7 historical YA titles to hook teens on history

Published on: 29 March 2023

Author and former secondary school teacher Eva Wong Nava explores seven gripping novels that reveal hidden histories to older readers.

A photo of Eva Wong Nava and the front cover of The House of Little Sisters

Young Adult books, or YA, can be any genre: fantasy, dystopian, sci-fi, thrillers, contemporary, and historical fiction. But genres aren't strictly black and white when it comes to YA because in many of the novels, be they fantasy or historical fiction, there is romance.

It is often the love relationship/s (aka 'shipping'), or the hints of one, that add to the tension in these stories. So you will frequently read about friends-to-lovers, enemies-to-lovers, forbidden love, fake dating, gay love, and love triangles, which are all often seen in YA fiction.

Historical fiction can be a tool to teach readers something about the past that they would otherwise not know about because these histories are not taught in classrooms.

Let's take The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys, for example. This historical novel is set in 1957 Madrid, during the Franco regime. This was a dark part of Spanish history, that has often felt unmentionable due to the terror that Francisco Franco spread after the Spanish Civil War when he ruled the country.

The front covers of The Fountains of Silence and Last Night at the Telegraph Club

In The Fountains of Silence, the story pivots on the romantic link between an American diplomat's 18-year-old son, Daniel Matheson, and the Spanish Ana, an employee at the hotel that Daniel is staying at in Madrid. Through Daniel's camera lens, we see the reality of the political situation taking place in Ana's life and family.

Another YA novel that weaves in political history is Last Night at The Telegraph Club by Melinda Lo. If you've never heard of the Red Scare, you must read this book.

Set in 1954 San Francisco's Chinatown, this is also a sapphic novel in which the main character, 17-year-old Lily Hu, discovers her sexuality. The romance is set in a period of American history where the fear of Communism was at its height and many Chinese Americans risked deportation, despite being American citizens. It explores themes like societal attitudes towards same-sex coupling and cross-dressing in 1950s America, alongside cultural and racial identity.

I know a little about social mores and attitudes towards certain unions. My debut YA is a historical novel set in the 1930s in British Malaya. The House of Little Sisters was inspired by a little-known historical document called the Mui Tsai Ordinance 1932, which made the trading of bond servant girls, known as mui tsai, illegal under the British administration of Malaya. It is also a story of forbidden love between Mei and Hassan, a mixed-race couple, who must find a way to be together.

Eva Wong Nava holding up her book The House of Little Sisters

As inter-racial unions become more and more common and less and less frowned upon, and become contemporary and acceptable, there will come a day when young readers won't know that such relationships were ever forbidden. This is when historical fiction will allow readers to reflect on a world that once was, lest they forget.

Another way to hook in readers is to retell traditional tales, as I did, using the East Asian fairytale of the weaver girl and the cowherd. Natasha Bowen's Skin of the Sea fuses the African mythology of Mama Wata with a retelling of The Little Mermaid. Bowen also weaves in historical details such as the system of slave trading in Africa.

History is made up of a series of wars, and wars make for dramatic settings. Teens in the UK learn about World War II in their classrooms. They know about the Blitz and how English children were sent to live in the country. Whilst it's important to learn about how war affects one's own country, it's also imperative to know how it affects other children elsewhere. I love Tom Palmer's Resist, a novel suitable for the younger teen reader (age 10+), set in World War II in the Netherlands.

The front covers of Skin of the Sea, Resist, The Weight of Our Sky and As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow

Hanna Alkaff's The Weight Of Our Sky is set in 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during the race riots that shook the country. This historical event is well known in South East Asia but less familiar in the United Kingdom. It's also the story of Melati, a Malaysian school girl who loves the Beatles and going to the movies with her best friend. Melati is afflicted by OCD and believes that a djinn lives inside her and she must fight this mythological creature by tapping constantly.

Meanwhile, the earthquake in Syria and Turkey got me thinking about As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh. This novel is set in war-torn Syria when the fighting is at its height. We see 18-year-old Salama, who must grow up fast as she is forced into the role of doctor, surgeon and pharmacist when her medical education has barely started.

The historical fiction titles mentioned here are not simply about historical events. The stories are layered with themes like identity, belonging, mental health, and the trials and tribulations of coming-of-age that all teens have to deal with. They will open up topics for discussion that can supplement the national curriculum in myriad ways.

Books helped me when I was a teenager to grapple with these still very relevant and current issues. Later, they gave me the useful resources when I was an English teacher, and books will continue to be great additions to a teacher's toolkit.

The House of Little Sisters is out now. You can find out more about Eva on her website.

Strong female characters from historical fiction

Circus Maximus author Annelise Gray recommends her favourite historical novels with fascinating female characters.

Using true stories from the past to inspire children to read

Author Richard O’Neill explores how reading about real historical figures can engage children.

Topics: 12+, Historical, Features

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