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“I’ve got a little list,” Sir W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) once wrote. Not to be outdone, I’ve got a little list of my own. At least mine started out to be a little list, the product of my wondering what the 10 best historical novels of the past 10 years were. Upon investigation, I found an abundance of excellent candidates for my list, way too many for a top 10. The result is a list of the top 26 (or 27, depending on whether you count M. T. Anderson’s two volumes as one or two entries). Interestingly, 15 of the 26 (or 27) are set in the twentieth century, some of which—especially those set in the 1960s—sit on the cusp between historical and contemporary fiction, but I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt, figuring that, for teens, the ’60s are ancient history. With that, here is the list.
Anderson, M. T.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Vol. 1
: The Pox Party, 2006. Vol. 2: The Kingdom of the Waves, 2008.
As you will see, my list is assembled alphabetically by author, and, accordingly, M. T. Anderson’s name leads all the rest. In fact, if I were to have arranged the list by order of excellence, Anderson’s name would still be first and foremost, as his two-volume masterwork is, hands down, the best of the best.
The Diviners, 2012. Lair of Dreams, 2015.
For sheer entertainment, Bray’s two highly imaginative volumes are indispensable. Set in the Roaring Twenties, they provide a clever mash-up of historical fiction, fantasy, and horror.
All the Broken Pieces. 2009.
The story in verse of a Vietnamese boy who has survived an unspeakable war and is adopted by a loving American family but remains haunted by disturbing memories of his past.
Ghost Hawk. 2013.
Set in the seventeenth century, this memorable story of the relationship between an Indian boy and a young English settler mixes history and fantasy to excellent effect.
Curtis, Christopher Paul.
Elijah of Buxton. 2007.
Basing his novel on history, Curtis writes, with his signature wit, the story of the first child born in Canada’s Buxton Settlement, which was founded in 1849 as a haven for former slaves.
de Fombelle, Timoth
Vango: Between Sky and Earth, 2014. Vango: A Prince without a Kingdom, 2015.
Frankly, I love this two-volume historical adventure set in the 1930s, the near-epic saga of a boy, fleeing for his life, who doesn’t know who he is. De Fombelle’s story reminds us of why we love to read.
The Lightning Dreamer, 2013. Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, 2014.
Engel’s two novels in verse tell, respectively, the story of the digging of the Panama Canal and the fictionalized biography of the nineteenth-century Cuban poet known as Tula.
The Braid. 2006.
A memorable novel in verse that tells the timely story of immigrants, these from Scotland in the nineteenth century.
Sisters of Glass. 2012.
Set in fourteenth-century Italy, here is a story in elegant verse of the lives of two daughters of a brilliant glassblower.
The Rock and the River. 2009.
Chicago, 1968. Fourteen-year-old Sam joins the Black Panthers in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. When his peace-loving father is stabbed, will he resort to violence?
The Devil’s Paintbox, 2009. Son of Fortune, 2013.
McKernan’s inspired novels, set in the post–Civil War era, follow teenage Aiden as he travels to Oregon and then to Peru. Gritty realism is a hallmark of these memorable tales.
Myers, Walter Dean.
It’s D-Day, June 6, 1944, and 19-year-old Josiah “Woody” Wedgewood is part of the Allied invasion, which comes to vivid life in Myers’ telling.
Victorian England is the setting for this romp of a novel about the rise of an impoverished young man named Dodger. Yes, Charles Dickens makes an appearance.
Heart of a Samurai. 2010.
The fascinating story of a young nineteenth-century Japanese fisherman who, adopted by an American ship’s captain, becomes arguably the first Japanese to set foot in the U.S.
Schmidt, Gary D.
The Wednesday Wars, 2007. Okay for Now, 2011.
Two loosely linked stories about boys growing up in the 1960s who are inspired by the work, respectively, of William Shakespeare and John James Audubon.
Shabazz, Ilyasah and Magoon, Kekla. X. 2015.
Malcolm X’s third daughter and author Magoon combine forces to tell the novelized life of the powerful human-rights leader.
Waller, Sharon Biggs.
A Mad Wicked Folly. 2014.
Seventeen-year-old Victoria Darling becomes involved with the English suffrage movement in 1909 . . . and also with a handsome young constable.
Code Name Verity, 2012. Black Dove, White Raven, 2015.
Two wars, WWII and the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935, provide the backdrops to Wein’s two stunning stories.
Countdown, 2010. Revolution, 2014.
Two volumes of Wiles’ proposed trilogy about the 1960s, enlivened, as were the novels of John Dos Passos—an inspiration for Wiles’ work—with fascinating illustrative matter.
So those are my top 25. What are yours?
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