Picture this!

Read Feed

Picture this!

Historical Young Adult Literature

Usually when one thinks of young adult literature, the first associations that may come to mind are magic or fantasy. It’s safe to say that realistic fiction comes in close second – slice of life drama or texts that illustrate compelling characters. But readers looking for something different should try adding a little history to their YA selections – these novels might just broaden your perception of the quality literature that this genre has to offer.

For those who like just a dash of history to add spice to their reading, try the His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers. Part of a trilogy, the series begins with Grave Mercy, which follows the story of Ismae. Shunned by her family and village, Ismae is sent to the convent of St. Mortain, where she will nurture her talents to become a deadly assassin for the crown alongside her fellow sisters. Set in a time of great turmoil in Europe during the fifteenth century, the series offers a read that is full of dark suspense. LaFever's series touches upon the history of the era while still intermingling a tale of deadly deception that is strongly atmospheric. Fans of romance will not be disappointed but be forewarned: a book that stars a girl who lives and breathes death will hardly capture your typical adventures. Instead, be prepared for a violent but lush tale. 

In contrast, Rae Carson’s book Walk on Earth a Stranger develops a plot that moves at a slower pace. Fans of Carson’s previous series, Girl of Fire and Thorns, will be drawn to her unique blend of magical realism and history. Set in the California gold rush era, Carson’s first of a trilogy stars Lee Westfall, a girl with a deadly secret. Lee can sense the presence of gold, and when that knowledge falls into the wrong hands, Lee’s family is tragically killed. Determined to flee before her power does any more harm, Lee disguises herself as a boy and sets out west. Carson’s setting and textual detail are elaborate; more importantly, Lee is a character that readers will sympathize with and grow to admire. Who knows where this perilous road will end?

Similarly, Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin is a powerhouse novel, filled with intrigue. It’s not often that I find a book that must be so hungrily devoured. Graudin re-imagines history, to ask readers what the world would be like if the Third Reich and Imperial Japan had won WWII. Graudin combines the fantastic with authenticity in the character of Yael, a young Jewish woman who escaped the hell of the camps only to become the prisoner of a scientist bent on human experimentation. Tragically unable to flee, Yael turns her suffering into power as she becomes a spy for the waning resistance. Taking the alias of the only female bike racer to ever challenge an annual European motorcycle race,Yael hopes to win – and thus take her chance to kill the Furor.- Only available as ebook

For readers who are interested in the topic of the Holocaust or WWII, they should also consider the works of Ruta Sepetys. Sepetys recently wrote Salt to the Sea (it’s in my stash for future reading) but as a Carnegie Medal nominee, readers might find Sepetys' first novel Between Shades of Gray compelling. The novel dwells on the Russian genocide – a topic often not discussed. Sepetys’ account follows the story of Lina and her family after the Russians invade and forcibly re-locate countless Lithuanians during 1939. Lina and her family are forced to move to a labor camp; having lost her father already, Lina’s tenuous grip on her family’s safety and her hope for the future is continuously tested. Her decision to record their struggle through pictures that would be considered dangerous contraband if found is a profound meditation on the risks that people will take to protect their family, their culture or even their sense of self.  For different fare that still offers an equally challenging perspective on history, try Outrun the Moon by Stacy Lee, or Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson; both texts are worthwhile in their own right but especially for their take on weighty subject matter.

On a lighter note, admittedly, I am a big fan of romance novels, especially those set in the Georgian or Victorian era. Only romance writers can spin the mannerisms of Jane Austen, with witty social commentary into a whirlwind of delight. But hints of passion can peak out even in more unusual YA novels. Katherine Baldwin's new series, for example, starts with A School for Unusual Girls. Take five young ladies with some very diverse talents and a penchant for trouble and you get Stranje House – a school designed to teach girls more than the gentle arts of sewing and entertaining. From laughter to smitten sighs, readers will enjoy this unique depiction of the Napoleonic era. Should this book be just what you are looking for, don’t forget to glance at The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman as well. This novel features a heroine with supernatural abilities but mixes in elements of the supernatural. It's delightfully creepy. 

As these novels demonstrate, the thematic inclusion of history not only has the ability to set a mood but also create a picture of a previous time. But as these adroit authors show, history does not stand still – indeed it can be twisted to depict both the fanciful and the mundane, reshaping not only how we see the past but our participation in it.