middle-grade historical novels

Well-written historical fiction has the power to transport the reader to a different time and place. For a few brief hours, a different, older world comes alive and is almost tangible in nature. That is the power of literature. When we step into a book, we step into a world. The narrative sucks us in and the story becomes more real than the world around us.

Middle-grade readers often devour fantasy of the likes of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson for exactly this reason – to be sucked into new and wondrous worlds. When the setting of a story feels real, the narrative feels fresh and compelling. In many ways, historical fiction can serve the same purpose – of making an unknown world seem real and accessible. The only difference is that this world is not new and wondrous, but old and wondrous. Just like with fantasy, the worlds of historical fiction are limitless, because of the vastness of both geography and time. It provides an alternative to fantasy, exploring hundreds of unknown worlds, inhabited by diverse people with varied customs. This selection for middle-graders lists 10 books that make 10 different places in the world burst into life around the reader.


The Island At The End Of Everything

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Island At The End Of Everything touches upon a dark past when Culion Island on the Philippines was selected as a segregation colony, or a leprosarium. Mr Zamora, a government official, is sent to oversee the process by which those who are ‘Touched’ – for they don’t use the word ‘leper’ on Culion – are separated from those who are not. Ami’s mother is Touched while the young girl isn’t, and so, Ami must accompany the evil Mr Zamora to a place she has never seen. She must leave her mother and learn to live as an orphan even though her mother is alive. The Island At The End Of Everything is a beautiful work of historical fiction, bursting with sweetness and poetry. As we read, Culion Island comes alive and Ami’s story rings true, page after page.

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The Night Diary

Veera Hiranandani

The year is 1947, and things seem to be falling apart. British India is growing more and more polarised, and young Nisha finds that the way she looks at people is beginning to change. Somehow, she has begun to notice people as Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, when earlier, these distinctions didn’t exist in her head. The most important question, though, is where she and her twin Amil fall. Their father, who is alive, is Hindu. Their mother, who died giving birth to them, was Muslim. Does that make them more Hindu than Muslim? Strangely, it seems that the answer is ‘yes’, and the family must become a part of the greatest mass migration in history and move from Pakistan to India. We feel the bewilderment of children confronted with seemingly arbitrary categorisation through the letters in Nisha’s night diary. Why does it feel like they belong to neither India nor Pakistan, when they should belong to both?

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The Elephant Thief

Jane Kerr

Danny, an impoverished orphan living in Edinburgh in the 1870s, finds himself swept into a tide of events revolving around a bet and an African elephant. Mr Jameson, a zookeeper and his new employer, is a showman through and through. Danny is renamed Dandip, and he is recast as an Indian prince. A special relationship blossoms between the street-urchin-turned-prince Danny and the elephant Maharajah. Loosely based on facts, The Elephant Thief traces a thrilling journey. The plot twists and turns, and the adventure and excitement carries us from Edinburgh to Victorian England. Above all, The Elephant Thief is the story of a relationship between a child and an animal.

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Esty’s Gold

Mary Arrigan

A stark and gripping novel, Esty’s Gold is set in Ireland and Australia. ‘The Hunger’ uproots Esty Maher’s family during the Irish potato famine. Hope and courage are set against the backdrop of social and political stupidity, for Esty is determined to rescue her family from starvation and drudgery. She dreams of going to Australia to find gold and even manages to find assisted passage for her family and friends. But Ballarat isn’t everything it is cut out to be, and their dreams almost turn to nought. Against this fabric of truth woven with fiction, the reader experiences the Maher family’s class struggles and desperation, as well as quirky humour and giggling. Overcoming every obstacle, the family must triumph, for ultimately, it is a question of survival.

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Oranges In No Man’s Land

Elizabeth Laird

The Green Line demarcates the predominantly Muslim West Beirut from the predominantly Christian East. In this context, 10-year-old Ayesha must set off on a frightening journey: her grandmother is ill and the doctor lives in enemy territory. She must go into a zone where only military men go, for that is the only way she can hope to save her grandmother. And through her journey, she reaches out and touches the reader’s heart. Oranges In No Man’s Land is a classic war story that is both beautiful and heart-warming. In just about 100 pages of large print, Elizabeth Laird makes war-torn Lebanon come alive, reminding us that the best of humanity comes together in the worst of times.

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Spirit Of The Titanic

Nicola Pierce

The story of the Titanic has been done to death, or so one would think. How different could Spirit Of The Titanic be? The answer is very. The ‘spirit’ of the Titanic is the ghost of a young boy who falls to his death while helping put together the ship of everyone’s dreams, the Titanic. The words ‘practically unsinkable’ do the rounds continually, and Samuel James Scott is filled with pride at the thought of his little role in creating this masterpiece. The moods of the ship are beautifully portrayed, from the hoity-toity upper class to the humble third-class passengers travelling to America in the hope of a better future. The modern reader’s knowledge of the tragedy that follows makes all the little conversations and descriptions sweeter and sadder, and the unique perspective of a spirit makes the story all the more engaging.

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Kensuke’s Kingdom

Michael Morpurgo

Kensuke’s Kingdom is an unforgettable gem of a book. An 11-year-old boy, Michael, falls off his parents’ yacht in the middle of the night. He is washed ashore, but how will he survive with his limited survival skills? Enter Kensuke, a reclusive Japanese man, who has been living on the island where Michael arrives for over 40 years. The island is his kingdom. He cares for it and is fiercely protective of his privacy. As a bond forms between man and boy, Michael begins to learn about Kensuke and the terrible war. Kensuke himself is torn between stopping Michael from reaching out to the world and letting go of his secluded life to help Michael reunite with his family. As the story unfolds, we discover yet again that though the war may be history, the special bonds of friendship and trust that blossom between an old man and a young boy are timeless. Kensuke’s Kingdom warms the heart and leaves you longing for more.

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Black Heart Of Jamaica

Julia Golding

Cat Royal is a brilliant character – sparkling, adventurous and passionate. Black Heart Of Jamaica is the fifth book in the Cat Royal series by Julia Golding. In this book, Cat travels with an acting company away from her home in Covent Garden. She arrives in Jamaica just in time for a slave rebellion. Worse, her dear friend Pedro’s erstwhile owner, Mr Hawkins, is also in the Caribbean, where slavery is legal. Touching upon themes as serious as slavery, human rights and piracy, the Cat Royal series is exceptional because of Cat’s thrilling adventures and warm friendships. In Black Heart Of Jamaica alone, Cat spends some time as a slave, some as a pirate, and, of course, being part of an acting company, some time as an actress. In terms of excitement, she never lets her readers down.

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The Boundless

Kenneth Oppel

Though some would call The Boundless fantasy rather than historical fiction, the setting of the story allows it to be one of those books that crosses over from fantasy to historical fiction, with the emphasis on ‘fiction’.

On a historic train ride across Canada, Will Everett becomes the target of villains because he has a key to the funeral car, which contains the body of the rail baron in addition to priceless treasures. Will begins his journey in an opulent and luxurious first-class coach, but when he realises that one of the brakemen, Brogan, wants to kill him, things spiral out of control. He disguises himself as a member of a circus troupe that’s travelling on the train. In his new disguise, he performs for the colonists, for the third class and for the second class. And through it all, when so many people want the treasure that only he can access, he must decide where his loyalties lie and what the ‘right’ course of action is.

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The Story Of Cirrus Flux

Matthew Skelton

The Story Of Cirrus Flux begins at the Antarctic Circle in 1756, when Cirrus Flux’s father encounters the world’s most divine power, the Breath of God. As this adventure novel rolls on, the reader moves continually from 18th century England, where Cirrus is a 12-year-old boy, to 27 years ago when his father was alive. Author Matthew Skelton takes a few small liberties with historical facts, yet the Age of Enlightenment is brought alive for the reader. It is a time when science and reason dominate, and we encounter early hot-air balloons, museums of historical curiosities and electrical experiments. The age of scientific discovery and philosophical debate forms the perfect ground for an electrifying adventure. The story is exceptional, not only in the way it makes the reader gasp and shiver, but also in the manner in which it explores the contradictions of being human. We are capable of great kindness and great cruelty, infinite selflessness and inhuman selfishness, vengeful lust and absolute forgiveness. The Story Of Cirrus Flux, which embodies all these contraries, takes the reader’s breath away.

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Varsha Seshan is a writer of lists, emails, detailed notes to self and children’s books. She has written 15 books for children and has twice been shortlisted for the Scholastic Asian Book Award. When she is not writing, she is usually travelling, working with children or dancing. She conducts reading and writing workshops for children and adults at schools and libraries. She also facilitates a writers’ club for pre-teens at a school in Pune (India), where she lives. A classical dancer with over 25 years of training in Bharatanatyam, she has performed extensively in India and abroad. Find out more at www.varshaseshan.com

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