I was extraordinarily blessed to have my early love of historical fiction fed by a diligent mother who kept my book list stocked with great reads. I've been thinking a lot lately about how difficult these days it can be to nurture a love of reading, and I wanted to create a list of some of my all-time favorites for younger readers.
To achieve this, I stimulated my memory by going back to my mom's source: the Sonlight Book Lists. Most of the books I remember loving as a child and tween are still on the lists, and I do recommend going to their website for further ideas! I also added in some other titles I remembered as I compiled my list, and will continue to do so as they come to mind.
Sonlight is a Christain Homeschool company, but the books below are all just 'great fiction' and are appropriate for a wide variety of readers.
As I've not reread some of these books for over twenty years, I cannot do a detailed content analysis of each one. The list is based on the fact that two decades later I am still excited by these titles and think they are worth recommending, and I trust Sonlight for appropriateness. That said, since all the books were written two or more decades ago, some of them may contain terms that are no longer polite or culturally acceptable. As always, parents are recommended to review and decide what is appropriate for their own family.
Most of the books are for grades 3-6, with some skewing a little older (will be noted) and some appropriate for younger grades when read aloud together. This list is very roughly laid out in order of recommended age, from younger to older.
Note: I've specifically NOT included traditional classics, such as Tom Sawyer, Little Women, etc.
The Riveting Reads:
Detectives in Togas (And the Mystery of the Roman Ransom) by Henry Winterfeld - Humorous mysteries set in Ancient Rome.
The Minstrel in the Tower by Gloria Skurzynski- two medieval children embark on a daring quest.
Red Sails to Capri by Ann Weil - An adventure to discover a lost underwater cave
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbs- A young apprentice in Boston uncovers family secrets in the shadows of the emerging American Revolution.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham - The very entertaining (and sometimes sad) story of a young mathematical genius and how he changed the world of navigation.
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong- Young Dutch children long to coax the fabled storks back to their town.
Little Britches by Ralph Moody - A boy's coming of age in the American West (very much a masculine version of "Little House on the Praire")
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink- A spunky young girl grows up during pioneer times
Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink - Two girls are stranded on a desert island with a boatful of babies! As enchanting as it sounds. Although not written as historical fiction, it is old enough that it now counts as such.
Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop - A school of young French children must keep a desperate secret to save the lives of ten Jewish refugees during WWII.
Misty of Chincoteague (and sequels) by Marguerite Henry - like Baby Island, this famous horse book now qualifies as 'historical' even though it was written as contemporary fiction at the time. An engaging look at the mid-nineteenth-century island culture of Chincoteague.
Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan- Intrepid Swedish children sneak a valuable treasure past the enemy during WWII.
The Diving Bell by Todd Strasser - a young native islander must devise a clever solution to save her brother from greedy treasure seekers.
The Hidden Treasure of Glaston by Eleanore M. Jewett - A young boy on the run from royal revenge stumbles on a chance to uncover a mystery of ancient Camelot!
Naya Nuki by Kenneth Thomasma - The story of the less famous friend of Sacagawea, who escaped her captors and survived a harrowing journey to return to her people.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken - Although set in an 'alternative' history of England, this book is nonetheless a fun introduction to the concept of Victorian adventure novels.
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare - A young boy left alone in the New England wilderness must befriend and learn from the indigenous people...or perish.
On to Oregon by Honore Morrow - A family of orphans survive the treacherous road to Oregon.
--the following titles are all for the older end of the spectrum, some including romances and also some more mature themes.--
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare - A strong-willed young woman must leave her tropical home and survive the cold and suspicious community of her New English cousins. (Does not contain any witchcraft.)
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor - A gripping and immersive story of a young black girl growing up with the racial tensions of the American South.
Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen - A young Arab woman defies convention to save her family and ensure their future.
Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare - A young woman and her family are captured and sold on the frontier.
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare- In first century Israel, a young zealot seeks revenge on the Romans.
Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer - An English princess navigates precarious politics as her father rips apart her country and her family in his quest to divorce her mother.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw - A young enslaved woman is recruited as a spy in Hatshepsut's Egypt. (Quite a memorable romance, but lots of action too!)
The Ramsey Scallop by Francis Temple - Two young people with chips on their shoulders are betrothed, then sent off on a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.
In addition to the stand-alone/trilogy/duology titles above, there are also some great series that I absolutely devoured as a kid:
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Books
The American Girl Books - I really cannot say enough good things about the books of the original seven characters: Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, Kit and Molly. While I have either not read or particularly been impressed by most of the newer stories, I was absolutely enchanted by the Mary Ellen books (1950's) as an adult and I believe they would be great for younger readers as well.
Dear America Books - This series deserves its own post, but for now, I'll say that especially memorable titles for me were, "The Winter of the Red Snow," "Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie," and "Dreams in the Golden Country." Probably recommended for grades 5+
The Royal Diaries - Same concept as the Dear America Books and perhaps for a slightly older audience; I was obsessed with these. Some of my favorites included Anastasia, Isabel of Castile, and Marie Antoinette.
The Trailblazer Books by Dave and Neta Jackson - FYI, these are explicitly Christian, but they really bring alive the stories of missionaries through the eyes of young people. I read the following over and over again, "Spy for the Night Riders," "The Flight of the Fugitives," "The Hidden Jewel," "The Queen's Smuggler," "The Mayflower Secret," and "Kidnapped by River Rats."
The American Adventure Book Series - this ambitiously comprehensive series follows a family line from the Mayflower through WWII. I especially loved that one segment of the series was set in Minneapolis, MN, my hometown!
All these books went on to form me as a writer and lover of history, and I hope they inspire you and your budding historians as well!
(And of course, if you haven't already, you might also enjoy checking out my own foray into Middle-School Historical Fiction: Lilibet Lynn and the Children of Sherwood.)