New Young Adult Novels: Exploring the World Through Historical Fiction

-posted by Ruth

Reading is one of the best ways to come to understand the world around us, experiencing through a character’s eyes, ears, and actions what it might feel like to be part of that life and time.  Historical fiction works when readers are engaged with believable characters who are well-drawn and allow us to empathize with their world and life choices. Too often, though, the emphasis is on the time period or historical event and less on the characters themselves and their story.  This makes the genre less likely to be a top choice for teens–and adults as well.

But there are several exceptions published recently.  These engaging historical novels feature strong young women who experience times and places that have been little explored.  I felt like I was with these feisty characters, and their worlds gave me new insights into what it means to live a life of courage in the midst of a challenging reality.  I’d recommend them as wonderful teen book club choices, too, worthy of rich discussion and extended conversation.  Happy reading!

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

When the Russians invaded Lithuania in 1939, the world changed dramatically for 15-year-old Lina and her family.  Her life before the invasion was not that different from teens today–a life of friends, books, crushes on classmates, favorite teachers and studies.  In Lina’s case, she has hopes to go to a wonderful art school to develop her talents.  All this comes to an abrupt end when she and her family are deported to a forced labor camp in Siberia.  In order to try to maintain contact with her father, imprisoned in  another labor camp, Lina uses her artistic talents to draw and document the world around her, passing  along her maps and drawings through other prisoners she meets along the way. Haunting and heart-breaking are two words I would use to describe this book.  A third would be:  important.  This book deserves a wide audience.


Mare’s War by Tenita S. Davis

“Mare” is not your typical grandmother.  Though 80 years old, she is spry, opinionated, drives a red sports car, and wears stiletto heels.  Her two teen-aged grand-daughters (Octavia and Tali) dread their summer road trip with her.  But on the cross-country trip, they learn about Mare’s young adult life,  in chapters that alternate between the contemporary road trip and Mare’s flashbacks.  Her rough growing up experiences in the deep South led her to run away to join the Woman’s Army Corps during World War II, in the first African-American women’s battalion.  Her fascinating life in the Army brings her to Paris, London, and she makes friends with other girls from across the United States.  The historical aspects are intriguing, and the poignant encounters with prejudice and injustice follow her from rural Alabama into her Army service.  Wonderfully drawn characters, episodes of courage and lots of humor and adventure make this a terrific read.


The Queen of Water by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango

Laura Resau is one of our favorite authors, so we were excited to see a new offering.  Though billed as a “novel,” this book is very close to biographical, as it tells the story of the co-author, Maria Virgina, in her recent teen years  (1980’s)  in Ecuador.  Growing up in a very poor Andean village, 7-year-old Virginia is essentially sold by her desperately poor indigina parents as a servant to a mestizo family.  Despite beatings and unending abuse, Virgina manages to survive–teaching herself to read, having faith in herself despite constantly being called a “stupid Indian,” and ultimately returning to her village at the age of 12.  By this time, she has lost her native language, and feels out-of-place with her family.  How does she cope with being between these two worlds, finding ways to continue her education and expand her world and help her native community?  With pluck and courage–honesty and commitment.  Her story of abuse and contemporary slavery is sadly not unique.  This book tells another little-known story in first-person and moving narrative form.


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