Nazi Germany, ancient Egypt, and 1893 New York City are the settings for new historical novels for teens, while a biography of Dickens takes readers to Victorian London.
In 1936 Berlin, Karl Stern is surprised when he’s beaten up by Nazi bullies: he’s blond and fair-skinned, and he and his family aren’t observant Jews. Then German boxing champion Max Schmeling offers him boxing lessons in exchange for one of Karl’s artist father’s paintings. Robert Sharenow’s The Berlin Boxing Club is a meaty, readable account of the perils and pitfalls of daily life in Nazi Germany. (14 years and up)
When thirteen-year-old Piotr is orphaned during the Soviet invasion of Poland, his Aryan features and German ethnicity destine him for a fate different from that of his Polish peers. In The Ausländer, Paul Dowswell’s portrait of Nazi Germany stands out because of its less-familiar elements: the invasion of Poland, the Soviet front, and the scientific theories and experiments of the Nazis. The characters are rich and nuanced; the action is swift and suspenseful; and the juxtaposition of wartime nobility and wartime cruelty is timeless. (12 years and up)
Invaders take over her world, ignore her gods, are responsible for the deaths of her parents, and haul her off to a world with strange customs, languages, and beliefs, where a “great black-coated beast” threatens to swallow her. The latest dystopian novel for teens? Nope: it’s the story of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt. Vicky Alvear Shecter’s Cleopatra’s Moon is an intelligently written and stately meditation on fate, free will, and political power. (14 years and up)
Thirteen-year-old Maks Geless hawks newspapers for The World in 1893 New York City. A gang has been roughing up the newsies; Maks’s sister Agnes seems to have the “wasting disease”; sister Emma has been arrested for theft; and his father is about to lose his job at a shoe factory. Avi’s prose in City of Orphans is face paced, muscular, and informal. Careful attention to setting, plenty of action, a comfortably complex mystery, and a personable, streetwise omniscient narrator make this a satisfying adventure. (10–14 years)
A biography for middle schoolers, Andrea Warren’s Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London features a narrow but effective focus: how Dickens’s own impoverished childhood led to a deep sense of empathy for the working poor. Warren sticks to her focus for the most part, but the engaging narrative takes some interesting diversions in the middle. (10–14 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander