It's far more enjoyable to learn about, say, the French Revolution when you've got great characters to take you through the story, oui? Y.A. is not all futuristic dystopia or fantasy, no matter how much we love some of those books. You can also find the Wild West, early America, 16th-Century Venice, 1980s New York City, and more on the pages of your favorite teen and younger reads. The scope, in fact, is far too great to wrangle into one post. But this week in Y.A. for Grownups we name a few of our favorites and some of the most promising on the way, charting a course through history by way of books new, old, and upcoming. For your reading convenience, we've categorized the books by historical period or event.
ANCIENT EGYPT (AND ROME)
Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter. (Arthur A. Levine, 2011).The imagined, totally engrossing story of Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony.
Venom, by Fiona Paul. (Philomel, 2012). Paul's debut in her Secrets of the Eternal Rose series is set in Renaissance Venice, and features the character of 15-year-old Cassandra Caravello, a privileged girl who wants to be free from the proper life that's been planned out for her, and who is swept up in a mystery when she discovers a dead body. Book two of the series, Belladonna, is out this summer.
Cross My Heart, by Sasha Gould. (Delacorte, 2012). In another story set in Venice — this one in 1585 — Gould works in murder, forced betrothals, a shadowy secret society of women, betrayal, and lots and lots of drama.
Gilt, by Katherine Longshore. (Viking, 2012). Longshore sets her debut novel during the reign of Henry VIII, in a court that was "a cutthroat world of gossip and wealth, a complex game of social hierarchies rife with jealousy and backstabbing." She focuses on the story of the king's fifth wife, Catherine Howard, for this novel; her followup, Tarnish, out this June, tells the tale of Anne Boleyn.
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly. (Ember, 2010). This book incorporates both the French Revolution and contemporary Brooklyn (très Brooklyn!), weaving two girls’ stories into one with the thread of a New York Times article about the DNA identification of the heart of Louis Charles, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
THE VICTORIAN ERA
The Dark Unwinding, by Sharon Cameron. (Scholastic, 2012). A Gothic tale of spies, intrigue, and romance set in 1850s England, with "cutting-edge Victorian technology" (read: steampunk) to boot.
The Madman's Daughter, by Megan Shepherd. (Balzer + Bray, January 2013). Another Gothic thriller, this one was inspired by the classic The Island of Dr. Moreau (the main character, Juliet, is the doctor's daughter). It's part one of a trilogy.
Distant Waves: A Novel of the Titanic, by Suzanne Weyn. (Scholastic, 2009). The tale of a family of sisters who all end up on board the doomed ship. (There's lots of other history before they get there, though.)
THE WESTERN FRONTIER
One Came Home, by Amy Timberlake. (Knopf, 2013). In 1871, Georgie Burkhardt heads out to find her sister, Agatha, even though the rest of their town of Placid, Wisconsin, presumes her dead (and there's a body dressed in her sister's gown to prove it). "Yet even with resolute determination and her trusty Springfield single-shot, Georgie is not prepared for what she faces on the western frontier."
The Luxe, by Anna Godbersen. (HarperCollins, 2007). Gaze into the world of the Manhattan elite in the late 1800s.
Something Strange and Deadly, by Susan Dennard. (HarperTeen, 2012.) Zombies rise in 1876 Philadelphia. Holy crap.
Dear America: A City Tossed and Broken, by Judy Blundell. (Scholastic, March 2013). The latest book in the Dear America series is a dramatic account of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
The Betsy-Tacy books, by Maude Hart Lovelace. (1945-1955). The later books in the series, when Betsy is in high school and beyond, are some of my favorites of all time. Written in the '40s and '50s, they depict life in small-town Minnesota at the turn of the century and into World War I. Read for a depiction of what it was like to be a woman at that time in America (it's a fairly inspiring portrayal, because Betsy happens to have a great, progressive family). Betsy's dreams of being a writer with her own career as well as a wife and mother aren't too far from Lovelace's, who based the character on herself.
WORLD WAR I
War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo. (Scholastic, 1982). The book that came before the movie, about Joey, a bay-red foal who is sold to the army and ends up in the war on the Western Front. See also the sequel, Farm Boy, set 50 years later.
THE ROARING '20S
Hattie Ever After, by Kirby Larson. (Delacorte Press, February 2013). In the sequel to Hattie Big Sky, orphan Hattie, now grown, dreams of being a newspaper reporter like Nellie Bly in 1920s San Francisco ... "but her sweetheart Charlie returns from the war under the impression that all she could ever want is to be his wife."
The Flappers Series, by Jillian Larkin. (Delacorte Press; #3, 2012). Vixen, Ingenue, and Diva, the last of the series, take place in the early 1920s, featuring girls who bob their hair, speakeasies, jazz, booze, bad boys, freedom, and a lot of fun (if not always for the characters, at least for the readers).
The Diviners, by Libba Bray. (Little, Brown, 2012). Book one of Bray's latest series is set in New York in the 1920s and features the light as well as the dark sides of the era. The book is a hefty 592 pages, but it's well worth the labor of toting it around.
Born of Illusion, by Teri Brown. (Balzer + Bray, June 2013). In featuring the underground world of magicians, mediums, and mentalists in 1920s New York City, Brown incorporates romance, mystery, and "exquisite historical detail."
WORLD WAR II
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. (Hyperion, 2012). One of the best books of last year, Wein's story concerns a young female spy and her best friend, the pilot with whom she's crash landed in Nazi-occupied France.
The FitzOsbornes at War, by Michelle Cooper. (Knopf, 2012). "Sophie FitzOsborne and the royal family of Montmaray escaped their remote island home when the Nazis attacked. But now that war has come to England and the rest of the world as well – nowhere is safe." Tales of life in wartime and what happens next are strong in the last book in the Montmaray Journals series.
Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow. (HarperTeen, 2012/paperback). Karl Stern, a 14-year-old living in Berlin in 1935, comes from a Jewish family that is not religious. As anti-Jewish violence escalates, he becomes the victim of a beating at the hands of Nazi Youth members at his school. As part of a deal with his dad, German national hero Max Schmeling gives him boxing lessons. "Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm’s way?"
Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys. (Speak, 2012). Lina's family is torn apart when soldiers invade her home in Lithuania and she's sent to a Siberian work camp. Booklist calls Supetys' acclaimed book "a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939."
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. (Knopf, 2007). This book about World War II and its aftermath, narrated by Death and focusing on a little girl who steals books but, at least initially, can't read, is itself a must-read for the engaging, heart-rending narrative and unique portrayal of this particular time in history.
What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell. (Scholastic, 2008). A mystery set in America after World War II featuring 15-year-old Evie Spooner, this won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
Starring Sally J. Freedman as herself, by Judy Blume. (Bradbury, 1978). This will always be a favorite, for the character of Sally as much as for the deftly drawn setting of post-World-War-II Miami Beach.
The Apothecary, by Maile Meloy. (Putnam, 2011). Set in London in 1952, Meloy's book tells of the Scott family, who've moved from L.A. to London. Janie Scott meets the local apothecary's son, Benjamin Burrows, who wants to become a spy, and mysterious, dangerous things begin to happen. Stay tuned for the sequel, The Apprentices, upcoming this June. This series has been described as "Harry Potter meets Nancy Drew."
Strings Attached, by Judy Blundell. (Scholastic, 2011). Another one from National Book Award-winner Blundell, this thriller with the distinct flavor of noir concerns a 16-year-old girl and Mob retribution in '50s New York City.
Out of the Easy, by Ruta Sepetys. (Philomel, February 2013). Upcoming from Sepetys is the story of 17-year-old Josie Moraine, who wants desperately to go to college and escape her prostitute mother and their home in the 1950s New Orleans French Quarter. Then she becomes embroiled in a murder investigation.
Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood. (Scholastic, 2012). Scattergood writes of segregation and a public pool in 1964 Mississippi.
Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick. (Balzer +Bray, 2012). In Vietnam during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, a boy from Cambodia named Arn is separated from his family, assigned to a labor camp, must learn to play an instrument to save his life, and is ultimately forced to become a solder. "He lives by the simple credo: Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down." It's a powerful book based on a true story.
The Vietnam Series, by Chris Lynch. (Scholastic, #4: 2013). Lynch's four books feature a group of teens who all sign up to fight in the Vietnam War when one of their friends is drafted.
Summer and the City: A Carrie Diaries Novel, by Candace Bushnell. (Balzer + Bray, 2012). Say what you will of the series, and of the series going Y.A./prequel, but this depiction of Little Carrie navigating the Big Apple offers up some great '80s nostalgia fodder. Think playlists. (While you're at it, you may want to pick up some Sweet Valley High, old and new.)
Pink Smog, by Francesca Lia Block. (HarperTeen, 2012). For the other coast: 1980s Los Angeles is a key character in this prequel to the Weetzie Bat series, in which the 13-year-old Louise "grows up" and becomes Weetzie.
This list is not conclusive, so if we missed any of your favorites, please share.