13 excellent young adult historical novels for readers of any age

13 excellent young adult historical novels for readers of any age

Readers, no matter where it’s shelved at the bookstore, I love a good story, well-told—and young adult fiction is full of page-turning stories with powerful prose.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite YA genres to dip in and out of, and to recommend to my own kids. I love when authors weave vivid historical detail into coming of age stories or engrossing mysteries, and I almost always learn something new while reading.

Our May Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club selection inspired today’s list of compelling YA historical fiction. We’re reading The Downstairs Girl right now, and on May 25 at 7 PM ET, author Stacey Lee will join us for our discussion. Book club members can join us live or catch the recording later. We’d love to see you there!

Many of the books on today’s list (including The Downstairs Girl) are wonderful on audio. If you have a teen in your life who listens to audiobooks (or if you’re an avid listener yourself), I have great news!

Every year since 2010 the good people at AudioFile magazine have made it their mission to put tons of FREE audiobooks in the hands of teens (ages 13+) all summer long so they can introduce teens to the joys of the listening experience.

This year, the Sync program runs from April 29th to August 4th, and it’s not just for teens. Each week, two new books are available to anyone with a web connection and the ability to use (or learn to use) Sora, the student reading app from Overdrive.

I’ve been a big fan of this program for years. To learn more about their mission, listen to Episode 182 of What Should I Read Next with AudioFile publisher Michele Cobb. We chatted about finding the perfect combination of book + narrator, why “reading with your ears” is so important, and about the history of the Sync program.

I hope you find a few titles for your TBR today, and let me know if you find any new favorites through the AudioFile Sync program this summer!

13 historical fiction books for teens and adults

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity

Author:
I thoroughly enjoyed this one, perfect for fans of Kate Quinn. When a British plane crashes in Nazi-occupied territory, one passenger is captured and interrogated. The young girl known as "Verity" faces a spy's worst fear: she must reveal her mission or face certain death. As she carefully writes her confession on scraps of paper, we learn about the escaped pilot, her best friend and mission partner Maddie. In her telling, Verity shares more than just their mission; she tells the story of their very different backgrounds and how they came to serve together. This gripping, action-packed novel about bravery, friendship, and loyalty is excellent on audio, as narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell. More info →
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Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea

Author:
You know about the Titanic, and maybe even the Lusitania disaster (the subject of Erik Larson's Dead Wake). But you've likely never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, though the number of lives lost dwarfs the number of people who died in those two better-known disasters at sea. The ship was hugely over capacity when it sunk in the Baltic Sea after being hit by Soviet torpedoes. Told in four distinct characters' voices, that of a young nurse, a Prussian soldier, an expecting mother, and a delusional Nazi recruit converge. Sepetys excels at writing historically accurate, page-turning YA novels equally beloved by tweens, teens, and grown-ups. More info →
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My Lady Jane

My Lady Jane

Author:
This is certainly the least realistic historical fiction book on this list, but it's such a delight. Fans of The Princess Bride and The Other Boleyn Girl are sure to love. This quirky spin on the true story of Lady Jane Grey, the "Nine Days' Queen who ruled England for that length of time in 1553, features snappy dialogue and a sassy protagonist, as well as spooky ghosts and ominous threats. Sixteen-year-old King Edward has arranged a marriage for Jane in order to secure his line to the throne. He doesn't have much interest in ruling, and she doesn't have much interest in marriage. Duty is the least of their problems because, well... Jane's betrothed turns into a horse every night. It's these ridiculous touches that make the book so much fun. More info →
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Dreamland Burning

Dreamland Burning

Author:
This well-crafted YA release smoothly bridges the divide between present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma and the little-known race riots that occurred there during two terrifying days in 1921. During renovations of seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase's historic family home, a skeleton is unearthed in the backyard. The police don't care who the bones belong to, but Rowan sure does. Unbeknownst to her, this skeleton links Rowan with another teen, Will Tillman, who lived in Tulsa nearly a hundred years ago. Latham flips back and forth in time, between two teens facing their own kinds of crossroads, to give her readers a page-turning history/mystery mash-up, as her young protagonists wrestle through issues of family, friendship, identity, and belonging. I read this in an afternoon—I couldn't put it down. More info →
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Lovely War

Lovely War

Author:
Berry combines three unexpected elements to great effect: World War I, a love story, and Greek mythology. It begins with Aphrodite and Ares walking into a swanky Manhattan hotel during WWII, and soon enough Aphrodite's husband Hephaestus challenges her to show him what love really looks like. She obliges, and takes the reader back in time to meet four young lovers in 1917 Britain, showing her fellow gods how each couple fell in love, and what they mean to each other. It sounds unlikely but the interesting narrative structure totally works. When we read Lovely War together in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, Book Club members kept telling me the audio was particularly good, so if you're an audiophile, check it out. More info →
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Flygirl

Flygirl

Author:
I've read many WWII historical fiction stories, but few focus on the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, a group that was created by the U.S. Army to help defeat Germany and Japan. Ida Mae's father was a Black pilot who taught her to fly planes, though her race and gender prevent her from following in his footsteps. Eager to soar, Ida is ready to join WASP as a way to fly and to help her brother who is fighting in the Pacific. But when the new organization denies her entry based on her race, Ida's only choice is to pass as white in order to live her dream. Smith expertly explores identity, family, and legacy while immersing her readers in history in this fantastic YA novel. More info →
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The Downstairs Girl

The Downstairs Girl

Author:
Set in Gilded Age Atlanta, our May 2021 MMD book club pick features a strong, sassy heroine who gets herself into hot water when her anonymous advice column gains popularity among society ladies. Seventeen-year old Jo works as a lady’s maid for the grumpy, privileged daughter of one of the city's wealthiest families, where she overhears the choicest bits of society gossip. In her scarce free time, she writes a column called Dear Miss Sweetie, anonymously, answering questions and addressing contemporary topics affecting both women and people of color in her community. Pretty soon Jo's snarky and smart column is the talk of the town as the fussy society ladies wonder "who is this brilliant young writer?" But some readers are out to expose the real "Miss Sweetie," and Jo encounters unexpected dangers in her secret escapades. Excellent on audio as narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. More info →
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Burn Baby Burn

Burn Baby Burn

Author:
It's 1977 in New York City. The hot summer sun sizzles on the sidewalk, a major blackout affects most of the city, and a serial killer on the loose spreads fear among thousands of citizens. But seventeen-year-old Nora has her own problems to deal with. Her family struggles to pay rent, her teachers pester her to apply for college, and a cute guy wants to take her out for a date, despite the obvious dangers of being out at night. This atmospheric novel drops the reader directly into a sweltering NYC summer as the teenage protagonist wrestles with problems in her inner and outer world. Marisol Ramirez brings the story to life with her audiobook narration. More info →
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Love, Lies and Spies

Love, Lies and Spies

Author:
I'm so glad an indie bookseller pressed this novel into my hands! Juliana Telford prefers research over romance. When her father sends her to London to find a husband, she decides to make appearances and put on all the airs, while secretly publishing her research. Then she meets Spencer Northam, a spy who prefers missions over matrimony. When they decide to fake a romance in order to save time for their individual pursuits, it seems like the perfect plan...until their feelings—and some espionage—get in the way of their arrangement. With Austen-like wit and plenty of 19th century historical details, this charming book is perfect for historical romance readers who prefer chaste or low-steam reads. More info →
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Saving Savannah

Saving Savannah

Author:
This absorbing YA novel is set in the eventful year of 1919 in Washington D.C., when the 1918 flu pandemic is waning. Savannah Riddle lives a privileged life in upper-class African American society, but as she witnesses the burgeoning women's suffrage and New Negro movements around her, she decides to widen her social circle and learn more about people outside her wealthy community. Her new activist friends pull Savannah into their volunteer work and political movements, and as tensions begin to escalate across the city, Savannah feels torn between society's expectations for a privileged young lady and fighting for what she believes in. Don't miss Bolden's author's note—it's a must-read. More info →
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Like a Love Story

Like a Love Story

Author:
This novel is set in the 1980s: a bit recent for "historical fiction," but we're counting it since this decade feels so far removed to today's teen readers. I enjoyed this book last year after MMD team member Leigh cited it as a favorite of 2020. Here's what she had to say: "This story utterly wrecked me and might be my all-time favorite YA novel. It explores friendship, first love, queerness, AIDS, grief, Madonna, and more. Part of the enjoyment was that it’s set in 1989-1990, when I was nine or ten years old. Judy, Art, and Reza are seventeen and their experiences and changing relationships gave me a new way to relive that time, particularly reflecting on what life was like for the LGBTQ+ community and those coming out in the wake of AIDS. While it’s about grief and loss, it’s also a celebration of the queer community and found family." More info →
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Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two

Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two

Author:
Throughout WWII, members of the Navajo nation sent messages back and forth in their native language as an unbreakable code that saved thousands of American lives. This top secret information remained classified until 1968, and when Joseph Bruchac learned about their experiences in the 1970s, he couldn't stop thinking about the importance of language, the American Indian veterans, and the endless stories to be told. After meeting several of the Navajo code talkers and doing plenty of research, Bruchac wrote this fictionalized story about 16-year-old Ned Begay, inspired by real stories of young men who reclaimed pride in their language, yet struggled to be recognized for their service. More info →
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Pride and Premeditation (Jane Austen Murder Mysteries Book 1)

Pride and Premeditation (Jane Austen Murder Mysteries Book 1)

Author:
Pride and Prejudice as a YA murder mystery and courtroom drama? I'm intrigued. More of an adaptation than a retelling, Price's debut novel places Lizzie and Darcy in competing law firms in Regency London. Elizabeth is, as always, a heroine to root for, as she sets out to prove her skills as a solicitor in order to earn her place in Mr. Bennet's practice. Meanwhile, Darcy disapproves of her tactics and meets her with resistance at every turn as they work on the same case: proving Charles Bingley's innocence. Austenites will delight over the Bennet family dynamics, the lively setting, and plenty of recognizable dialogue straight from Jane. Perfect for fans of Death Comes to Pemberly. More info →
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Do you have more YA historical fiction to add to our list? Share your favorites in the comments section!

P.S. Audiobook listeners: peruse these 100 absorbing young adult audiobooks for every kind of reader. And if you’d enjoy a YA novel that takes you back to “the exquisite pain of a teenage crush,” listen to What Should I Read Next episode 276: Exquisite, evocative novels.

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44 comments | Comment

44 comments

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  1. Lauren says:

    Thank you for this list! Could you please edit the description for Dreamland Burning though? The term “race riots” is harmful. What happened in Tulsa was the massacre of a Black community by white supremacists. The book sounds great though, so I’m glad you included it. Thank you.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks for list. Wish there had been more that featured male main characters as I have boys who wouldn’t be so intrigued at female protagonists stories.

    • Ann says:

      Those were my exact thoughts! This list came out on a day that my son was asked to choose an independent read.

  3. Leslie says:

    One of my all time favorites as a YA and even now is The Witch of Blackbird Pond. A story of immigration and discrimination set in the Salem Witch Trial era.

  4. Kat says:

    *Across Five Aprils* by Irene Hunt. Story spans the five Aprils of the American Civil War. A coming of age story as Jethro learns the realities of war as he sees  family & friends go off to fight. Major conflict for Jethro & family when one brother fights for the other side. Newbery Honor Book.

  5. I loved CODE NAME VERITY. I remember having to track down someone to discuss it with once I finished, and I ended up giving it to my mom for Mother’s Day. I read THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL earlier this year and learned so much! Both Stacey Lee and Julie Berry have talked about their books on my blog in years past. Ruta and I were in a debut group together (though my debut later was bumped to the next year). Good stuff here!

  6. Ann says:

    You need to try – The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. It is a story that goes back and forth from 1791 to present day.

  7. Kim Teter says:

    The Light in Hidden Places by Sharon Cameron is another excellent choice. It tells the story of Stefania, a 16-year-old Polish girl who finds herself in the seemingly impossible role of hiding a growing number of Jews from the Nazis. Cameron did noteworthy research tracking down the true story of Stefania’s heroism.

  8. Susan says:

    Code Name Verity is one of my all-time favorites! I’d add The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys and My Family For the War by Ann Voorhoeve.

  9. Jayda Justus says:

    I loved Hamilton and Peggy!: A Revolutionary Friendship by LM Elliott. It is well-researched and based on the real history of Alexander Hamilton and his relationship with his sister-in-law, Peggy. She was a feisty and brave young woman!

    • Susan V says:

      We read Dreamland Burning in the MMD Book Club and got to chat with the author! And I just loved Saving Savannah just a few weeks ago!!

  10. Leanne says:

    Salt to the Sea was so good. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Sepetys. Thanks for including this in the list. I’ve heard good things about Pride and Premeditation.

  11. Beth Schmelzer says:

    *VILLAGE OF SCOUNDRELS* by Margi Preus is based on a real story of teens in the Resistance in a small village in France, WWII. Male and female readers will enjoy the adventures. I did as an adult!

  12. Rebekah in SoCal says:

    Overdrive has the audio version of “The Downstairs Girl” available. I’m going to give that a try.

  13. I thought I’d add my book here. The Poetry of Secrets (Scholastic 2021) is a historical fiction novel set during the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a forbidden love story between Isabel, a converso and Crypto-Jew who practices her religion in secret, and Diego, son of a Nobleman who can’t court someone of tainted blood. Curious readers will find knife battles, gypsy tales, poetry readings, stolen kisses and torture. Themes of identity and otherness will resonate with readers as we ask the question: how far are we willing to go to truly be free.

  14. Ann says:

    Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene is one I read as a girl. It was made into a movie with Kristy McNichol.

    This is telling my age. No one probably remembers this!

    I just finished Firekeeper’s Daughter, a contemporary YA. Although it told an important story about tribal community struggles, I think I may be too old for YA.

    Not sure I get this new trend of adults reading YA books.

  15. Yvonne North says:

    I think it is probably considered more Juvenile Historical Fiction, but the Seeds of America trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson was SOOOOOO good. I loved it!

  16. Jen says:

    I love historical fiction and so many on this list look like books I’d enjoy. I also appreciate the YA suggestions as they tend to be cleaner in content, which is very important to me. I love reading the other book ideas in the comments as well. I’d add, “A Mad, Wicked Folly,” by Sharon Biggs Waller to this list. It’s about a privileged young woman in Edwardian-era London who wants more in life than what her parents have in store for her. I really liked it.

  17. Cameron says:

    “The Black Kids”, by Christina Hammonds Reed was great on audio. It took me awhile to get into it, but once I was sucked I had to know what was going to happen. Takes place in LA in 1992, so pretty recent, but decidedly historical fiction in that the events (Rodney King beating and ensuing violence) as well as the overall 90s vibe is essential to the story. The main character has to navigate leaving high school, losing her treasured nanny, and race, class, and violent oppression.

  18. Patricia Fish says:

    My granddaughters, ages 9 and 11, and I read some of the same books and discuss them. They are both voracious readers and are always suggesting books for my book club! A couple of our favorite books are The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won, both by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Set during WWII, a young girl with a clubfoot is kept in the house and away from everyone until things change. Bravery, resilience and determination change the girl’s life. What a story and lots to discuss – good for adults to read these types of books with kids so they can talk about the details, themes, etc.

    • Alison Walker says:

      I adored both The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won. I love that you and granddaughters read together!

  19. Kim says:

    This is a FABULOUS list of books … the combo of YA and historical fiction and you included books on people of color, I am all in! Starting with Flygirl which is free on Audible and then Dreamland Burning. THANK YOU MMD!!!

  20. Donna says:

    I’d like to add If I Were You by Lynn Austin. It’s about two girls from very different backgrounds growing up as best friends during WWII, with a twist of stolen identity. Best book I’ve read this year. Chaste.

  21. Hi Anne,
    I hope you don’t mind me tooting my own horn. The Poetry of Secrets (Scholastic, 2021) is a forbidden love story set during the Spanish Inquisition. It’s about a converso girl who falls in love with the wrong man. With themes of otherness, identity and female empowerment, it resonates with both teen and adult readers.
    Check it out!

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