Recommended Reading List: Young Adult Historical Fiction Set in the 20th Century.

Last week the Michigan Humanities Council announced that the 2017-18 Great Michigan Read will be the award-winning* X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s daughter) and Kekla Magoon. This book is a work of fiction that centers on the early years of human-rights leader Malcolm X’s life. Born Malcolm Little, he spent some of his earliest years in Lansing, Michigan before moving to the East Coast. Fortunately, this is an ideal pick for the Great Michigan Read because it is a Young Adult book that will be accessible to a wider range of readers.

*Winner of the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens. A 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book. The Walter Dean Myers Honor Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature.

We will have a review of X: A Novel posted on Ally Learning Journal’s page in the coming weeks. But for now, we would like to suggest a few other titles in the Young Adult Historical Fiction genre, specifically books set in the earlier part of the twentieth century. These are books that we feel our students and their parents will find entertaining as well as educational. Here is the short list:

A Northern Light (2003) by Jennifer Donnelly.

This novel intertwines a real-life murder mystery with fictional characters. The action is set in Upstate New York in 1906 and follows the fictional Mattie Gokey who has dreams of attending college in New York City. However, Mattie’s life takes an unexpected turn when factory worker Grace Brown’s body is found in Big Moose Lake. Mattie works a summer job at a hotel on the lake and had a chance encounter with Grace Brown prior to her death.

A Northern Light is a great entry point for young readers unfamiliar with this period in American history. It demonstrates how bitter and sweet ordinary life could be a hundred years ago in addition to educating readers on a non-fiction murder mystery.

Milkweed (2003) by Jerry Spinelli

Set in Warsaw, Poland during World War Two, Milkweed begins with a very young boy who is completely naïve and ignorant of all the tragedy that is developing around him. This boy is so young that he has no knowledge of his own family or even his own name. Throughout the book, the boy ends up meeting and surviving alongside other Warsaw residents attempting to thwart their own persecution by the Nazis.

Milkweed is a good choice for students who haven’t previously read historical fiction books. It’s a shorter read and plot moves along easily. Still, because the main character is an innocent young boy who does not comprehend all that is happening around him this can be a heartbreaking story at times. Fortunately, the author gives the story a satisfying ending which will leave readers pleased.

Between Shade of Gray (2011) Salt to the Sea (2016) and Out of the Easy (2013) by Ruta Sepetys.

Ruta Sepetys is a Lithuanian-American author born and raised in Detroit. She has written three young adult novels and all have been met with critical acclaim.

they are set in the Baltic Sea region of Europe, a region that is rarely addressed in schools (or popular culture) when discussing the various conflicts of the Second World War. However, because Ruta Sepetys has a Lithuanian background she has integrated lesser known events with entertaining stories in these two books.

Between Shades of Gray follows a 14-year-old Lithuanian girl named Lina Vilkas as she and her family are shipped off to Siberia by the Soviet Union. The book details the horrors and hardship that millions of people in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) were force to endure at the hands of the Soviet Union. It is also a personal story of resilience and the struggle of how young people still must grow up in times of adversity. A movie adaptation called Ashes in the Snow is expected to be released sometime in 2017.

Salt to the Sea is an unofficial follow up to the first book because one of the main characters, Joana,Vilkas, is actually Lina’s cousin (Joana appears early in Between Shades of Gray). However, Salt to the Sea is a stand-alone novel that revolves around the deadliest maritime disaster in history. Most people are not aware of the sinking on the MV Wilhelm Gustloff because it was a German ship sunk by the Soviet Union. This book is another example of Ruta Sepetys shining a light on a lesser-known historical even with an entertaining story. The book follows the point-of-view of four young refugees from various backgrounds as they attempt to flee East Prussia. Readers may be unfamiliar with the geography of the setting but maps are provided in the book, the narrative is extremely fast-paced and readers will learn something while simultaneously enjoying the adventure these characters are on.

Out of the Easy For readers who may prefer lighter (and non-World War Two) stories this Ruta Sepetys book is a better option. Of the three books, this one is aimed primarily at a younger audience. The novel is set in 1950s New Orleans and follows Josie Moraine as she struggles to find a way out of the city so she can make a better life for herself. Josie aspires to attend college in the Northeast but is continually stymied by her family, especially her mother. The New Orleans culture give the story a lot of color and young readers will be able to witness that no matter the time or situation, growing up and becoming your own person is never easy.


BONUS READ: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Including this book in this list is a little bit of a cheat. It begins in the 1970s California but most of the action takes place in the antebellum South during the nineteenth century. It’s also a fantasy/science fiction story even though the power of the plot comes from the all too real experience of Slavery in America. However, if students haven’t been assigned this novel in school we feel it should still be required reading.

Here’s a short synopsis from Amazon:

“Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.”

The above plot synopsis may make this book sound more intimidating than it is. On the contrary, Kindred is a calm read and should be read by people ages 13 and up. There are moments of brutal violence but Octavia Butler did not set out to shock people for shocking sake. This story deals with issues of possession, gender, marriage, and violence in a realistic and mature matter. While it is educational and difficult in spot it would not be so beloved if it weren’t also good entertainment.

Ally Learning hopes that some of these books are taken into consideration when choosing what to read next. Plus, remember to look for our review of X: A Novel in the next few weeks.

Happy Reading!


Christopher Kwiecien

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