Teenage Novels that also Teach History

Historical literature for young people is a rich and varied genre with so many wonderful books to choose from. Rather than learning dates and facts, children can read and enjoy stories that paint a picture of the past, alive with detail. They not only get to learn about the events that unfolded in other times, they also get to imagine what it would have felt like to actually live in another era as they experience it through the eyes of the characters within the book. Here are just some examples of the excellent historical books that children can enjoy:

Ancient Rome

I, Claudius by Robert Graves: this is a fascinating book about ancient Rome during the reigns of her first four emperors. The story is told through the eyes of Claudius, the fourth emperor and is thought to be historically accurate. This book is not for younger readers, as it portrays Roman society quite accurately, but older teenagers could gain a lot from reading this book as part of an ancient history course.

Ancient Greece

The King Must Die by Mary Renault: this is a novel about the early life of Theseus, the mythological Greek hero.  Naturally the story is full of action and excitement and will enthrall teenagers whilst, at the same time, teaching them about Greek mythology.

The Middle Ages

Leonardo’s Shadow, Or, My Astonishing Life as Leonardo da Vinci’s Servant by Christopher Peter Grey: set in Milan at the height of the Renaissance, this exciting novel manages to intertwine story with fact keeping readers interested until the end. It is set around the time that da Vinci is painting “The Last Supper”.

Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer is the story of Mary Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, set during her teenage years. The book expertly outlines Mary’s trials and tribulations and gives the reader a real understanding of Tudor England.

Salem Witch Trials

The Crucible by Arthur Miller: this work is a play but it is well worth reading with any class studying this tragic period of history. Miller depicts historical events accurately and expertly tells a frightening tale of what can happen when mass hysteria takes over a community.

Civil War

The River Between Us by Richard Peck is a tale set in Illinois in the early days of the American civil war. It tells the story of the Pruitt family who take in two mysterious strangers who have fled New Orleans for reasons unknown and keeps the reader interested right until the end.

World War II

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen tells the story of a Jewish girl from New York who is bored by her family’s stories of the past until she is forced to relive it when she travels back in time to 1942 Poland and is sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis. This book teaches children not just about the holocaust but also about the importance of having knowledge about the past, as the main character learns the same lesson.

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli tells the tale of a young boy, Misha, living in Warsaw during the holocaust who is adopted by a group of Jewish orphans. The story follows Misha as he tries to avoid the German troops and, ultimately, survive. The story is told through the eyes of a child who does not fully understand what is going on around him.

There are many more well-known books that I have not detailed which can be used to teach history (e.g. Of Mice and Men, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Diary of Anne Frank) but there are also many lesser known historical fiction books that can be found in various lists on www.historicalnovels.info under YA novels.  The value of historical fiction to enhance students’ understanding of the past is undeniable and is a rich resource that can be used by all.