Historical Fiction for Boys
History comes alive with awesome historical fiction books for boys (and girls!)
One of my gripes about excessive homework is that it doesn't allow kids enough time to read for pleasure. Despite the stereotype of book-averse boys, my sons love to come home and read, especially on cold days where cozying up with a warm blanket and cat is just what the doctor ordered :)
Boys do read, in this house anyway, and for about a year, historical fiction has been the preferred genre of one of my twin 12-year-olds. His older brother, 13, has enjoyed many of these titles, too, and I like to think it's helped him with social studies. After all, names, dates, and other dry historical facts are much more interesting when laid over the context of a compelling story told from a child's or young adult's perspective, as these books are. Homeschooling parents may find special benefit in books like these that leverage their teaching of history.
Here, some boy-friendly books that have brought history to life for my sons. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the best books they've read from this genre use wars -- and what happens before and after wars -- as a dramatic backdrop.
Revolutionary War Era
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
I loved Johnny Tremain as a kid and couldn't wait to read it with my boys. A perfect launchpad for studying the American Revolution, this Newberry Medal winner conveys the excitement of the Revolutionary era through the story of a tragically injured young silversmith and the patriots whose orbit he's drawn into. Thirty years after I first read it, the complexity and pathos of this story still blew me away, and Forbes treats young readers with respect by giving them a hero full of faults -- a real human being.
Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, by Laurie Calkhoven
"Young readers will learn much about the [Revolutionary] period...a fine introduction to the times for an audience not yet ready for Johnny Tremain," says the Kirkus review. Focused on a 12-year-old Boston boy whose patriot family must deal with British soldiers in the tavern they run, this was a quick, fun read for my 12-year-old son.
Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen
A hard, honest look at the brutality and complexity of war from the master of the survival story (Hatchet series). Follows a 13-year-old boy out of the woods and into a challenging trek toward his captured parents.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Though anchored by an intensely resilient girl named Isabel, this brilliant book also features a complex, vibrant male character, Curzon, and intertwines their lives in interesting ways. Listening to the audiobook version on a road trip, our family was riveted by the fast-paced plot. But on a deeper level, Chains brings up valuable moral questions about slavery in the early USA (this slave story is actually set up north, in NYC), whether either the Patriots or Loyalists cared about slaves' plight, and who--if anyone--can be trusted during wartime.
The Civil War
Iron Thunder by Avi
Avi is a "greatest hits" author in our home, crafting hit after hit with our boys. Iron Thunder, focused on a 13-year-old's involvement with the USS Monitor ironclad warship, was no exception. Booklist: "Narrating in a clipped style that speeds the tale along nicely, 13-year-old Tom describes meetings with the Monitor's inventor, John Ericsson, and other historical figures; run-ins with "Copperhead" spies; the dangerous sea voyage from New York to the Union blockade; the exciting climactic fight; and the brief, ill-fated later careers of both ironclads."
The River Between Us by Richard Peck
An in-class, multi-day Civil War reenactment is a highlight of 7th grade social studies at our sons' school. My younger guy read this before the experience; my older son afterward. Booklist calls this National Book Award finalist "a riveting story that shows racism everywhere and young people facing war, not sure what side to be on or why." Perfect for boy & girl readers, as there are strong characters of both genders.
Bud Not Buddy by Christoper Paul Curtis
"Curtis draws on a remarkable and disarming mix of comedy and pathos, this time to describe the travails and adventures of a 10-year-old African-American orphan in Depression-era Michigan," says Publishers Weekly. All 3 of our kids loved this book -- so much so that we bought the audiobook version for long car trips.
World War II
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
I read this Newberry Medal winner with my sons, because it was important to me that, before studying the Holocaust at school, they hear a true story of heroism in the face of horror. Many kids (and adults) don't know that in September 1943, Danish families organized secretly and instantly to evacuate 7,000 Jews from Nazi-held Denmark to Sweden. Number the Stars tells this astonishing story through the eyes of 10-year-old Annemarie Johannesen, who risks her life to help smuggle her best friend's family out of the country. A must for boy and girl readers.
The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Another tale of youthful bravery during the Holocaust, but this time from a very different perspective. From School Library Journal: "Helmuth enters the [Hitler Youth] program and is at once impressed with the bravado, shiny uniforms, boots, and patriotic fever sweeping the country. But his Mormon-based teachings trigger questions in his mind about the reality behind the regime's invasions of neighboring countries, mistreatment of Jewish citizens, and closely controlled media. He creates an underground newsletter with information gathered from BBC reports using an illegal shortwave radio. As he secretly distributes the flyers throughout the town, his boldness encourages him to gather several accomplices resulting in his arrest, trial, and execution." Best for middle schoolers and up, this book is one of my son's all-time favorites.
Under a War-Torn Sky by L.M. Elliott
A young World War II fighter pilot is shot down and must find his way through Nazi-occupied Europe in this tale, a hit with both my historical fiction fans. How cool that the author was inspired by stories her father told. "Packed with action, intrigue, and suspense ... this novel celebrates acts of kindness and heroism without glorifying war," says Booklist.
A Troubled Peace by L.M. Elliott
This sequel to Under A War-Torn Sky, reuniting readers with young pilot Henry in post-war Europoe, was just as good as the first book, my son said.
Civil Rights Era
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
We came to this Newberry Honor book through Curtis's Bud Not Buddy and found it just as warm, engaging, funny & moving. School Library Journal: "Written in a full-throated, hearty voice, this is a perfectly described piece of past imperfect. Curtis's ability to switch from fun and funky to pinpoint-accurate psychological imagery works unusually well. Although the horrific Birmingham Sunday [where a church bombing takes four young lives] throws Kenny into temporary withdrawl, this story is really about the strength of family love and endurance."
Have you or a boy (or girl) in your life enjoyed historical fiction? Which books? Thanks for your tips!