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Historical fiction starring girls

Strong-willed, memorable female protagonists are the stars of these historical novels for middle-grade and middle-school readers. A small gold-mining town in Alaska; early-twentieth-century San Francisco; 1870s rural Wisconsin; and Reconstruction Louisiana provide the backdrops for their entertaining adventures.

Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes is the story of a spirited ten-year-old African American girl who works on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation (and hates her namesake). Sugar’s mother died two years ago, and families are leaving the Reconstruction south for a better life up north; except for her secret friendship with plantation owner’s son Billy, she feels increasingly alone. When a group of Chinese sugarcane workers arrives, it’s outgoing Sugar who reaches out and unites two very different communities. Rhodes brings Sugar’s experiences — and the Mississippi River setting — vividly to life with spare, evocative language. (Little, Brown, 8–12 years)

Bo at Ballard CreekIn Kirkpatrick Hill’s Bo at Ballard Creek, we meet a little girl who lives with her papas (yes, that’s plural) in an almost-worked-out gold-rush town in 1920s Alaska. Papa Jack and Papa Arvid explain to Bo that her mother was a “good-time girl” who unceremoniously dropped baby Bo into Arvid’s arms and left town. Reminiscent of Little House in the Big Woods, this cheerful episodic story follows Bo through the course of a year. The simple pen-and-ink drawings further the Wilder resemblance, but LeUyen Pham’s are more sophisticated, befitting the era and situations. (Holt, 8–12 years)

Hattie Ever AfterDevoted readers anxious to know what happened to Montana homesteader Hattie after Newbery Honor–winning Hattie Big Sky get their wish in Kirby Larson’s big-city sequel, Hattie Ever After. Hattie follows a traveling vaudeville troupe to San Francisco to pursue her dream of becoming a reporter. Larson’s excellent research makes the early twentieth century come alive: Hattie experiences an earthquake, flies in an airplane, and interviews President Woodrow Wilson. Fans will be gratified by the protagonist’s transformation from a “country mouse” into a confident, independent young woman. (Delacorte, 10–14 years)

One Came HomeIn One Came Home by Amy Timberlake, thirteen-year-old Georgie Burkhardt is content with her life in Placid, Wisconsin. When older sister Agatha is found dead (but unrecognizable) at the side of the road, Georgie is certain that there has been a mistake. With her sister’s unwelcome suitor Billy McCabe, Georgie sets off to find her sister, or, at least, to find out how she died. The adversarial relationship between Georgie and Billy provides superb comic relief in this gripping, gritty 1870s–set story. (Knopf, 10–14 years)

From the May 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Katrina Hedeen About Katrina Hedeen

Katrina Hedeen is associate editor of The Horn Book Guide and manager of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards.



  1. Leah Labrecque says:

    Great list! I think I’ll pick up “Sugar” – just finished my final paper of the semester about abolitionist literature for children but I don’t feel “done” with the topic. I think “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate” by Jacqueline Kelly would fit right in on this list, too.

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