I’m delighted to welcome Gayle Rosengren to the blog to talk about her favorite historical fiction books for middle grade readers. I met Gayle last spring at an SCBWI event, and was impressed by her knowledge of historical fiction. Gayle’s also the author of a historical novel, What the Moon Said. Read about Gayle’s favorite books, share your own, and enter to win a signed copy of What the Moon Said!
—Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach
#WritersRead: Author Gayle Rosengren on Historical Fiction for Young Readers
Narrowing down my ever-growing list of “favorite” books to just five has not been easy; especially since I’m a Gemini and making choices is always fraught with angst, but here are five outstanding titles that I highly recommend. Some are older and some are brand new, but all of them are great historical fiction reads.
Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman is a great read for so many reasons that it’s difficult to know what to praise first. I think its greatest success, though, lies in making historical fiction amusing as well as accurate. The voice is uniquely fresh and unfettered and, well, earthy. It startles and grabs the reader immediately. The setting is Medieval England but the romantic façade present in most fiction of this period has been peeled away to reveal the reality of life at that time, even among those who were considered well-off, as Birdy was as the daughter of a minor nobleman. The story is told in diary entries and makes casual references to farts and flea bites and chamber pots, body odors, and tooth-loss, all of which were inescapable facts of her daily life. Another fact of the time was a father’s right to marry off his daughter to whomever he chose. Catherine Called Birdy is a realistic yet humorous take on the traditional once-upon-a-time tales, showing one spunky heroine’s desperate attempts to avoid being married off to the men her father chooses for her. It was published in 1994, and won the Newbery Honor award.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, is a frank yet tender look at a young girl’s experiences during the German occupation of Denmark in 1943. Ten-year-old Annemarie misses life as it used to be before the German soldiers came, and she’s frightened by their ominous presence everywhere with their menacing guns and scowls. They pose a threat to everyone but especially to the Jewish members of the community, who are taken away family by family and never heard from again. Annemarie’s best friend Ellen is Jewish and Number the Stars is the story of how Annemarie’s family risks everything to protect her, taking Ellen into their home and pretending she is a member of their family. Fear is never more than a heartbeat away in this realistic story of friendship and human kindness triumphing over evil. Published in 1989, Number the Stars won the Newbery Award for children’s fiction.
No Surrender Soldier by Christine Kohler (2014 from Merit Press) is a unique and beautifully written novel of a boy’s coming of age on the island of Guam in 1972 and a Japanese soldier who–afraid to surrender at the end of World War II for fear he’d be tortured–has been hiding underground in the jungle for 28 years. Told from the alternating points of view of teenaged Kiko and soldier Seto, the two would at first seem to have little in common. But they will make life-long impressions on each other, just as No Surrender Soldier will make life-long impressions on its readers. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. For ages 12 and up.
Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff was published in 1997 and is another Newbery Award winner. The story takes place in the summer of 1944, at the peak of World War II. Summer, usually the highlight of Lily’s year because she and her father and grandmother leave New York City behind and head to their cottage on Rockaway beach, is a sad occasion this year because Lily’s father recently left to join the fighting in Europe. But she makes an unexpected friend in a young war refugee named Albert and her summer brightens considerably. Unfortunately, a lie Lily tells Albert could put his life in real danger. A memorable coming of age story with timeless appeal for readers age 8 and up.
When Audrey Met Alice by Rebecca Behrens is a new novel for ages 8-12 (from Sourcebooks). It criss-crosses the line between contemporary and historical fiction when the main character, Audrey—a new presidential daughter—finds the hidden diary of Alice Roosevelt under a loose floorboard in the White House. Audrey soon discovers that although the time periods are different, the experience of being a First Daughter hasn’t changed all that much since Alice Roosevelt’s day. It’s just not a normal life. Nothing—not even ordering a pizza—is easy. And she’s expected to be on her best behavior all the time. Then there’s the matter of political hot topics and occasional disappointment in one’s presidential parent (in this case Audrey’s mother), who doesn’t follow through right away on issues she’d committed to supporting during her election. There’s lots for readers to think about long after they’ve enjoyed this lively and well-researched middle grade novel.
About the Author: Gayle grew up in Chicago. Gayle worked as a children’s and young adult librarian at a public library for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, enthusiastically sharing her love of books with young people. Gayle eventually moved to Wisconsin, but by then she was a mother with three children. She worked in the reference library, and later as a copyeditor, at American Girl. During this time period she published short stories for children in Cricket, Ladybug, Jack and Jill and Children’s Digest magazines. Now Gayle writes full-time in her home just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband, Don, and slightly neurotic rescue dog, Fiona. She is living her dream, she says, writing books she hopes will make the same difference in children’s lives as her favorite books and authors made in hers. What the Moon Said is her first novel.