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Historical Fiction for Young People: Home

What qualifies as historical fiction? How do kids benefit from reading it?

What Is Historical Fiction?

Definitions Vary

"Historical fiction can be used to designate all realistic stories that are set in the past." (Charlotte Huck's Children's Literature, 2007)

"...written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research)." (Historical Novel Society)

Teen readers often consider anything that happened before they were born to be ancient history. Teen readers I asked considered stories set in the 1980s and prior to be historical fiction.   (D.T. Herald, Teen Genreflecting 3, 2011)

"For a writer to create a historical novel, it's not enough to take a generic character and put him or her on the Titanic or in ancient Egypt. The character has to act like someone who lived in the period and place, with the values and attitudes of people in that times."  (M. Rabey, Historical Fiction for Teens, 2011)

What is NOT Historical Fiction?

Historical Fantasy

An historical story in which elements of fantasy are included, for example, time warps or other supernatural features. (Lynch-Brown, Essentials of Children's Literature, 2008)  EXAMPLES:  Thea Beckman's Crusade in Jeans; Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic.

Alternative History:  What If?

Another type of blend is the novel set in the past but which changes a significant fact of history. What if the British won the America Revolution and George Washington was imprisoned and sentenced to hang? (Year of the Hangman, G. Blackwood)  Most scholars put these historical blends into fantasy or science fiction.

However, Melissa Rabey includes some of these blended titles in Historical Fiction for Teens (2011), so perhaps attitudes are changing.

Older Realistic Fiction

Over time any contemporary realistic novel will have its setting become "the past" but such stories are not usually considered historical fiction. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby during the 1920s and its setting is the 1920s, but it was not "history" when Fitzgerald wrote it.

SOURCE:  J. Zipes, Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (2006)

Why Read Historical Fiction

Three Opinions

"Reading historical novels satisfies our curiosity about other times, places, and people... it provides adventure, suspense, and mystery... and to teach particular lessons. 

(Nilson et al. Literature for Today's Young Adults, 2013)

"Every book set in the past invites a comparison with the present. Opportunities for critical thinking and judgment are built into the many novels that provide conflicting views on an issue and force characters to make hard choices... Historical perspective also helps children see and judge the mistakes of the past." 

(Charlotte Huck's Children's Literature, 2009)

"Authors of historical fiction provide young readers with the human side of history, making it more real and more memorable."

(Lynch-Brown, Essentials of Children's Literature, 2008)

Notable Writers of Historical Fiction

For Older Readers (gr. 9 -12, YAs)

Tracy Chevalier - Girl With a Pearl Earring

Bruce Clements - Treasure of Plundered Manor

Christopher & James Lincoln Collier - My Brother Sam Is Dead

Karen Cushman - Catherine Called Birdy /  Midwife's Apprentice

Jennifer Donnelly -  Northern Light

Leon Garfield - The Sound of Coaches

Carolyn Meyer - White Lilacs

Scott O'Dell King's Fifth / Island of the Blue Dolphins

Ann RinaldiBreak with Charity: a Story about the Salem Witch Trials

Rosemary Sutcliff - Eagle of the Ninth [Roman Britain]

Mildred D. Taylor - Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Frances Temple - Ramsay Scallop

For Younger Readers (K-8)


The biblibiographies in this guide were first compiled by Shonda Briscoe, MLIS, and Lauren McCall, MLIS. Updated by Karen T. Morris, MLIS.