The Best Historical Fiction Authors for Every Age
When I was a kid, my parents had a unique bedtime rule: we could stay up as late as we wanted as long as we were reading. I’m not sure if this caused my literary addiction, but I am a voracious reader. Every night I lay awake, my eyes glued to a line of black text, until I finally fell asleep, often with a book snuggled in my arms or under my pillow.
I learned a lot from books, like what to do if your treehouse turns out to be a magic time machine. (Stay close to your responsible older brother with the trusty backpack.). Or what to do if you come across a mystery that could put your life in danger. (Don’t tell the authorities. Investigate on your own with the help of your two best friends.)
But the most important thing I learned from reading was empathy. Reading connected me with people who are completely different from me even if they were imaginary.
Historical fiction is an amazing genre for just this reason: it teaches students to empathize with others, and in doing so, to imagine history in a whole new way. Though the stories are fictional, they make the past come alive more than any textbook or documentary. Here are some of my favorite historical fiction authors for every age group.
Acclaimed artist Faith Ringgold published her first children’s book, Tar Beach, in 1991. The book was adapted from one of Ringgold’s famous painted quilts and told the story of a girl from Harlem who learns how to fly.
Her second book, Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992), marked the first of many works inspired by African American history, including The Invisible Princess (1999) and Harlem Renaissance Party (2015). Ringgold’s stories are educational, captivating, heartwarming, and beautifully written—not to mention vibrantly illustrated in Ringgold’s iconic colorful style.
A prolific author and illustrator, Patricia Polacco, is famous for writing books inspired by funny and heartwarming stories from her own childhood, like Thank You, Mr. Falker (2012) and Chicken Sunday (1992).
But she has also authored several historical fiction books for children, including Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln (2011), Fiona’s Lace (2014), The Butterfly (2000), and The Bravest Man in the World (2019). Like her other stories, Polacco’s historical fiction books are distinguished by their humor and heart.
Pam Muñoz Ryan
Pam Muñoz Ryan, the author of several novels for a middle-grade audience, has won too many awards to count, including the Willa Cather Award, the Pura Belpré Medal, and the Newbury Honor. Two of her novels, Riding Freedom and Esperanza Rising, tell stories of independent girls determined to make room for themselves in worlds that do not always welcome or appreciate their strength.
In Riding Freedom, readers follow the life of Charlotte Parkhurst, a girl raised in a boys’ orphanage in mid-nineteenth-century New England. Though banned from riding due to her gender, Charlotte has a natural affinity for horses that eventually leads her to the Wild West. Where she earns the nickname “One-Eyed Charley” and becomes the first American woman to vote.
The titular protagonist of Esperanza Rising is Esperanza Ortega, a wealthy girl from Mexico who is based on the author’s grandmother. Through a sudden change in circumstances, Esperanza and her mother are forced to flee to California. Now one of many migrant workers struggling to stay afloat during the Great Depression, Esperanza faces hardships she could have never imagined. She must reevaluate her identity, relationships, and perspective on life.
Christopher Paul Curtis
The historical novels of Christopher Paul Curtis, such as Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 have become mainstays of middle-grade classrooms. Curtis has an admirable ability to portray history in a manner that is both realistic and hopeful, as students and teachers alike will testify.
Bud, Not Buddy tells the adventures of ten-year-old Bud Caldwell, who is on a mission to find his father. The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 follows a working-class family on their journey from Michigan to Alabama during the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement. Both novels won the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award and are partially set in the author’s hometown of Flint, Michigan.
In 2018, Curtis published another historical fiction novel, The Journey of Little Charlie, about a twelve-year-old white boy from South Carolina entangled in the fate of a family of escaped slaves.
Ruta Sepetys, a self-proclaimed “seeker of lost stories,” has published five books to date, including the widely popular Between Shades of Gray. This book follows the journey of fifteen-year-old Lithuania native Lina Vilkas. Vilkas was captured by the Soviet secret police in 1941 and deported from her homeland to the cold tundra of Siberia.
Between Shades of Gray is not only a story of tragedy and human evil; it is also a tale of romance, hope, and growing up. (It was recently made into the 2018 movie Ashes in the Snow starring Bel Powley and Martin Wallström).
Dominican-American poet and author, Julia Alvarez, is well-known for her landmark novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991). Alvarez chronicles four sisters from the Dominican Republic adjusting to life in the United States. Though the story is partially set in the present (or then-present), Alvarez innovatively structures the story in reverse chronology, beginning in New York in 1989 and ending in the Dominican Republic in 1956.
Alvarez has also published several other historical novels, including In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), which is based on the real-life story of the Maribal sisters—Minerva, María Teresa, Partia, and Dedé—who participated in the underground resistance fighting the tyranny of Dominican dictator Leonidas Trujillo.
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By: Meg Bywater
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“About Faith.” Faith Ringgold, 2021, https://www.faithringgold.com/about-faith/.
“Ashes in the Snow.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3759298/?ref_=ttpl_pl_tt.
“Children's Book Review: Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan.” PublishersWeekly.com, Publisher's Weekly, https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-590-95766-3.
Julia Alvarez, 2020, https://www.juliaalvarez.com/.
“NobodyButCurtis.com.” Christopher Paul Curtis, 2021, https://nobodybutcurtis.com/.
“Pam Munoz Ryan.” Pam Muñoz Ryan, 2021, https://www.pammunozryan.com/.
“Patricia Polacco.” Simon & Schuster, 2021, https://www.simonandschuster.com/authors/Patricia-Polacco/707080.
Reyes, Raul A. “30 Years Later, 'How the García Girls Lost Their Accents' Still Resonates.” TODAY.com, 15 Sept. 2021, https://www.today.com/popculture/how-garcia-girls-lost-their-accents-still-resonates-30-years-t230479.
Ruta Sepetys, https://rutasepetys.com/.
“Story Time: Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold.” The Museum of Modern Art, 17 June 2020, https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/350.
“Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold.” PenguinRandomhouse.com, RH Childrens Books, 2021, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/154450/tar-beach-by-faith-ringgold/.