A little over a week ago I spent a lovely afternoon drinking milkshakes and browsing my local indie bookstore with a good friend. (AKA one of the best ways to pass the time.) While we were aggressively perusing the YA section, she asked me about my favorite historical fiction titles. And while I had a few names ready to hand, it was hard to think of others that I’ve loved off the top of my head.
But! Now that I’ve had time to think it over, browse my own bookshelves, and review my Goodreads account, I’ve compiled a handy list that I’d love to share with you, in no particular order. Note that the following list is Some of My Favorites, seeing as I have a reading problem and could add another title at any time. Additionally, this list will focus just on YA historical, no cross-genre and no adult titles. Those are posts for another time.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
This might be my favorite book of all time. Mattie Gokey longs to be a writer, but the realities of living on a dead-end farm in the Adirondacks are keeping her from realizing her dream. Hoping to raise money to go to college, Mattie takes a job at a local hotel, where guest Grace Brown asks her to burn a packet of letters. When Grace drowns, Mattie begins to suspect that the letters hold the key. Weaving seamlessly between past and present, Donnelly paints a beautiful, stark portrait of life in 1906 upstate New York, with a heroine who feels like your best friend. It’s also based on a real-life murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, but for me, the real pleasure lies in Donnelly’s command of language and Mattie’s determination to achieve her dreams.
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Within the first three chapters, I knew this was going to make my top list of YA historicals. In 1959 Virginia, Sarah Dunbar becomes one of the first black students to integrate Jefferson High School. It’s not an easy step: she and the other black students are placed in remedial classes (despite their top grades) and face daily torment by angry white students. But things get even more complicated when Sarah is forced to work on a school project with Linda Hairston, daughter of the town’s most vocal segregationist. As they confront each other and their own beliefs about race and power, Sarah and Linda come to realize that their relationship is evolving into something beyond friendship. Shifting between perspectives, Talley does an incredible job showing the conflict between Sarah and Linda and how their beliefs change as their relationship deepens. Her portrayal of school desegregation is visceral and horrifying, all the more so because it actually happened.
A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller
I read this one on our honeymoon in England last July, and it was the perfect complement to days spent wandering the real Downton Abbey and drinking tea. It’s 1909, and Vicky Darling longs to be an artist. When she’s expelled from her French finishing school, she returns home to England in disgrace, where her parents try to marry her off as soon as possible to save her reputation. But as Vicky pursues her secret application to the Royal College of Art, she becomes increasingly involved in the growing suffrage movement and falls for a policeman who shows her another way of life. Vicky is an engaging, determined heroine (are you noticing a trend?), and Waller’s depiction of Edwardian high society and its bohemian underbelly was enthralling. If you’re currently suffering through a Downton Abbey withdrawal (I think mine is permanent), pick this one up.
It’s 1936, and Sophie FitzOsborne lives in a decrepit castle on the island kingdom of Montmaray with her brother Toby and sister Henry, her brilliant cousin Veronica, and King John, the insane leader of Montmaray. Sophie spends her time writing about her eccentric family in her journal, but when two mysterious Germans arrive on the island, all of Montmaray might be in danger. I won’t say anything about the sequels, but this entire series is AMAZING. It includes eccentric British royalty, prewar Britain, WWII, the League of Nations, and diplomacy, among many other topics. Sophie’s narration (told in journal entries) is so real that when her entries skip weeks or months to get to the next big event, I actually scream “But what happened?!” at the book because I feel cheated of that little bit of her life. It’s that good. It’s perfect if you loved I Capture the Castle, are fascinated by the Mitford sisters, or just want a series you can sink into.
The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
Wales, 1293. Behind imposing city walls, the English have been governing the conquered Welsh people for ten long, cruel years. But the Welsh aren’t ready to give up, and two girls – one English, one Welsh – get caught in the middle. Cecily is newly arrived in Caernarvon, and she can’t stand living in Wales. Gwenhwyfar is forced to put up with Cecily’s complaints and privilege as a servant in her house, and she only looks forward to the day when the English will leave. Examining an event from multiple points of view is one of the things I love most about history, and Coats deftly portrays both girls’ conflicting beliefs. She also paints a visceral, vivid portrait of life in medieval Wales, something I knew very little about, and by the end you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross
In fin de siecle Paris, Maude Pichon, desperate for money, takes an unusual job. She will be a repoussoir, a plain foil meant to make her clients look more beautiful. A wealthy countess hires Maude to be the companion for her headstrong daughter Isabelle, in hopes that Maude’s plainness will help Isabelle attract a husband. But the more Maude gets to know Isabelle, the more she discovers she likes her new friend, and the more precarious her position in the beauty-obsessed aristocracy becomes. This is a compelling look at friendship, self-worth, and just what makes something (or someone) beautiful, with an engaging portrayal of 19th-century Paris.
And that’s it from me! What are your favorites?