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.


In 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

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The Superstars

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

A finger pushes a line of black dominoes set in a pattern

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Published: 2006
Setting: Germany
Noteworthy: Printz honor; FYA Book Club pick (October 2011)

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.

Title: Between Shades of Gray 
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Published: 2011

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.

Cover of Code Name Verity, with two hands clasped and tied with a rope

Title: Code Name Verity
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Published: 2012
Series: Code Name Verity
Setting: A French Nazi prison
Era: World War II
Noteworthy: Printz honor; FYA Book Club pick (January 2013)

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.

A black background with a drawn outline of a rocket

Title: Life: An Exploded Diagram
Author: Mal Peet
Published: 2011
Setting: England
Era: WWII/Cuban Missile Crisis/21st century
Noteworthy: FYA Book Club pick (October 2012)

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.

A white girl blends into the beige background, her dark brown braid stretching down her back

Title: Out of Darkness
Author: Ashley Hope Pérez
Published: 2015
Setting: West Texas
Era: 1930s
Noteworthy: #ownvoices; Printz honor; FYA Book Club pick (November 2016)

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.

Title: The Passion of Dolssa
Author: Julie Berry
Published: 2016
Setting: Provence, France
Era: High Medieval (1240s)
Noteworthy: Printz honor

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.

Author: Jennifer Donnelly
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. 

Author: Stacey Lee (#ownvoices)
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.

Author: Ruta Sepetys
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.

Author: Elizabeth Wein
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.

Author: Cat Winters
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!

Authors: Various
Published: 1999-2005
Series: The Royal Diaries
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.

Title: In the Time of the Butterflies
Author: Julia Alvarez
Published: 1995
Setting: Dominican Republic
Era: 1960
Noteworthy: #ownvoices

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. -Stephanie

Title: In the Shadow of the Lamp
Author: 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. -Stephanie

Title: Annie, Between the States 
Author: 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. -Stephanie

Title: Fallen Angels
Author: Walter Dean Myers
Published: 1988
Setting: The trenches of Vietnam
Era: 1960s
Noteworthy: #ownvoices

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.) -Brian

Title: Flygirl
Author: Sherri L. Smith
Published: 2009
Setting: Texas
Noteworthy: #ownvoices

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.

Title: A Tyranny of Petticoats
Editor: Jessica Spotswood
Published: 2016
Setting: United States (various locations)
Era: Pre-colonial to 1970s
Noteworthy: #ownvoices

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.

Cover of Three Day Summer by Sarvenaz Tash. Psychedelic colors, a dove, and a flower

Title: Three Day Summer 
Author: 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. -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.

Title: My Lady Jane 
Authors: Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows
Published: 2016
Series: The Lady Janies
Setting: England
Era: 1550s (Pre-Elizabethan era)
Noteworthy: FYA Book Club pick (February 2017)

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. -Mandy C.

A girl's corseted back as she looks over her shoulder

Author: Libba Bray
Published: 2003
Series: Gemma Doyle
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.

Cover, an eye in a geometric shape with the city skyline behind it

Author: Libba Bray
Published: 2012-present (two released; two upcoming)
Series: The Diviners
Setting: New York City
Era: 1920s
Noteworthy: FYA Book Club pick (October 2013)

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.

Cover of The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brokenbrough. A red hand and a white hand wrestle over an airplane

Title: The Game of Love and Death
Author: 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? -Brian

A girl in a long, red dress holds a crossbow while standing outside a castle

Author: Robin LaFevers
Published: 2012
Series: His Fair Assassin
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. -Stephanie

Author: William Ritter
Published: 2014
Series: Jackaby
Setting: New Fiddleham, New England
Era: 1890s
Noteworthy: FYA Book Club pick (June 2015)

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. -Mandy C.

Author: Lindsay Smith
Published: 2014
Series: Sekret
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.

A girl with flowers in her hair lying in the grass

Author: Jessica Spotswood
Published: 2012
Series: The Cahill Witch Chronicles
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. -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.