Times were a’changin’ in the 1960s, no doubt about it. And a slew of recent noteworthy historical fiction novels have covered various aspects of this tumultuous time in our country’s history; all of the titles below are geared more or less to the middle grades age bracket (5th-8th). I’ve found all of them in my local library; hopefully you will, too! (It’s worth reminding folks of books like The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 that are also good fits for this age group but were published pre-2000.)
Things to Note/Discuss: (these work for most of the books below)
- as middle grade novels, all novels address a mild coming-of-age in the sense that the main character is learning to stand on his or her own two feet and beginning to see him/herself as separate from parental figures. Parents are still around, but the protagonist is beginning to see them a little more accurately–not merely as “mom” or “dad.”
- All novels below celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and the role humans play in changing history. This is valid to a degree, but it’s also important to recognize with your children that the Lord ultimately directs history.
- Unless noted below, these novels are middle grades (5th-8th) in terms of maturity of content, length of book/reading level, and issues faced. You might not want to hand some of these to your precocious 3rd grader.
- Most of these books explore the “biggies” of the 1960’s (Communism scares, Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights, Vietnam War)–much to discuss along those lines! In particular, many of these novels examine friendship across party/racial lines, the impact of prejudice on a community, fear (of violence, war, retaliation, etc.), and the question of “who do you trust” (including the gov’t). Definitely worth discussing!
The Lions of Little Rock
The year after the famous Little Rock Nine. Technically set in 1958, this book has enough relevance to the 1960s that I’m including it here. This is a solid historical fiction offering for the 6th-8th grade crowd, but it’s a touch long. Girl protagonist. My friend Brandy wrote an excellent review, so I won’t offer more details here.
Dead End in Norvelt
2011–Newbery Winner 2012
Small town, “ordinary life,” with fear of Commies leaking through.This book won the coveted Newbery, but it’s not my favorite of this lineup. Still, it’s funny, features a boy protagonist, and isn’t too caught up in “fiction for the sake of teaching great historical moments.” I’ve reviewed it more in depth earlier this year. Due to length, primarily, this is probably for the 6th-8th grade audience.
Cuban Missile Crisis. The format of this book sets it apart–scrapbook style featuring newspaper clippings, headlines, ads, etc. from the time period interspersed with chapters of the actual narrative. Girl protagonist who’s a bit more “girly” than some of the others on this list. Appropriate for any of the middle grades; scrapbook style may make this an appealing read for reluctant readers.
1960s small town Mississippi–the summer of the Freedom Riders. Girl protagonist who befriends a Yankee girl; the town pool has been closed because some white folks in the town want to keep it segregated…. The usual Civil Rights issues and tensions, but in a nice, readable story for the younger end of the middle grades spectrum (say, 4th-6th). 3rd graders might enjoy this, too.
One Crazy Summer
Rita Williams Garcia
2010; Newbery Honor, National Book Award Finalist, Scott O’Dell Award (for historical fiction), Coretta Scott King Award, etc.
1960s California and the Black Panthers. I’ll admit it: I did NOT like this book. Still, it’s won a slew of awards, is nice and short (which is getting hard to find), and is a solid historical fiction offering for the 4th-6th crowd. Girl protagonist.
Okay for Now
2011; National Book Award Finalist
1960s “ordinary life” but the Vietnam War is definitely a part of Doug’s experience as he navigates 8th grade in a new town. Companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, it has a slightly “older” feel–perhaps 7th-9th grade. Let me tell you, Schmidt can write. Wow. This book packs a punch and will be worth discussing. It’s not always a “fun” read, but it’s a GREAT one.
The Wednesday Wars
2006; 2007 Newbery Honor
One of my faves, this book precedes Okay for Now, and features Holling (and OK4N‘s Doug as a supporting character) in the 7th grade; 1967-8 and the Vietnam War is overshadowing their normal middle school adventures. A nice Shakespearean touch in this one and FANTASTIC characters.
Inside Out and Back Again
2011; 2012 Newbery Honor, National Book Award Winner
One of my all-time favorite middle grade novels, this is a novel in verse about a young girl who emigrates from Vietnam to the U.S. (Alabama, actually). Very readable, despite the “verse” element, it’s also great for the younger half of the middle grades audience (4th-6th).
Book covers from goodreads