Historical Fiction – Middle Grade

Attack of the Turtle

Attack of the Turtle

(Middle Grade writing level – no content concerns)

Attack of the Turtle takes place during the Revolutionary War. Nathan Wade has grown up a Patriot and he is there when his cousin, David Bushnell (a real historical figure) invents the first submarine

With this story, the history was much stronger than the character development. The text was written with a fifth-grade mentality and a 7th-grade vocabulary. Really the kind of “gee-whiz” attitude of the main protagonist was a bit too peppy to seem real. Beyond that, the story was a bit thin for a full book. I think this book is great for that student who just loves anything about war, but it’s just a book for the classroom shelf. Place it on the shelf and hand it out to that student who keeps asking you when you’ll be teaching about World War II.

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Eleven

Eleven

(Middle-grade reading level - no content concerns)

Books set around major events are challenging to review because authors often seem to write as though the scope of their books has to somehow equal the magnitude of the event. The fact that Alex Douglas and the other characters of Eleven are just so normal and so human is what made it so refreshing to read. Any young teenager could see themself in Alex and his struggles as he is forced through the awkward space between being a child and an adult. Still, 9/11 is not a backdrop for this standard “coming-of-age'' story, as Tom Rogers does an excellent job at capturing the tension so many of us felt on that day - wondering whether our friends and family were safe. While Eleven doesn’t have the same focus on the minute details of 9/11 as other novels, it is still an excellent read for young readers who may struggle to understand the emotional overtones of that day. 

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Code of Honor

Code of Honor

This book is a must-have for any teenager who is enthralled by war or terrorism. Kamran, an Iranian American teenager, is caught up in a whirlwind of hate and suspicion after his brother is caught on video attacking a U.S. embassy. Soon after, Kamran and his parents are taken in by the CIA for questioning. Though the story of the family and the terrorist act are all fictional, the greater topics of the war on terror, racial profiling, and the news media all reflect the reality of our time.

From an adult's eyes, the story lacks believability. There are too many implausible connections made and the character storyline just doesn't reflect the reality of terrorism. Still, I think this is an excellent attempt to examine a multifaceted issue while keeping the story comprehensible for a middle schooler.

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The Memory of Things

The Memory of Things

(Definitively YA - some swearing... the f word right in the beginning. Honestly, I couldn't imagine a teenage boy NOT using the f word as the towers fell on 9/11.... some intimacy, suicide is mentioned but never addressed directly)

Kyle is a sixteen-year-old boy who is living in NYC at the time of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. On the day the towers fall, he runs into a girl who has amnesia. (She may be been attempting suicide, however, this portion is dealt with delicately.) In the confusion, he ends up taking her back to his family's apartment to convalesce. The two end up consoling each other while Kyle also takes care of his brain-damaged Uncle Matt. Kyle's Dad is a first responder and his Mom and sister have been grounded in California, so the three are left alone while the rest of the family gradually makes their way back home.

The plot of this story could have gone awry at many moments and veered into problematic territory. However, the writing of this book is so honest and empathic, it avoids any potential pitfalls. Kyle is a relatively well-adjusted teenage boy while his new friend has suffered a dramatic trauma. Although this book is centered around 9/11 it's also a story about how those who lived close by were impacted by that day and how people recover from traumatic events. It is a must-read.

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We All Fall Down

We All Fall Down

(Middle-grade reading level - Some sexual innuendo, death related to 9/11)

We all Fall Down sounds just so predictable - it the story of a teen boy who’s forced to come to work with his father on what turns out to be a momentous day. Yet, it is such an engaging story that I read it in one sitting!  Walters did an excellent job crafting such a realistic protagonist in Will, but his true achievement is capturing the terror those in the south tower must have felt on 9/11.  Only 56 minutes elapsed between Flight 175 hitting the tower until it collapsed, but Walters description of the events makes it feel like time has just stopped!  Readers interested in understanding the issues that led to the attack will have to make do with only a brief discussion between Will and his father as the story of their survival takes center stage.   

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Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children

Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children

This book focuses on the children that resulted from the relationship* between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. It most specifically tells the story of two of those children – Madison and Beverly.

I absolutely loved this book. It’s a really good story, even though it doesn’t have much of a plot. I found myself picking up the book when I had a spare moment, even though it’s really a book for middle-grade children. By focusing on the children of Sally Hemings, it tells a story of slavery that discusses the unfairness of slavery, and the sadness of slavery, without exposing the horrifying brutality that slavery was for most. The author shows how the Jefferson children were treated differently than most other slaves at Monticello. It talks about a whipping at Monticello, a friend who was sold away, and about how some of the Jefferson children could “pass,” and some couldn’t. It’s really a story about a family, and how they dealt with the situation that had been handed to them by the color of their skin and their biological father.

Given that the author had to rely on a topic that was covered very little by official historical documents, the book really needs to be considered historical fiction. Still, I think the author created a very plausible narrative and an engaging story.

*(I recognize that many struggle with the idea of Hemings and Jefferson as a relationship. For the purposes of the term here, Jefferson did father her children. We don’t know what form that relationship took, and the book makes the assumption that Hemings had some agency. I think the book acceptably covers the topic at a middle-grade level.)

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A Long Way From Home

A Long Way From Home

(Middle-grade reading level, no content concerns)

Rabia, a girl fleeing Afghanistan after the arrest of her father, and Colin, a boy traveling home from London, are the two fictional protagonists of this 9/11 story. They were both aboard a plane that was diverted to Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. In each case, the two are worried about family and their ability to find their way home. While the true history from the event is an easy setup for drama and emotion, the tale lacked much of what made the true history intriguing. Many of the detail is caught up in the minutia and are devoid of authentic emotion. If a student is already interested in stories about 9/11, this book would be a good pick. Otherwise, teachers are better served by choosing other books on this list.

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Copper Sun

Copper Sun

(Middle Grade Reading Level - a depiction of the reality of slavery including - violence, rape, death, and murder)

Copper Sun is a well-crafted story with impeccable research and accuracy. Amari is in her mid-teens when she is captured and sold into slavery along the African coast. She is shipped across the Atlantic ocean, sold to an enslaver, and gradually finds a place in the new reality she is forced to endure. This book is realistic in its depictions and traumatically sad as a result. One of the best aspects of this story is the awareness of the spectrum of freedom for women in this time. Amari is certainly in slavery, however, the other women she encounters - Polly, an indentured servant, or Mrs. Derby, the young wife of Amari's enslaver - aren't quite free either. Worthy of a read-aloud in any classroom, as long as students are made aware of the truth of the unflinching story that will be told.

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Nine, Ten: A September 11th Story

Nine, Ten: A September 11th Story

(Middle Grade reading level - No content concerns)

A fast-paced read for the middle school set, Nine, Ten explores how the dynamics of how four teenagers' lives changed with the events of 9/11. Naheed is a Muslim girl in Ohio who is struggling with some bullying because of her hajib. Sergio is a Math whiz who has had a tough upbringing in NY and has recently made friends with a firefighter. Will is in Shanksville, PA, and still dealing with the loss of his father in the previous year. Finally, Aimee lives in LA. She's concerned about he parent's relationship and misses her Mom, who is in NYC for business.

The four stories all end up connected to 9/11 in some way. Most of the four overlapping stories take place in the days preceding 9/11 and then the ending jumps to the year after. I found the anticipation that built with these stories was the most nerve-racking portion of the book, although some of the endings were left more to the imagination. I find that this book would be best for a more sensitive student who might struggle with the trauma of 9/11 itself.

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A Place to Hang the Moon

A Place to Hang the Moon

I have a weakness for any story centered around British children sent to live in the countryside during WWII. I know that it's a common topic, but I just can't help myself. Bedknobs and Broomsticks anyone? The Chronicles of Narina? Unlike those fanciful tales, A Place to Hang the Moon is firmly centered in reality. Yet, this story still held a magical nostalgia and charm that I adored. The three children at the center of the story - William, Edmund, and Anna - have been recently orphaned, and they're sent to live with a family as evacuees. There is hope in this decision that they will find a family that will adopt them after the war's end.

I absolutely devoured this story. The nostalgia, the sweetness, and the character development are all there. The children are incredibly sympathetic and realistic all the same. While this story is historical fiction, the history lies very much in the background while the children's lives and experiences take center stage. Still, there is much to learn about the experiences of young evacuees during WWII and the hardships of daily life during that time. I even enjoyed the descriptions of the meals the children ate. I'm not sure this story has a place in the classroom, however, it is the perfect story to read to your children at bedtime. Like me, you might enjoy reading it all on your own!

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Just a Drop of Water

Just a Drop of Water

(Middle-grade reading level - I wouldn't suggest this book to Muslim students, it would be needlessly upsetting for them to relive this experience.)

This book was very different from the other 9/11 books I read because it focused very closely on the unjustified backlash against Muslim Americans after the attacks. The action unfolds in Florida, near where one of the hijackers was located. The story becomes quite engrossing as Jake's friend becomes embroiled in the controversy, primarily because his family has a Muslim background. Although I found myself frustrated with Jake's character, I also recognized that his confusion and anger was typical of the time. This story is realistic in its focus, but that realism makes the storyline a bit dark. Still, I think the book would be quite popular among middle-grade students.

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Prairie Lotus

Prairie Lotus

(Middle-Grade reading level - racism, mentions a lynching, an assault - however, all is dealt with appropriately)

This was a book I wished I had as a child. A "Little House on the Praire" styled book, but with a more worldly point of view. Hanna is a half-Chinese girl trying to make her way with her father in the Dakota Territory. She's an aspiring dressmaker who just wants the opportunity to attend school and be accepted by the all-white community. Written by Linda Sue Park, the text and story are expertly crafted at the perfect level for middle school readers. There are big and complex ideas framed with simple language.

The history of this time is embedded within the story without being too dark or needlessly laborious. Hanna is an incredibly likable and sympathetic character. The frustrations she faces from family, racism, and the social mores of the time are real and muddy. None of the characters fit into a neat box. This book deserves just as much love as the Wilder series, and I would love to see several more written.

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