Parent Guide to Book Genres: Historical Fiction

Help your kids understand the present by turning to the past.

Nov 28, 2012



Time-traveling through books can give your child a glimpse of the eras and cultures that shaped the world, plus help her better understand current events. Encourage her to choose a time period and culture that intrigues her, whether it's a fictionalized account of an ancient royal or an everyday child from your own heritage.

Why They're Worthwhile

The most immediate gift historical fiction offers is a sensory-filled vision of a different time and place. It will show your child what life was like before TV (and toilets) and what kids like him did every day. Plus, it personalizes real events, cementing history's greatest moments in his mind. But it does much more than that. Perhaps more than any other genre, historical fiction hones your child's ability to empathize with people who are much different than he is.

Talking the Talk

Many of the best historical novels for kids tackle difficult topics like slavery or the Holocaust, so be prepared to answer questions that may not always be easy. Pay close attention to recommended reading ages, since your advanced reader may have the skills to tackle a book meant for older kids, but may not be emotionally ready for it. When possible, try to read the book or at least what others have had to say about it before making a purchase.

Beyond the Books

There are several ways to delve deeper into the time period and culture of your child's favorite piece of fiction. You could:

  • Cook up a dish or beverage that they would have eaten in that era.
  • Listen to music from different cultures and countries or sing songs of different languages.
  • Create a costume for your child that emulates this period of time and have her spend a few hours pretending to be that character.
  • Ask your child to start a piece of "historical fiction" of her own. Talk to her about what she would include and why.
  • Visit a museum that explores the history of a certain time period, whether it's through art, natural science, animals or culture. 

Top Titles to Try

Start building your historical fiction bookshelf with these standouts  — from gripping events in history to different time periods throughout America's past, there's always an era, event, or culture sure to capture your child's interest. 


For younger readers:

  • The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie dePaola. Learn about how this vibrant plant got its name through this old and timeless Indian legend.  
  • You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! by Shana Corey. Read about Amelia Bloomer, an early women's rights activist who invented bloomers and freed women from their stuffy 19th-century clothing in this fun story. 
  • The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse. This uplifting picture book, set in Warsaw during World War II, follows a strong Jewish girl who befriends homeless cats and becomes involved in the Resistance. 
  • Coming on Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson. Also set during World War II, this touching story shows another side of wartime: Ada's mother must leave to work, as women are needed to fill in the men's jobs after the men has gone to war, leaving Aa wondering when her mother will return. 

For older readers:

  • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. A moving story about a young girl who sneaks out to join her brother after he is shipped out of the city to escape war, and the bonds she makes through her adventures. 
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. A National Book Award winner, this story follows Hà, who flees with her family to America after the Vietnam War takes over her town.
  • The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This classic series about a girl and her family, set in a fast-paced time in American history when Americans began settling in the West, is sure to delight readers as it has for generations. 
  • Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper. In Depression-era America, Stella lives in a segregated town, where she must learn to be brave in the face of prejudice and the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan. 

?Lesser-known Wonders

For younger readers:

  • The Firekeeper's Son by Linda Sue Park. This charming story depicts the signal-fire system that was used In 19th-century Korea: Sang-hee must light the signal fire that tells the king they are safe from intruders after his father is unable to do so - but Sang-hee really wants to see the village's soldiers.
  • Train To Somewhere by Eve Bunting. In the 1800s, little Marianne is on an Orphan Train heading west, but unlike the other children, she does not want to be adopted - she is sure her mother will come back and claim her. 
  • Players in Pigtails by Shana Corey. A fun tribute to the All American Girls Professional Baseball League and baseball in the 1940s, this story is of how one girl heads to the big leagues, proving that sports isn't just for men.  
  • Locomotive by Brian Floca. This Caldecott Medal Winner explores a sensory ride on America's early transcontinental railroads, detailing the sounds, speed and strength of the locomotives as families travel past plains and mountains in the summer of 1869.   

For older readers:

  • Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner. When Ranger, a time-traveling golden retriever, is transported to the year 1850, he must help a little boy and his family travel the dangerous Oregon Trail as they migrate west. 
  • Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman. Set in India during the last days of British occupation, young Vidya must fight for her independence when her forward-thinking ways clash with the traditions of her extended family.  
  • Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. A Newberry Honor Book, this tale follows Manjiro in the mid-1800s, who finds himself in a new land and culture after their Japanese vessel sinks and they are rescued by an American ship.  
  • A Gathering of Days by Joan W. Blos. A touching story of a young girl in 19th-century New Hampshire, as she records the many struggles and joys of pioneer life. 
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