It’s time for school again! I don’t know about you, but I learned next to nothing of 20th century American history in school. We barely made it to the World Wars, cruised through those, nodded at the Great Depression, and mentioned the horrors of the Holocaust. And there it ended.

Thankfully, contemporary children’s and young adult authors are writing some solid historical fiction that takes place during various 20th century eras. The seven books below all offer terrific windows into their respective time periods, are perfect for the 10-12 year old crowd (and the mature 9-year-old), and all have been published since the year 2000 (and all are available in my local library). They are not “light” reads–mostly due to length; reluctant readers may need some coaxing. But all are worth reading–particularly if you need a bit more understanding of one of the time periods in question. Keep these in mind this school year.

Each book below follows the standard middle grades plot/theme:

  • 10-12 year old protagonist (girls, in this case) learns to accept herself, 
  • learns to love her family even when they embarrass her, 
  • learns how to be a true friend, 
  • begins to wrestle with prejudice/seeing world from other perspectives, 
  • learns that her parents are real people, 
  • and emerges at the end of the book a stronger girl than at the beginning. 

All also are humanistic: during times of great struggle/stress/crisis, the human spirit rises to the occasion, the people band together, and all is okay. Worth noting, especially for those of you wishing to impart a more theologically centered view of history; still, these are excellent portrayals of their various eras and worth reading (and discussing–see below!).

Arranged in order of time period covered.

Moon Over Manifest
Clare Vanderpool
Random House, 2010 (see my earlier review)

Abilene Tucker is a heading to the small town of Manifest while her dad goes off to try to work somewhere. It’s the Depression, and she’s landed in an old mining town with nothing much happening–or so she thinks. Suddenly she finds herself trying to unravel a mystery from WWI era as well as learning quite a bit about Manifest’s interesting history.

The Mighty Miss Malone
Christopher Paul Curtis (author of Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963)
Random House, 2012

Deza is a smart cookie, the Mighty Miss Malone, and no doubt about it. Her family faces some gritty hardships in this Depression-era story; in the end, though, they stick by each other and hang in there. A great window into how hard life was for many folks, The MMM takes a bit to really get going, but it revolves around a very engaging character and will spark some good discussion.

Esperanza Rising
Pam Munoz Ryan
Scholastic, 2000

A completely different take on the Great Depression than The Mighty Miss Malone, this book is about a Mexican American family (the daughter Esperanza in particular) working with migrant workers after secretly crossing the border to the U.S. A great story as well as an eye opening peak into some of the issues surrounding immigration, equal pay for equal work, and the like. This book champions hard work, and is a great cultural study as well as an historical one. 

My Friend the Enemy
J. B. Cheaney (of Redeemed Reader)
Yearling, 2005

My Friend the Enemy takes place during WWII, but it centers around Japanese Americans in the Northwest. Hazel is a terrific little character, brave and very ungirly; she is busy looking for spies when she meets a young Japanese American boy in hiding. The book chronicles their friendship–despite the prejudices that surround them. A nice change of pace from most WWII books for the middle school audience.

The Lions of Little Rock
Kristin Levine
Putnam, 2012

The year is 1958–one year after the famous Little Rock Nine. Did you know that in 1958, Little Rock shut down its public high schools rather than integrate them?! Marlee (a young-sounding 12-year-old) is white; her best friend black. At great risk to themselves and their families, they struggle to be friends amidst the turmoil surrounding them.

Deborah Wiles
Scholastic, 2010

The Cuban Missile crisis, a dad in the Air Force, scrapbook-style photos and ads from the 1960’s, and a touch of romance set this documentary novel apart from the usual 1960’s fare. Franny is 12 years old, faces air raid drills at school, an uncle who appears to be losing his mind, and her own navigation of the middle school years. This book’s format is unique: the scrapbook-style pages between narrative chapters offer really interesting glimpses of what life was like “back then” and will provide a nice change of pace.

Inside Out and Back Again
Thanhna Lai
Harper, 2011 (see earlier review) 

One of my favorite reads last year, this is a novel in verse chronicling a young Vietnam girl’s experience fleeing to the U. S. with her family during the Vietnam War. They land eventually in Alabama, and, unfortunately, do not have a stellar experience. Very interesting to see this experience through the eyes of a Vietnamese girl. Like many of the books on this list, Inside Out makes you reevaluate your treatment of others–particularly as a Christian.

Discussion Points:

  • What qualities do you look for in a friend? Do you let others’ opinions/prejudices sway you in your choice of friends? (esp. Lions, Friend-Enemy, Inside Out, but all deal with friendship issues)
  • Do your parents always do the right thing? Do you encourage them to the do the right thing? (really, all of the books fit here)
  • What prejudices do you/your family have? What are the prejudices lurking in your community? Are they race-related? Lifestyle related? Economic? Physical (disability)? Religious?
  • Who is ultimately in control of history? Do you think a strong Christian faith would have made any difference in how these girls acted/thought? Would you do anything differently? What did they do that was laudable from a Christian perspective?
  • If you’ve done research into these time periods, do you think the author does a good job portraying the time period?

What other books along these same lines (girl or boy protagonists, 20th century US history) can you think of? I’m especially interested in those geared to the middle grades.

Books mostly from my local library; Book covers from goodreads