YA American historical fiction

These five works of historical fiction for young adults are set during turbulent times in American history — and effectively interrogate those moments from our past.

Zora and Me: The Summoner
by Victoria Bond
Middle School    Candlewick    256 pp.    g
10/20    978-0-7636-4299-0    $17.99
Paper ed.  978-1-5362-1667-7    $7.99

This final entry in the Zora and Me trilogy (most recently, The Cursed Ground, rev. 9/18) is the darkest, with “an epistolary prologue” noting the year in which the novel is set, 1905, as one of “grief and loss”; the book opens with a chain-gang escapee hunted down and lynched by white vigilantes and closes with fourteen-year-old Zora Neale Hurston leaving Eatonville, Florida, forever. This installment is a departure in that it focuses less on the mystery plot and more on Zora’s personal story: tensions between Zora and her self-aggrandizing preacher father escalate to the point where, after her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage, she leaves the family and moves away. But before that, there is a mystery for Zora and best friend/narrator Carrie to investigate — and as always in this series, it’s one tied to the realities of life in the Jim Crow South. After elderly resident Chester Cools dies, his grave is desecrated and his body goes missing. Several clues lead Zora and Carrie to believe he might be a zombie, and in fact the troubled man had referred to himself that way. The girls eventually learn that he had been lynched as a youth and survived: “Chester Cools understood perfectly what he had become: a zombie, which by another name meant the victim of trauma who’d never really healed.” An epilogue flashes forward to describe (fictional) Zora’s later life and (real-life) accomplishments; back matter fills in the story even more completely, with a biography, timeline, and bibliography. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

We Are Not Free
by Traci Chee
Middle School, High School    Houghton    386 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-358-13143-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-33000-4    $9.99

Chee follows up her successful fantasy trilogy (The Reader and sequels) with this very different work of historical fiction, drawing on her personal family and cultural history for a story of World War II. Beginning in March 1942, three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fourteen young people — all but one from San Francisco’s Japantown — chronicle, in interlinked stories, their lives over the course of the next three years. Their first-person, present-tense narratives depict a multiplicity of thoughts, feelings, and experiences, particularly regarding the unjust treatment of Japanese American citizens before, during, and after incarceration in internment camps. The result is slightly disorienting as characters come and go, but the overall effect is nuanced and kaleidoscopic. Gaman is a Japanese word for endurance, a dignified response to adversity; it’s a characteristic most of these young adults exhibit in one form or another: “The ability to hold your pain and bitterness inside you and not let them destroy you. To make something beautiful through your anger, or with your anger, and neither erase it nor let it define you. To suffer. And to rage. And to persevere.” Various graphic elements connect the story to its historical period (drawings, photographs, maps, postcards, telegrams, and newspaper articles), while the author’s note grounds it in Chee’s extensive research and family experience. JONATHAN HUNT

by Kiku Hughes; illus. by the author
Middle School, High School    First Second/Roaring Brook    288 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-250-19354-4    $24.99
Paper ed.  978-1-250-19353-7    $17.99
This graphic novel blends historical fact and science fiction into an enthralling time-travel tale. An imagined version of debut author Hughes’s teenage self is suddenly “displaced” to her late grandmother’s youth during World War II, following her grandmother’s family as they are forced from San Francisco first to the nearby Tanforan Assembly Center, then to Utah’s Topaz Relocation Center. The skillful illustrations, with muted colors and drab backgrounds, emphasize the degradations of prison life (constant surveillance, shoddy housing) and the efforts people took to make it livable (gardens, dances). Hughes successfully employs her own family history, along with characters and story lines beyond it, to show the emotional conflicts Japanese Americans experienced. She also explores how the memories of those emotional struggles contributed to hidden generational trauma: a roommate speaks up about the rights of Japanese Americans at the prison camp yet shames Kiku’s request to learn the Japanese language; the inmates experience fear over a loyalty questionnaire; they face uncertainty about restarting lives from scratch after the camps are closed. The story draws parallels to current events and encourages readers to remember and recontextualize this painful part of American history. Back matter includes an author’s note, photos, glossary, and reading list. Pair with George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy (rev. 9/19). MICHELLE LEE

by Anna Garcia Schaper
High School    Piñata    317 pp.    g
5/20    Paper ed.  978-1-55885-894-7    $12.95

In dual timelines, Schaper presents a story of culture, love, and feminism that crosses generations. Pili is a Mexican American teen in 1970s Laredo, Texas. Pilar is her namesake and her sister’s granddaughter, living in present-day Houston. Both young women are strong-willed and talented. Pilar hopes to audition for the school play but feels discouraged because of low self-esteem and constant bullying; she is tormented because of her weight and becomes the subject of an embarrassing social media post. Pili eschews the expectations of her male-centric community and is especially wary of those traditions in light of her sister’s marriage to an aggressively macho man. The character development is layered, and the settings are fully realized. The conflict between family duty and individual hopes and dreams will resonate with young people. Questions of faith and religion are also woven throughout. Short chapters with alternating narrators balance the story’s pace, and spare writing and the revelation of long-held secrets make for a compelling tale, with an ultimately rewarding conclusion. The familial bonds, the protagonists’ lively personalities, the whip-smart humor, and the cultural touchstones should appeal to fans of Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces. SHELLEY M. DIAZ

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party
by Allan Wolf
Middle School, High School    Candlewick    416 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-7636-6324-7    $21.99

As in his previous works of historical fiction, including The Watch That Ends the Night (rev. 9/11), Wolf here deploys a cast of characters (a few not human) to provide a fictionalized account of a major event from the past, grounded in thorough research. He describes his storytelling style as “narrative pointillism”: “Each point has its own unique perspective. And only by stepping back to consider all the points together will the picture or story become complete.” Six sections, each covering roughly a two-month span of time, faithfully track the ill-fated titular expedition from optimistic start to tragic end. Various participants relate events in (mostly) free verse; each bringing his or her (or its) own viewpoint to bear. These characters serve as guides, from eight-year-old Patty Breen with her child’s-eye view, to George Donner’s erudite and resourceful wife, to two converted Miwok vaqueros dispatched from Fort Sutter to assist the party — only to end up being killed and eaten. Ever-present Hunger, “The Narrator,” appears throughout in prose sections to clarify plot points, offer philosophical reflections, and reframe characters’ motivations. Careful attention to detail, skillful character development, and expert pacing prevent this ambitious undertaking from buckling under its vast scope. The forty pages of back matter are essential reading as well. Wolf documents his extensive research; among the appended material are profiles of selected characters, a section on “Native Americans and the Donner Party,” a timeline, insight into what’s real and what’s not, and a lengthy recommended reading list. Two maps not seen. KITTY FLYNN

From the November 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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