hey, it’s a little steamy, too.
—Recommended by Stephanie

Jackaby series by William Ritter (June 2015 FYA Book Club pick)

Published: 2014
Setting: New Fiddleham, New England
Era: 1890s
What You’ll Love: William Ritter's Jackaby series takes its cues from Sherlock Holmes, but mixes in a heavy helping of the paranormal. Ritter's characters are delightful, and the themes of the stories transcend the time period in which they're set (particularly the main character's view on LGBTQ and womens' rights). The mysteries aren't super complex—Sherlock would likely have them sussed out in a matter of minutes—but they're entertaining and escapist, and sometimes it's fun to just go along on a slightly kooky ride.
—Recommended by Mandy C.

Sekret duology by Lindsay Smith

Published: 2014
Setting: Russia
Era: Cold War
What You’ll Love: What if the Russians had psychic spies? Yulia finds out that this is exactly the case, when she’s kidnapped and forced into serving the KGB with her extra-sensory powers. The historical detail is painstakingly rendered, but the plot is fast and feels surprisingly modern, given the 1960s setting.

The Cahill Witch Chronicles by Jessica Spotswood

Published: 2012
Setting: Alt-historical New England
Era: Late 19th century
What You’ll Love: This alt-history take on New England (witches are real, Puritans rule America, and Saudi Arabia is a pioneer of women’s rights) follows the tale of three witch sisters hiding from the ominous Brotherhood. The first book is good, but the second and third are excellent.
 —Recommended by Rosemary

Now it's your turn, because we couldn't possibly cover it all! What are your faves? Got recommendations for us? Tell us in the comments.

Jennie's photo About the Author: Jennie Kendrick lives in San Francisco and has an excessive fondness of historical fiction, spreadsheets, turquoise sparkly things, and bourbon. When she's not reading, writing, or writing about reading, she cooks obsessively, runs an Etsy shop, and thrifts for vintage everything.